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Ditka joins mourners at Rick Casares memorial

Rick Casares

Times files

Rick Casares

TAMPA — Standing before roughly 250 mourners Wednesday, Dennis Antinori peeled back the brawny, brute-force layers of one of Chicago's most iconic Bears and revealed the teddy.

Antinori recalled how first cousin Rick Casares, then amid a 10-year stint as a Bears fullback, improvised — in floral grace — when he was unable to attend the funeral of a female relative due to his NFL commitments.

Every Saturday for 52 weeks, Casares had roses placed on her tombstone.

The "caring, loving, sensitive" side of Casares — along with his fierceness and flamboyance — was celebrated on a bright, windy west Tampa morning Wednesday at Town 'N Country's Incarnation Catholic Church.

Casares died Friday at his Tampa home of natural causes. He was 82.

"My best description of him was he was a gentle giant," Antinori said.

Pro Football Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Paul Hornung were among four eulogists who paid tribute to the Tampa native, who excelled in four sports at Jefferson High and achieved football immortality with the Florida Gators, Bears and two other NFL teams.

Former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, a fellow Jefferson alumnus, attended as did Linda McEwen, widow of former Tampa Tribune sports columnist Tom McEwen. Casares' widow, Polly, greeted mourners near the church foyer beside her husband's open silver casket.

"Today, and only today, I've witnessed something I've never witnessed before — so much love coming from one group," Hornung said.

Ditka, a teammate of Casares on the Bears' 1963 NFL championship team, called the 6-foot-2, 226-pound fullback the toughest player he ever met. To illustrate, Ditka recalled Casares playing an entire game with a broken bone in his leg.

"He never said a word," said Ditka, known as "Mikey Baby" to Casares. "He's who we all wanted to be."

A veritable Midwest matinee idol during his decade (1955-64) with the Bears, Casares remains the franchise's No. 3 rusher. As charming as he was chiseled, he was a late arrival to parties but the one certain to close it down. Rugged and resilient on the field, he was fastidious about his appearance off it.

"When Rick Casares went to the mailbox, he was clean-shaven," Antinori recalled. "He had a nice pair of slacks and a clean, pressed shirt."

Hornung, who first met Casares on a recruiting trip to Florida, said his close friend easily won his mom over when they traveled together. Ms. Hornung was among thousands who swooned over Casares, yet he remained faithfully wed to Polly for more than 40 years.

"My mother used to be a Packer fan," said Hornung, a member of four NFL title teams in Green Bay. "But after that … "

The charm was no sham, eulogists agreed. Another cousin, Ernie Casares, recalled a trip to a Gator game during his grammar school days, when Casares, then a player, took him and some pals around the facilities as if they were VIPs.

At the end, Casares gave each of them a football from a laundry hamper.

"I don't know that I've ever had a better present in my entire life," Ernie said.

Ditka joins mourners at Rick Casares memorial 09/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 9:11pm]
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