Tampa football legend Rick Casares dies; starred for Bears, Gators

Tampa native Rick Casares is still the No. 3 all-time rusher in Chicago Bears history.
Tampa native Rick Casares is still the No. 3 all-time rusher in Chicago Bears history.
Published Sept. 15, 2013

TAMPA — When Polly Casares got back Friday evening from her trip to Wendy's for some chili and to Publix for groceries, she found her 82-year-old husband, the former football star, exactly where she expected: sitting at his desk.

He'd been researching this weekend's football games, writing down start times and point spreads in his notebook. He looked like he'd fallen asleep, Polly recalled Saturday. He was leaning back in his chair, feet up on a stool, glasses perched on his forehead. She touched his hand. It was cold. When she realized why, she screamed, and called friends, and screamed some more.

Tampa native Rick Casares — star fullback for the Florida Gators, where he scored the first touchdown in Florida's first-ever bowl game, and for the Chicago Bears, where he rushed for more yards than any Bears player until a guy named Walter Payton came along — had died.

Born in Tampa on July 4, 1931, Mr. Casares was the son of a barber and a waiter, the grandson of cigarmakers from Spain and Italy. When he was 7 or 8, his father was shot dead in a "gangland slaying," according to a 2011 profile of Mr. Casares in Cigar City Magazine.

He spent the next few years in New Jersey with his mother's family, until a falling out over her refusal to let him become a pro boxer at 15. She sent him to Tampa to live with his father's relatives, and he became one of the greatest high school athletes in Florida history.

Mr. Casares played football, baseball and basketball for Jefferson High School and set a state record in the javelin toss. In 2007, the Florida High School Athletic Association ranked him among the 100 greatest football players in state history.

After graduating from Jefferson, Mr. Casares went to the University of Florida, where he played football and basketball and met his future wife. Polly was two years older, a working woman in Tampa visiting a friend in Gainesville, she recalled Saturday, when the tall, handsome man she'd never met had someone ask her out for him. She declined. Her friend protested.

"Polly, they stand in line outside the stadium after games to see who Rick will pick to go out with," the friend said.

"Well," Polly replied, "tell him to pick someone from that line, then."

Mr. Casares persisted and eventually got a date.

The Korean War ended Mr. Casares' collegiate career early. He was drafted into service, and was in the Army in 1954 when he was drafted again, by the Chicago Bears.

Mr. Casares was a bruising runner — at 6 feet 2, 225 pounds he was large for a running back in the 1950s NFL. In 1956, his second season, he rushed for 1,126 yards, falling just short of setting a league record. He was on the Bears' 1963 NFL championship team, and he left Chicago as the franchise's all-time leading rusher, a distinction he held until Walter Payton broke his record. Mr. Casares is still the No. 3 all-time rusher in Bears history. After 10 years in Chicago, he finished his career with single seasons for the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins.

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Mr. Casares had gotten that date with Polly many years prior, but the relationship flickered. They stayed in touch over the years, though, and started dating again in the 1960s. They married in 1969 and returned to Tampa, where they started the Huddle Lounge, which later was sold to Joe Redner, who turned it into the Mons Venus. If they'd known it was going to become a strip club, Polly Casares said Saturday, they never would've sold it.

Polly Casares sat at the kitchen table of their Tampa townhome Saturday afternoon, rattling off memories: annual ski trips in Europe, late nights after the Huddle Lounge closed playing charades at a friend's house.

It used to take them an hour and a half to leave the restaurants, Polly remembered, because of all the "hot babes" lined up to meet her husband. She never minded. She'd just find a corner, sit down and wait until he'd talked to all his fans, and then they'd go home.

"I wasn't the jealous type. I didn't have to be," she said. "When you're sure of your man, you're sure of your man."

Mr. Casares' family is planning a memorial service for next week at Gonzalez Funeral Home, 7209 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa.

Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.