TAMPA — Former NFL receiver Reche Caldwell, who starred at Jefferson High and the University of Florida, was shot and killed late Saturday evening in Tampa, his mother said Sunday. Caldwell was 41.
Tampa police said officers responded to a call about a shooting just before 11 p.m. They found a man in his 40s with a gunshot wound in the yard of a home on the 3600 block of East Hanna Ave. Officers rendered aid before a fire-rescue crew took the man to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. They said the incident “does not appear to be a random act.”
Police did not identify the victim publicly, but Caldwell’s mother, Deborah, said they broke the news to her around 11:30. She said her son had been heading to a concert at Whiskey North in Carrollwood and that police told her they believe he was ambushed in a possible robbery attempt.
“He was set up,” Deborah Caldwell said. "I’m going to follow it all the way to the end. ... You get killed right here in your hometown? You made a statement here, and y’all just took it away from us?”
Caldwell starred in baseball and football at Jefferson High School, which is why the Tampa Tribune named him the area’s No. 67 athlete of the century in the fall of 1999. At the time, Dragons baseball coach Pop Cuesta said Caldwell was as good as any player who went through his program — a list that includes major-league stars such as Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff and Luis Gonzalez. Caldwell set Jefferson career records in batting average (.379), doubles (25), triples (six), steals (67) and runs (76).
“It’s a shame," Cuesta said Sunday. "He’s probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached. He was a tremendous athlete. I mean, he had it all. If he had decided to go baseball, he would’ve played in the big leagues, there’s no question about it. Every year he got better and better.”
Even though Caldwell, whose first name is pronounced “REE-shay,” was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1998, his future was in football. He passed for 77 touchdowns and almost 7,000 yards as a quarterback, tailback and punter at Jefferson.
A tailback as a Dragons freshman, he fumbled on his first carry against Auburndale in a one-quarter district tie-breaker to determine a playoff berth. On his second carry, he ran for a 73-yard touchdown. Jefferson prevailed and made the playoffs.
The next year, he embarked on a legendary career as a quarterback, guiding the Dragons to the Class 5A state semifinals in 1996 and being named the state’s 5A player of the year that same season.
“I always told him out of all my years of coaching, he was the best athlete I’ve ever coached," former Dragons offensive coordinator Harry Hubbard said. “He had it all, so we moved him to quarterback because we said at least he can have his hands on the ball every play.”
Former Dragons football coach Darlee Nelson said Caldwell nearly signed with Michigan State ― then coached by current Alabama coach Nick Saban ― as a quarterback before opting for the University of Florida.
“If we pushed time forward and we think about what Reche did as a high school quarterback, he’s today’s (quarterback) right now," Nelson said.
“I used to tell people all the time, Reche was the Michael Vick before Michael Vick ever showed up," Hubbard added. "People were hollering over Michael Vick, I said, ‘Shoot, Reche did that in high school.’”
But once he switched to receiver in his first practice as a freshman in Gainesville in 1998, he never went back. His 141 career catches still rank eighth in Florida history, and his 1,059 receiving yards in 2001 are the eighth-most ever by a Gator in one season.
“You were one of my favorite teammates of all time,” former UF quarterback Rex Grossman said on Twitter. “I will always remember our time at Florida for your unreal talent, infectious humor and our shared success as a team.”
Caldwell was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the 2002 NFL draft and spent six seasons in the league. He appeared in 71 games with 29 starts during his pro career, finishing with 152 catches for 1,851 yards and 11 touchdowns.
His best season came with New England in 2006. He was Tom Brady’s top receiver that season, recording a team-high 760 yards on a Patriots team that reached the AFC championship.
Caldwell had a number of legal run-ins once he left the NFL before the 2008 season. He was arrested and charged with operating an illegal gambling operation in Tampa in January 2014. Four months later, he was charged with drug possession and intent to distribute in Tampa. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and three years’ probation.
Last December, Caldwell faced federal charges of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. He pleaded guilty in January to making false claims to the NFL’s health reimbursement account plan and was scheduled to be sentenced in August.
“All of us are imperfect people, but he’s perfect to me," his mother said. "He was my hero.”
Anyone with information was asked to contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS (8477), report anonymously online at www.crimestopperstb.com or send a mobile tip using the P3 Tips mobile application.
This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.