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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Casares was more than just a great athlete

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Several days before Rick Casares died on Friday, Jack Espinosa sent him a copy of a letter he had written. There is a movement to name the field house at Jefferson High School after Casares, who many believe to be the best athlete to ever come out of not just Jefferson, but Hillsborough County.

“He called me up,’’ says Espinosa, a former educator, spokesman for the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Department, author of two books about Ybor City and close friend of Casares. “He told me he was so touched he would put the note in his best blue suit and take it with him when he died. I had no idea how ill he was.’’

 

Espinosa was one of Casares’ buddies from those days in the early 50s at the old Jefferson High School on Highland Ave. who wanted me and you to know there was so much more to Casares. Listening to their stories I felt like I was watching “Grease’’ without the sound track as they talked about the good times when West Tampa and Seminole Heights were very different places.

“Jefferson was such a poor school,’’ said Espinosa. “It had a chip on its shoulder, which was one reason it was so special. The building was so old the termites brought their own bag lunches.’’ I forgot to add that Espinosa was once a stand-up comedian back in Cuba. He thinks he still is.

Espinosa was also captain of the 1950 Jefferson track team. “We couldn’t afford to send a full squad to all the meets,’’ he remembers. “We were at the district and we didn’t have enough players to compete in all the events. Someone suggested Rick throw the javelin. He came up to me and said he had never seen one and asked me what to do with it.

“So he goes up to the line and heaves it as far as he could. He broke the state record.’’

Ernie Casares, himself a star tailback at Plant High in the 60s, was Rick’s nephew. He was hoping I might write something to say that Rick was more than an athlete. No question. Casares was as tough as they come on the field, but off it he was a good guy. Casares, who was 82 when he died, and his wife Polly set an example for an entire community.

 

Casares would go on to become one the NFL greats with the Chicago Bears and must have been something else at Jefferson.

“That’s because Jefferson was not a school,’’ said Espinosa, “it was a family.’’ It was there that Casares, who had moved back to his native Tampa from New Jersey when his mother sent him away to keep him from becoming a boxer at the age of 16, became as Espinosa describes it, “a whale in a tub. Everyone idolized him, including me. For me it was because despite everything, he never let it get to him. He was genuinely generous and kind. He was like a god. I’ve felt that way for fifty years. In fact I told his friend Andy (Cuesta) the other day that if Rick Casares can die, then so can the rest of us.’’

As an athlete, Casares is a legend. He scored the first touchdown for Florida in the Gators’ very first bowl game. For the Chicago Bears, he was a powerful, driving force for years. He played and starred in any sport he wanted, from baseball to track and basketball.

Dennis Antinori is a cousin in the Casares’ vast family of cousins and uncles. “I saw him play when I was a kid. The whole family took the train to Jacksonville. He took a bunch of us kids into the locker room and rolled out one of those laundry baskets full of footballs. Each one of us got a ball. You don’t forget those moments.

“I’ll tell you how sensitive he was. A family member passed away while he was with the Bears and he couldn’t make the funeral. Every week for the next year a dozen roses would appear at her grave.’’

The stories go on about Casares being a softy for animals and about the first day of training camp for the Bears when he showed up carrying a little Yorkie named Josie and the Bear’s legendary George Halas said no way to the dog and Casares turned around and walked away from camp. After a week or so standoff, Halas consented and Josie became a regular at camp.

 

Casares, who served in the Army, was born on the Fourth of July. For years I’ve been getting emails from him commenting on some situation around the world.

“He’s going to be buried at the Veteran’s cemetery in Sarasota,’’ says nephew Ernie Casares.

Mike Karaphillis was a part of that group that would remain close for more than half a century. He grew up in Tarpon Springs but roomed with Casares at Florida. “He was one of those rare people who concentrate on the person they are talking to. He would give you the shirt off his back.

“They asked me to come speak at a Jefferson reunion,’’ he says. “I wanted to talk to them about Rick Casares. I told them that the ancient Greeks had a saying that a man becomes immortal on this Earth if he is remembered after he is gone. I don’t think we will ever forget Rick Casares.’’

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