Without a doubt, Rick Casares set the bar high for Chicago Bears running backs of future generations.
Casares was a bruiser of a 226-lb. fullback who never shied away from hard hits on the gridiron. He was vastly different from the typical 1950s fullback who focused exclusively on blocking.
Casares emerged as a dual-threat fullback who could block and scamper for yardage. He led the NFL with 1,126 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in just 12 games in his second season in 1956.
Casares carried the load for George Halas’ Bears in the mid-to-late 1960s. He led Chicago in rushing yardage from 1956 to 1960 and became a five-time Pro Bowler.
It wasn’t until 1979 that the great Walter Payton surpassed Casares as the Chicago Bears’ all-time leading rusher.
Rick Casares was truly one of the greatest running backs in Bears franchise history.
Richard Jose “Rick” Casares was born in Tampa, FL on July 4, 1931.
Rick’s father was a barber while his mother was a restaurant server. Casares’ grandparents were cigar makers from Spain and Italy, per the Tampa Bay Times.
According to Cigar City Magazine’s Paul Guzzo, Casares and his mother relocated to Patterson, NJ following his father’s gangland shooting murder in 1938.
Casares didn’t divulge details of his dad’s death. He just told Guzzo that Tampa was completely different back in the 1930s—it was a tough environment to grow up in.
Patterson, NJ was just as tough. Casares and the other neighborhood kids regularly duked it out with their fists at a local parking lot. They didn’t hate each other, though. It was their way of determining who was the toughest in their neighborhood.
Rick Casares was that guy. He went undefeated in those fights.
One year after World War II ended, 15-year-old Rick Casares took his act to the squared circle and became a boxer. He became the state champion in its Diamond Glass super middleweight division by beating men who were older than him by at least six years.
Casares was so good that legendary boxing trainer Lou Duva, who molded future champions Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker and Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield, offered his mom a contract worth $400 per month until he turned 18 years old.
Happy Birthday to @FlaSportsHOF member Rick Casares. Born #OnThisDay in 1931 in Tampa, Casares : would attend Thomas Jefferson High School and the University of Florida before being drafted by the @ChicagoBears in the 2nd round of the 1954 NFL Draft. pic.twitter.com/KP6Lgyh4z5
— Wyatt Taylor (@profwyatttaylor) July 4, 2021
Although the money was good, she declined Duva’s offer. She could not imagine her son becoming a professional boxer.
“I was frustrated by her decision,” Casares told Cigar City Magazine some 65 years later. “I wanted to box and turn pro and she basically ended that dream.”
Fortunately, better things were in store for Rick Casares.
Casares grew bitter at his mother’s decision. He skipped classes and fought on the streets more frequently.
Casares’ mother had no choice but to send her wayward son back to Tampa, which became much safer since they had left the city in 1938.
Casares lived with family members from his dad’s side of the family in West Tampa. His life became much more subdued since leaving the Garden State—he never got in trouble when he returned to Florida. Had he gotten in trouble, his relatives would have found out immediately.
Rick Casares attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Tampa, FL. Sports became a perfect diversion for the athletic Casares—he excelled in baseball, track, basketball, and football for the Jefferson Dragons.
Casares blossomed on the high school gridiron. He led Jefferson High to consecutive city football titles in 1948 and 1949, per Guzzo.
Casares’ exploits earned him an athletic scholarship from the University of Florida. With that, he remained in state and became one of the best fullbacks in the SEC in the early 1950s.
College Days with the Florida Gators
Rick Casares attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL. He suited up for Florida Gators head football coach Bob Woodruff from 1951 to 1953.
Casares’ teammate and future Florida assistant athletic director Norm Carlson considered the former the greatest player in Gators’ football history.
“He was the best to play here in my opinion,” Carlson told Scott Carter of the Gators’ official athletics website in the fall of 2013. “He was an incredible athlete.”
According to Carlson, Casares was a jack of all trades who did whatever the team asked him to do. Whether Woodruff asked him to play quarterback, fullback, or linebacker, he did it to the best of his abilities.
Rick Casares didn’t just go the extra mile on the gridiron—he also went above and beyond the call of duty on the track. Whenever track coach Percy Beard needed his team to score more points in a track meet, he asked Casares to take on more experienced athletes in the shot put competition.
Casares remained undaunted and beat his more experienced counterparts. He was also an All-SEC player in basketball and football, per FloridaGators.com.
The Gators were an average football team that won five of 10 games in Casares’ first year with the squad in the 1951 NCAA season.
Casares and his team turned the corner the following year. Their 8-3 win-loss record was their best showing since the 1929 NCAA campaign when they won eight of 10 games.
Rick Casares made school history by scoring the first touchdown in Florida’s first-ever bowl game—a 14-13 win over the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the 1953 Gator Bowl. Casares capped off his heroics by kicking the extra point.
Casares earned Second-Team All-SEC honors following his sophomore season in 1952.
Woodruff named Casares team captain during the 1953 NCAA season. Unfortunately, the Gators regressed with a sub-par 3-5-2 record that year.
Remarkably, Casares averaged 15.5 points and 11.5 rebounds for the Gators’ basketball team in 1953, per Cigar City Magazine.
Oct 6, 1951: Rick Casares became the first Florida @GatorsFB to rush for 100+ yards in a single game. The Gators won 40-7 over Loyola in Pasadena, CA. Casares gained 108 yards in 12 carries. He then gained 103 yards the next week in a 14-13 loss to Auburn. pic.twitter.com/NDYyAKveha
— Jack Eich (@jackeichsays) October 6, 2019
Casares met his future wife Polly Wilkins at the University of Florida. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Polly, a businesswoman who was two years older than Rick, was in town visiting one of her friends.
Before she knew it, Rick asked one of his buddies to set him and Polly up on a date. She refused, to the dismay of her friend she was visiting.
That friend told her she had just turned down Rick Casares, the star Florida Gators fullback who made fans line up outside the stadium for his autograph.
Polly told her Rick could pick someone from that line to date. Casares didn’t give up and eventually got a date with Polly. It wasn’t until the 1960s during the height of his NFL career with the Chicago Bears when they started dating again, per The Tampa Bay Times.
Polly Casares told The Tampa Tribune (via FloridaGators.com) that Gators fans regularly sent Rick autograph requests in the mail. They admired him for his toughness and willingness to plow through tacklers with reckless abandon.
Casares replied to all of those letters. He felt incredibly honored by the adulation.
The United States Army drafted Rick Casares for the Korean War following his junior season with the Gators in 1953. Casares told Guzzo 58 years later that he was assigned to Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
Casares concluded his three-year stint with the Florida Gators with 1,163 rushing yards.
In an ironic twist of fate, Rick Casares soon became one of the greatest running backs in Chicago Bears franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Chicago Bears made Rick Casares the 18th overall selection of the 1954 NFL Draft.
Casares was shocked at the turn of events considering he had no inkling that he would eventually play in the National Football League.
When Casares was still serving in the U.S. Army in South Carolina in the spring of 1954, the Bears called him and informed him they had drafted him.
It turned out another football team north of the border badly wanted Casares’ services.
The Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Toronto Argonauts rang up Casares and told him they wanted to sign him to a contract. Their offer of $20,000 per year easily dwarfed the Bears’ $8,000 per annum, per Guzzo.
Since Casares had not signed his Bears contract yet, he took military leave and traveled to Toronto to talk to the Argonauts management team. The city’s allure and the team’s reputation sealed the deal for Rick Casares—he intended to sign with the Argonauts for the 1954 CFL season.
However, when Casares returned to the states, Bears head coach George Halas called him at his mother’s house in New Jersey.
“Halas had eyes and ears everywhere and had heard about my trip to Canada,” Casares told Guzzo in 2011.
Halas wanted to fly Casares to the Windy City to discuss his Bears contract. Casares told him he had used up his military leave and had to return to South Carolina.
Halas told Casares he would take care of everything—the former reached out to his contacts in the military and had Casares’ leave extended.
Casares had a change of heart and leaned toward playing for the Bears. However, he told Halas the money the Argonauts had offered was too good to pass up—he needed it to take care of his mother.
Halas upped the ante and offered Casares $10,000 per season. That made him the highest-paid Bears player in 1955.
Even though the disparity between the CFL and NFL contracts was still large, Casares followed his heart and signed with the Chicago Bears.
“Of course, I later learned he told everyone their contract was the highest on the team,” an amused Casares told Cigar City Magazine in 2011. “Halas was a master negotiator.”
December 30, 1956#1956NFLChampionshipThread#TogetherBlue #DaBears from a 🥶 Yankee Stadium.
Sid Luckman pic.twitter.com/8zhjgGL8iB
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) September 27, 2020
After Casares finished his obligations with the United States Army, he reported for Bears training camp in 1955.
In Steve McMichael’s 2017 book, Amazing Tales from the Chicago Bears Sideline: A Collection of the Greatest Bears Stories Ever Told, Casares remembered that players from his generation had jobs outside of football during the offseason.
Players had to run one mile on the day they reported for training camp. Halas set different times for the running backs and linebackers. Players who didn’t make the required time had to run daily until they were within the time constraints.
Halas ran practices in 90-degree heat that lasted two-and-a-half hours on average. He believed his players would reach their utmost potential on the gridiron if they leaned out and played at a lighter weight.
Halas set Casares’ goal weight at 220 pounds. Casares weighed himself before the actual weigh-in and found out he was two pounds short of his coach’s requirement.
Casares then drank some water but it barely made a difference in his weight. He rummaged through some locker room items and found a wrench that he taped on his stomach under his shirt.
The three-pound wrench upped Casares’ weight to 221 pounds. Halas promptly fined him $25 for being a pound overweight, per McMichael.
Rick Casares played sparingly in his first three games in the National Football League. He showed everyone he had officially arrived in Chicago’s fourth game of the 1954 NFL season against the Baltimore Colts.
Casares took a handoff from Bears quarterback George Blanda, who was shocked that a rookie fullback called for the ball. Blanda had to hand the ball off to finish the play, so he promptly obliged.
Casares bowled over several Baltimore defenders and ran for an 81-yard touchdown—the first of his 49 career touchdowns in the pro football ranks. He added another touchdown in Chicago’s 38-10 romp over Baltimore on October 16, 1955.
Rick Casares finished his rookie campaign with 672 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He helped the Bears overcome an inauspicious 0-3 start and finish 8-4 in the 1955 NFL season.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to earn a spot in the postseason. Since winning their seventh NFL championship in 1946, the Bears had missed the postseason for the eighth time in the past nine years.
Nevertheless, Rick Casares earned the first of his five consecutive Pro Bowl berths from 1955 to 1959.
One of Casares’ most embarrassing moments came against legendary Baltimore Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti.
While Casares told Guzzo in 2011 that he didn’t recall the exact year when it occurred, he remembered the details of the humiliating play.
Bears coach George Halas ordered Casares to block Marchetti on a pass play. Although Casares had developed a reputation as one of the best blocking fullbacks during his era, he couldn’t hold off the athletic Marchetti.
Casares tried to block Marchetti by going low and aiming for his knees, per Cigar City Magazine. Marchetti knew what Casares was up to—the Colts pass rusher anticipated Casares going low and instinctively leaped over him to avoid the block.
Marchetti wound up sacking Bears quarterback Ed Brown. Casares was embarrassed to no end.
Casares made up for the missed block later in the game. He baited Marchetti by pretending to go low again. Marchetti fell for Casares’ ruse and tried leaping over him again.
That time around, Casares sprang up, caught Marchetti in mid-air, and promptly flipped him over. Casares didn’t celebrate his block on the 6’4″, 244-lb. Marchetti, who outweighed him by roughly 15 pounds. Instead, Casares tried to help him up and asked him if he was okay.
Marchetti replied in the affirmative. He and Casares went at it again several more times during the game.
“I couldn’t be a showboat,” Casares told Guzzo more than 50 years later. “It was not how I was raised.”
In just his second pro football season, Casares became only the seventh player to rack up 1,000 yards on the ground. The fact he had 1,126 yards and 12 touchdowns—both career bests which led the NFL in 1956—in a 12-game season made the feat even more impressive.
Casares had no idea he was 20 yards short of breaking the then-single-season rushing record. Unfortunately, Bears head coach Paddy Driscoll pulled him out in the waning moments of the season finale because the game’s outcome was already well out of reach.
Rick Casares, ever the consummate professional, wasn’t the kind of player who focused on individual accolades.
“I didn’t care,” Casares told Guzzo in 2011. “Back then, we didn’t pay any attention to individual numbers. All we cared about was winning.”
Casares, a powerful 226-lb. fullback, carried the Bears on his massive shoulders in 1956. He helped Chicago reach the NFL Championship Game after a 10-year hiatus.
Unfortunately, Rick Casares’ Bears lost to Frank Gifford’s New York Giants in blowout fashion, 47-7.
Casares earned some valuable consolation by becoming a First-Team All-Pro selection following his impressive showing in the 1956 NFL season.
Casares continued playing at a high level over the next seven seasons. The Bears averaged seven wins per year from 1957 to 1963. As Casares’ career progressed, he became more of a complementary fullback who took a backseat to the Bears’ younger running backs, per Guzzo.
The Bears made it to the 1963 NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants. Regrettably, Rick Casares couldn’t play because of an ankle injury.
Nonetheless, Chicago prevailed, 14-10. Casares became an NFL champion for the first and only time in his 12-year pro football career.
Great image of the Bears Rick Casares trying to avoid Jess Richardson in a 1961 game vs. Chicago. @Ol_TimeFootball @OTBaseballPhoto @NFL_Journal @baseballinpix @SportsPaperInfo @SportsDaysPast @ChicagoBears pic.twitter.com/mHcHZKtPqc
— Eagles Over the Years (@EaglesOrtheYear) July 27, 2020
Rick Casares split his final two seasons with the Washington Redskins in 1965 and the expansion Miami Dolphins in 1966.
Casares retired after his lone year in South Florida in 1966. He felt his body had taken way too much punishment after 12 pro football seasons.
“My body was done,” Casares told Cigar City Magazine some 45 years later. “My body still aches every day, especially my ankle. But I have no regrets. It was all worth it.”
When Casares hung up his cleats following the 1966 NFL season, he became the Bears’ all-time leader in rushing yardage (5,797), rushing touchdowns (49), and rushing attempts (1,386).
Casares was a hard-nosed fullback who spilled his guts on the gridiron for 12 seasons. He earned a reputation as a tough gridiron warrior who plowed into defenders. Casares also never ran out of bounds just so defenders couldn’t tackle him.
Legendary Chicago Bears tight end and head coach Mike Ditka, his teammate on that 1963 NFL Championship squad, called Casares “the toughest man to ever have played for the Bears.”
Post-Football Life and Death
Rick Casares married his longtime girlfriend Polly Wilkins in 1969. They remained together for the next 44 years until his death in 2013.
Rick Casares ventured into the real estate industry after he retired from the NFL. He and his wife Polly opened a nightclub, The Huddle Lounge, in Tampa, FL.
The couple sold their nightclub to Joe Redner several years later. Redner, in turn, transformed it into Mons Venus, a strip club.
Polly Casares told The Tampa Bay Times they never would have sold The Huddle Lounge had they known Redner would turn it into a strip club.
During their 44-year marriage, Rick and Polly Casares loved playing charades at friends’ houses. They also went on yearly ski vacations to Europe.
Polly usually had to wait for an hour-and-a-half after they ate at a local restaurant because of the good-looking women who fell in line to talk to her husband.
Polly Casares didn’t mind the commotion one bit—she just waited in a corner until the line thinned out and then she and Rick would go home.
When Guzzo interviewed Casares in 2011, the latter said some of today’s pro football players do not deserve any publicity because of their on-field antics. Some lesser-talented players celebrate tackles even when their teams are down by a huge margin. Those theatrics on the gridiron got on Casares’ nerves.
“How can you celebrate if you are losing?” Casares told Cigar City Magazine in early 2011. “If a player did that when I played, his own teammates would have punched him out.”
Casares, who didn’t focus on individual accomplishments during his 12-year NFL career, admitted to Guzzo that he hoped to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH someday.
“It would mean a hell lot to me to get voted in,” Casares said. “I think it would be a great honor.”
The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) named Rick Casares to its All-Century Team in 2007.
Sadly, Rick Casares passed away on September 13, 2013, in his hometown of Tampa, FL. He was 82 years old.
According to The Tampa Bay Times, his wife Polly found him leaning back on his chair after she returned from buying food from Wendy’s and groceries at Publix.
Rick Casares was researching that weekend’s upcoming football games, scouring for information on kickoff times and point spreads.
When Polly saw him, it seemed like he was taking a nap. However, she touched his hand, which felt cold. When she found out he had passed away, she became hysterical and called their friends.
Rick Casares had wrist and rib surgeries after he retired from professional football. He also underwent two knee replacement procedures as well as ankle and shoulder replacement procedures.
By Casares’ estimate, he had six serious concussions in his 12-year pro football career.
Casares left behind his wife Polly, daughter Dawn, and grandson Lani. He is a member of the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame and the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame.
The Chicago Tribune ranked Casares number 36 on its 100 Greatest Chicago Bears of All Time list.