If Rick Casares had his way football fans in Chicago would have only seen him inside a boxing ring. Fortunately for the Bears and the NFL, his mother said “No way,’’ which opened the way for him to become one of the most prolific runners in Bears’ history.
The world has all but forgotten Rick Casares these days but when he came into the NFL in 1955 after three years at Florida and two years in the U.S. Army nobody wanted to tackle him. Or at least nobody seemed able to.
But long before he was first handed a football, Casares was a Golden Gloves boxing champion in New Jersey at 160 pounds with enough talent to convince Lou Duva it was worth offering him $100 a week to train with him for three years before he could legally turn Casares pro at 18.
Casares had moved to Paterson, N.J. with his mother after his father was the victim of a gang shooting when Casares was seven. They lived in a tough neighborhood and Casares took up boxing and soon had dreams of becoming a world champion. Those dreams were shared by the future Hall of Fame trainer of Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker and many others. But they were not dreams shared by Casares’ mother, who refused to sign the contract and sent him back to Tampa to attend high school.
“I was frustrated by her decision,’’ Casares once said. “I wanted to box and turn pro and she basically ended that dream.’’
Soon he had another. Casares was an all-around athlete so talented he not only became an all-state football and basketball player but when asked by friends to try and throw the javelin for the high school track team, Casares had no idea how to do it but agreed. On his first throw he set the state record.
That was the kind of athlete Rick Casares was. At Florida he was All-SEC in both football and basketball but was drafted by the Army in 1953 after his junior year. He served two years but the Bears still made him the 18th pick in the 1954 draft even though he would not be free to play for another year. That all came as a shock to Casares.
“I was stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina when I got the call from the Bears telling me I was drafted,’’ Casares once recalled. “Honestly I never dreamt of playing professional football so when I got the call I was shocked.’’
Soon Casares would receive a more shocking call from the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. The Argos offered him $20,000 to come north of the border and tote the pigskin, a remarkable number at the time. Meanwhile, the Bears were offering only $8,000 to join the NFL so Casares went on leave to visit Toronto. On the way back to Fort Jackson, he stopped to visit his mother in New Jersey and Halas tracked him down at her house.
Halas told Casares to come to Chicago for a visit but Casares told him his leave was up. Already a powerful figure in pro football, Halas got Casares’ leave extended and convinced him to sign a contract for $10,000 to play for the Bears, insisting it made him the highest paid player on the team.
“Of course, I later learned he told everyone their contract was the highest on the team,’’ Casares once told “Cigar City’’ magazine. “He was a master negotiator.’’
When Casares finally arrived in Chicago in 1955, he proved to be a master runner whose style was to avoid no one and bowl over everyone. At 6-3, 235 pounds, Casares was a monster back in those days and he used his size to develop a bruising style.
After seeing limited action in the first three games as a fullback his rookie year, Casares was in the backfield when Halas twice gave the ball to halfback Bobby Watkins. When quarterback George Blanda called Watkins’ number again a third straight time, Watkins told Casares as they broke the huddle that he was too tired to carry again.
Casares volunteered but no one told Blanda, who was shocked when he turned to make the handoff to find his rookie fullback looking for the ball. What Blanda saw after he gave it to him shocked him even more. On Rick Casares’ first carry in an NFL game he went 81 yards for a touchdown.
The next week Casares was in the starting lineup and he would finish that season leading the Bears in rushing with 672 yards. He would lead them in rushing each of the next six seasons, going to the Pro Bowl five times and in 1956 having one of the greatest rushing seasons in NFL history to that point.
That year Casares ran for 1,126 yards, finishing only 20 yards off the NFL’s single-season record held by Steve Van Buren. Casares would have broken that record if analytics existed at the time but Halas and the Bears were unaware he was so close and pulled Casares early from the final regular season game of the season to rest him for the playoffs and a showdown with the New York Giants in the 1956 NFL Championship game. Casares averaged 4.8 yards per carry in that 12-game season and 93.8 yards per game.
Although the Giants shut Casares down in the 1956 championship game, the following season he again led the NFL in rushing attempts with 204 but his 700 rushing yards in 1957 came up short of a rookie named Jim Brown, who piled up 942. Brown would end up leading the NFL in rushing for five straight years and in eight of his nine NFL seasons before retiring as the greatest running back in league history.
Casares finished sixth in rushing in 1958 with 651 yards and would continue to lead the Bears until he complained publicly in 1961 that he needed more carries. An angry Halas reacted by significantly reducing his carries the following year to 135. At the same time injuries to his shoulders and ankle began to mount and he was never again the force he’d been his first six seasons in Chicago.
He would play a backup role on the Bears’ 1963 NFL championship team, rushing for only 277 yards. He would play one more season for the Bears before being traded to the Redskins in 1965. His final season would be as part of the AFL expansion Miami Dolphins. At the time of Casares’ retirement he’d rushed for 5,797 yards (5,657 of them with the Bears) and scored 60 touchdowns (49 for Chicago). He retired as the Bears’ all-time rushing leader, having broken the records of Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski.
Casares’ records would stand for a decade until Hall of Famer Walter Payton shattered them. Perhaps more impressively, 54 years after his last carry for the Chicago Bears, Rick Casares still ranks fourth all-time in team rushing, trailing only Payton, Matt Forte and Neal Anderson and ahead of Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. And remember, for more than half his career, Rick Casares played 12-game seasons, not 16.
He was also playing with a bruising style in which he almost seemed to apologize to any tacklers he avoided.
“He was the toughest guy I ever played with,’’ recalled Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka in a New York Times’ obituary after Casares passed away in 2013 at the age of 82. “I remember him playing on a broken ankle.’’
His running style and willingness to trample defenders rather than try to avoid them, left Casares hobbled later in life but he wasn’t hobbling when they handed him the ball from his arrival in Chicago in 1955 until his run-in with Halas, who he also chose not to try and avoid, following the 1961 season.
Was Rick Casares Hall of Fame-worthy when considered not by today’s standards but of those of his own playing days? Well, half his career he was a Pro Bowl selection (1955-1959) and if Jim Brown hadn’t come along he would have led the NFL in rushing in back-to-back seasons in 1956 and 1957. He would have also broken Van Buren’s all-time single season rushing record (1,146) set in 1949 had someone on the Bears thought to look up what it was before his final game of the regular season against the Detroit Lions.
As it was that day, Casares rushed for 190 yards on only 17 carries, a remarkable 11.18 yards per carry. What would it have taken him to put up another 21 yards? Apparently two carries.
“I never cared about individual numbers but I did care about the NFL Hall of Fame,’’ Casares told Cigar City magazine in 2011. “I think there are players in the Hall who I feel I was better than but I guess the voters don’t see it that way.
“It would be a great honor… (But) If I do not (get voted in), oh well. I got paid to play football. How can I complain about that?’’
Maybe he can’t but if you ask the guys who were run over trying to bring him down back in those 12-game seasons of the mid-1950s and early 1960s, they might just say why shouldn’t he?