(Editor's note: The following story, written by Scott Carter, was originally published on floridagators.com.)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - During his redshirt freshman season in 1999, receiver Reche Caldwell instantly showed why he was considered the best all-around athlete in the Gators' 1998 recruiting class, a group that included future Olympic sprinter John Capel.
In the season opener against Western Michigan at the Swamp, a 55-26 Florida victory, Caldwell took a quick-hitch pass from quarterback Doug Johnson and zigzagged around six missed tackles for a 23-yard gain. Johnson was asked afterward about Caldwell's debut.
"You kind of hold your breath when he catches the ball,'' Johnson told reporters. "You never know what he is going to do. He is going to be an explosive player."
As Caldwell began to blossom with the Gators, his hometown newspaper, theTampa Tribune, was busy ranking the 100 top athletes on its Tampa Bay All-Century Team, a comprehensive project that covered an 11-county area in the Tampa Bay region. Caldwell checked in at No. 67.
A standout quarterback and center fielder at Tampa's Jefferson High, Caldwell signed with the Gators as a quarterback. He was drafted later that summer by the Cincinnati Reds in the 37th round. If he had not signed with the Gators and chosen baseball, scouts assured he would have gone much higher.His former Jefferson baseball coach, Pop Cuesta, whose program produced future major-leaguer stars Fred McGrif, Luis Gonzalez and Tino Martinez, considered Caldwell as good a baseball prospect as anyone he coached.
"In the 25 years or so that I've been (at Jefferson), he's probably the best all-round athlete to come out of there,'' Cuesta told the Tribune.
Once he chose Florida and football, Caldwell ran the scout team's offense as a true freshman to prepare UF's defense for that week's opponent.
The fact Caldwell landed at Florida was a surprise in many circles. He didn't commit to UF until three days prior to National Signing Day, entertaining offers from Michigan State, Maryland and UCF, telling recruiters he wanted to play quarterback. After passing for nearly 7,000 yards and 77 touchdowns at Jefferson, but as a true freshman Caldwell ran the scout team's offense to prepare UF's defense for that week's opponent.
When he didn't play in the 1998 season opener against the Citadel, then-Gators head coach Steve Spurrier quickly put Caldwell's mind to rest that he had a place in the lineup.
"I talked to Reche during the course of the game. 'Listen, if we can hold you out, we're going to do it. Four or five years from now you could be the top guy with balls coming at you all the time.' He understands,'' Spurrier said at the time. "He doesn't want to waste a year sweeping up at the end of some of these games."
While he waited his turn, Caldwell spent a stint on the Gators baseball team as a pinch-runner with 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash.
But by the fall of '99, Caldwell moved to receiver and started his climb up the school's football record books.
"I just didn't want to go on the defensive side of the ball,'' Caldwell told reporters. "I'll be happy as long as the ball is in my hands and I have a chance to score some touchdowns."
No problem. As he endured some growing pains adjusting to receiver, Caldwell caught 27 passes as a freshman and added 49 as a sophomore, including six catches for a team-high 110 yards in a loss to Miami in the Sugar Bowl.
By the time his junior season came around, Caldwell teamed with quarterback Rex Grossman and fellow receivers Jabar Gafney and Taylor Jacobs to rewrite the school-record books. The Gators led the nation in 2001 - Spurrier's final season - with 405.2 yards passing per game. The UF record still stands and is 45 yards more than the second-place team, the 1995 Gators (360 yards per game).
"A lot of teams double-teamed Jabar,'' Caldwell told theTampa Bay Times. "Some teams triple-teamed Jabar. That gave me a chance to get open."
In his final season, Caldwell caught 65 passes for 1,059 yards, the yardage total ranking eighth on UF's single-season list. He finished his career ranked eighth in career receptions (141) and his 2,088 career yards rank 11th. He once caught a touchdown pass in 10 consecutive games, a mark topped in UF's record book only by an 11-game streak by Reidel Anthony in 1996.
Caldwell declared for the NFL Draft after his redshirt junior season and was San Diego's second-round pick in the 2002 draft, spending six seasons in the NFL with the Chargers, Patriots and Redskins. In 2003, Caldwell's younger brother, Andre Caldwell, showed up at UF and carried on the family's tradition. The younger Caldwell surpassed some of his older brother's records and is the school's all-time leading receiver with 185 career catches.
Meanwhile, Reche Caldwell's post-NFL life was not without personal issues, including a stretch in prison. Still, as news circulated on social media Sunday morning of Caldwell's death from a shooting outside of his Tampa home, memories began to flash across timelines.
For those who knew him when he burst onto the scene as a Tampa teenager, first as quarterback/center fielder Donald Caldwell and later as receiver Reche Caldwell, images of his youth and promise remain fresh.
"Reche Caldwell was probably before his time. Everybody knows he was a great receiver at Florida, but Caldwell was one hell of a quarterback at Jefferson High School in Tampa. He was the Class 5A Player of the Year as a junior,'' said longtime Tampa Tribune sports reporter Anwar Richardson, who now covers the University of Texas for the Rivals.com network. "I witnessed Caldwell carry that team on his back as a senior. More importantly, he was always smiling.
"His younger brother, Andre, looked up to him. Both played quarterback at Jefferson, and each switched to receiver at Florida. The Caldwell family is full of great individuals, and I enjoyed covering them for years. RIP to a great young man."
Donald Reche Caldwell was 41.