The Last of His Kind

Nearly a Cal Bear until Buck Shaw caught wind of his talent, former Bronco and 49er gridiron star Ken Casanega ’42 reflects on a century of a well-played life.

The Last of His Kind
Ken Casanega ’42 wore #2 as an SCU Bronco. Photos courtesy SCU Archives and Casanega family.

The oldest living member of the original 1946 San Francisco 49ers is no stranger to Santa Clara University—or its legends.

In fact, Ken Casanega ’42, who turned 100 earlier this year, once dazzled as both a Bronco and a 49er on teams led by Buck Shaw.

Described as “the most dangerous halfback on the West Coast” by the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, the former athlete is enjoying his centenarian status at the Medford, Oregon assisted care facility where he lives with his wife—though COVID-19 meant his birthday bash with four generations of Casanegas had to be staged outside the center’s lobby window. (Local Medford TV stations covered the event; the San Francisco Chronicle penned a profile.)

“I think they’ve been getting a kick out of it, even Grandma probably more so,” says grandson Chris Casanega. His grandfather can’t talk much after three recent strokes, and his 99-year-old grandmother Helen Casanega doesn’t hear too well. But after 78 years of marriage, they still manage to communicate, holding hands and sharing a kiss goodnight.

It’s been quite a life.

Humble beginnings

Born on Feb. 18, 1921 to parents who later separated, Kenneth Thomas Casanega was raised by his single mother in Oakland during hard times that only worsened through the Depression. Plucky and proud, she worked hard to provide for her only child, says Len Casanega, the eldest of Ken’s three sons, who stills recall his grandmother’s engaging personality.

“We’d go downtown to a parking lot and when the guy in the little booth took the money, she’d say, ‘This is my grandson Lenny, and his father is Kenny Casanega, and you know him! He was a great football player at Santa Clara and for the 49ers.’”

Kenny grew up tall and ran fast. By the time he landed at Castlemont High, he played basketball, baseball, football, and ran track. Football proved to be a particular gift for the quarterback, who could throw and punt.

Ken Casanega

College coaches noticed too, and one of SCU’s greatest football talents was nearly a Cal Bear—until a scout serendipitously alerted Buck Shaw, allowing Santa Clara to match UC Berkeley’s scholarship, along with a better paying job during the summers. The Jesuit university also appealed to Ken Casanega’s competitive instincts.

When SCU football reigned

“A big factor at that time was that Santa Clara had become quite a power in football,” he told Chuck Hildebrand in “Bronco Sundays,” a history of Santa Clara football that began in 1896, halted a few times over the decades, and was discontinued in 1992. But as Casanega related in the 1998 book, he looked up to Shaw and admired his leadership, when Santa Clara was known by some as “the Notre Dame of the West.”

“The success we had was because of Buck, mainly, and the things I still remember: the cohesion, the spirit, the closeness we had,” he recalled.

Those weren’t just words. During the last game of the 1940 season, Casanega, a junior, played so well it kept a close friend and teammate, senior Jimmy Johnson, on the bench.  According to the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, early in the fourth quarter, Casanega faked a knee injury, allowing Johnson to play in his final SCU game that saw the Broncos beat Oklahoma 33-13.

1943 Ken Casanega

The star athlete’s reputation continued to grow, but football became an afterthought when the United States entered World War II. Even an invitation to join the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t deter him from serving his country. Casanega joined the U.S. Navy and flew torpedo bombers until the war ended in 1945.

While he was away, SCU alum Tony Morabito ’31 had founded the 49er franchise, set to play its first game after the war. That’s when Shaw’s telegram arrived.

A star makes a sacrifice

“As the aircraft carrier was heading back to the Bay Area, he got the telegram that said: Would you like to play for the San Francisco 49ers?” recalls Len Casanega. “And Dad said, ‘Who the heck are the 49ers?”

In his first season in 1946, fans who had once followed Casanega at Santa Clara were delighted to see him in action again. As a defensive back, he tallied eight interceptions—the second most in the league. Yet as much as he enjoyed playing, by year’s end he told Shaw he’d hardly seen his wife during the war, and travel with the team was keeping him away from home too long.

1946 49ers Team
The 1946 San Francisco 49ers team. Ken Casanega, number 83, is in the fourth row, third from the right. Photo courtesy San Francisco 49ers.

“I think he liked the camaraderie, but his heart just wasn’t in it,” says Len, who played football at UC Davis. “He didn’t want to do it anymore.” In 1947, he began teaching high school math. Still, Shaw tugged at the star player to suit up in 1948, this time for more money than he was earning as a teacher. A reluctant Casanega agreed, but he knew football wasn’t his future, and after a few pre-season games, he left the gridiron for good.

The former 49er moved on to a career in public education, earning his master’s degree at San Francisco State, and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. His last job took him to Hollister, where he retired as a superintendent in 1980.

A Bronco first

Living closer to Santa Clara enabled him to reconnect with the University. The 1965 SCU Athletics Hall of Fame inductee joined SCU advisory boards and visited his ever-expanding alma mater, to which he has always attributed his success in life, along with “moderation in all things,” adds Len’s wife, Paula Carroll.

Casanega was still playing golf at age 97, walking pretty well at 98—even serving as an honorary game day captain for the 49ers. But a broken hip and the strokes over the last few years have left him relying on his walker or a wheelchair to get around.

 

Ken And Helen
Still in love: Ken Casanega and his wife, Helen, have been married for 78 years. After his first season with the 49ers—also the franchise’s first—Ken hung up his jersey to spend more time with Helen and his family. Photo courtesy Casanega family.

“He’s doing pretty well,” says Len, who lives with Paula nearby in Medford. (Her daughter Becky issued a 32-page celebratory birthday book dedicated to Ken.) “He understands what you say to him, but he can’t articulate as much.”

Len still remembers calling his father on his 80th birthday to ask how he was doing. “And he said, ‘You know, I never thought I’d live this long,’” he says. “I reminded him of that when he turned 100.”

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