Ken Casanega could have played football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead, he chose to serve his country during World War II.
Casanega was born Feb. 18, 1921, in California, raised by a single mother during the Great Depression. He played football at Castlemont High School and Santa Clara University, starring as a halfback. Casanega was part of the 1937 and 1938 Sugar Bowl winning teams. He also played against future Army Veteran Jackie Robinson in a game against UCLA in 1940. Casanega said Robinson was “the only guy I couldn’t catch.”
With the first pick in the third round of the 1942 NFL draft, the Steelers selected Casanega. With World War II in full swing, Casanega turned down the offer and joined the Navy.
Following flight training, Casanega served on aircraft carriers in the Atlantic and Pacific. He flew missions over the Philippines and around Japan. During one flight, after his wing was shot, he narrowly avoided ejecting and landed on a different nearby carrier. During his service, he received a Distinguished Flying Cross for one of his missions. He honorably discharged from the Navy in 1945.
Following discharge, Casanega returned to football. He became one of the original San Francisco 49ers, playing in the team’s inaugural 1946 season following his wartime service. Playing in the All America Football Conference, Casanega intercepted eight passes and scored two touchdowns as a two-way player. His team finished 9-5, second to the Cleveland Browns. He also played one game in 1948.
Santa Clara inducted Casanega into its Hall of Fame in 1965. He later became Napa High School principal and school superintendent for Hollister School District, both in California. He also served as honorary team captain twice for the 49ers, calling the coin toss at alumni games.
Casanega now lives in Medford, Oregon. He’s been married to his wife, Helen, for 77 years. She’s the younger of the two, recently turning 99 years old.
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