"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.
November 30, 1946
Ken Casanega, the oldest living 49ers player, picked off a pass in the club's inaugural season that led to one of the longest interception returns for a touchdown in club history. Except a teammate got credit for the score.
Casanega, at 100 years old, is the last remaining member of San Francisco's original 1946 team. In the 49ers 14-0 win over the Chicago Rockets at Kezar Stadium in 1946, Casanega, a two-way player, was at defensive back.
Late in the second quarter, Chicago Rockets QB Bob "Hunchy" Hoernschemeyer tested Casanega, on third-and-long, according to a San Francisco Examiner report. The pass was high but Casanega went into the air to intercept it at the 49ers 10 yard line. After sidestepping a tackler, Casanega picked up some key blocks and raced 70 yards down the sideline. As he neared Chicago's 20 yard line, a pair of Rockets hemmed in Casanega. He then lateralled to 49ers DE Ed Balatti who raced untouched to the end zone completing the 90-yard interception return.
In the official All-America Football Conference record book, Casanega is credited with an interception, but Balatti is listed as the man who scored the touchdown. The 90-yard return stood as a 49ers record for 20 years. DB Alvin Randolph topped it by sprinting 94 yards with an interception against the Chicago Bears in 1964.
Casanega also had a hand in the 49ers first score that day. After FB Norm Standlee broke off a long run from scrimmage, QB Frankie Albert connected with HB Casanega on a 20-yard pass to the seven yard line. On the next play, RB Johnny Strzykalski slipped through the right side of the 49ers line behind G Bruno Banducci to score.
Still, defense and interceptions were Casanega's forte. He intercepted eight passes in 1946, second most in the AAFC. The 49ers were lucky to have him for that one season; his heart was set on a career in education.
The Santa Clara University graduate joined the 49ers after serving as a U.S. Naval aviator during World War II. Peer pressure got him to sign the contract.
"After the war, I had no intention of playing pro football, but then Tony (Morabito) called me and said he was starting a team," Casanega said.
Team owner Tony Morabito, a fellow alumnus of Santa Clara, and 49ers skipper Buck Shaw, a former Santa Clara head coach, appealed to Casanega's collegiate roots and persuaded him to join the 49ers.
After his football career ended, Casanega finally pursued his teaching career. He earned a Ph.D. from UCBerkeley and eventually became the superintendent of the San Benito High School District in Hollister, California.