Canadeo, Anthony Robert (“Tony”)
Canadeo, Anthony Robert (“Tony”)
(b. 5 May 1919 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 29 November 2003 in Green Bay, Wisconsin), halfback for the Gonzaga University Bulldogs and the Green Bay Packers who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
Canadeo was the son of Anthony Canadeo, a street car motorman for the Chicago Surface Line, and Katherine (Marinello) Canadeo, a homemaker. He had three brothers and one sister. Canadeo grew up with thousands of other Italian Americans near the intersection of Grand and Western avenues in what was referred to as “the old neighborhood” of Chicago. In 1925 the family accumulated enough money to build a home on the western edge of Chicago. Like many urban kids, Canadeo grew up playing street games. When Canadeo was a freshman at Foreman High School, his older brother Savior (“Savy”) Canadeo talked him into going out for scholastic football. The next year Canadeo enrolled at the newly opened Steinmetz High School. Although he was not a featured ball carrier, Canadeo was a versatile and valued member of the team. Surprisingly for a young school, the Steinmetz team ended up in a playoff game against the much larger Schurz High School squad. Had it won this game, the Steinmetz team would have had the opportunity to play in Soldier Field for the overall city championship against the Catholic League champions. The games regularly drew 100,000 fans.
After a solid, if unspectacular, scholastic career and as graduation was approaching in the spring of 1937, Tony began to think about college, perhaps more to continue his athletic career than to further his education. Savy Canadeo was already a sophomore at Saint Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and was making a name for himself as a 147-pound welterweight collegiate boxer.
In the summer of 1937 Canadeo was working in Green Bay at a job Savy helped him get and had no definite plans for college. He met Tiny Cahoon, who had played for the Packers and was a high school coach. Cahoon’s college teammate Mike Pecarovich was the head coach at Gonzaga University, a small (1,000 enrollment) Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington. Canadeo and five of his Chicago buddies purchased a 1927 Packard touring car for the nearly 2,000-mile trip. Said Canadeo, “It took us a week and six flat tires to get there.” At Gonzaga, Canadeo quickly adapted to the strict discipline and academic rigors of the Jesuit fathers.
Canadeo performed well on the gridiron. He was the Bulldogs’ main ball carrier, passed quite a bit, and was the squad’s leading kicker. At five feet, ten inches tall and weighting 175 pounds, Canadeo was faster than he had been at Steinmetz. The highlight of his freshman season was returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
During the first week of practice before his sophomore season, Canadeo secured the starting left halfback position. In the first game, a 38–0 victory over University of Puget Sound, Canadeo broke away for four touchdowns. Gonzaga, however, finished the season with a 1–6–1 record, but the scores had been close in five of the six losses. Canadeo gained fame with kickoff returns of 102 yards and 105 yards. By his sophomore season, Canadeo’s hair was turning gray. This and his “spooky” running style led to the sobriquet “Gray Ghost of Gonzaga.” Canadeo gained his first collegiate laurels, being selected by Liberty magazine to the All-Pacific Coast Conference first team.
Canadeo blossomed as a junior, leading the Gonzaga team to a 6–2 record. The highlight was a 12–7 victory over the Rose Bowl–bound University of Oregon. Canadeo completed seven of twelve passes and ran for 151 yards in the upset. He again made the All-Pacific Coast first team and was named to the Associated Press Little All-America first team. In 1940, during his senior season, Canadeo was again the Bulldogs’ brightest star. He led the team in rushing, passing, and kicking and played stalwart defense. Canadeo was compared favorably to the University of Michigan’s Tom Harmon, who won the Heisman Trophy that year. Canadeo again was named to the All-Coast and Little All-America first teams.
When the National Football League (NFL) held its draft meeting for the 1941 season, Green Bay chose Canadeo in the ninth round. When Canadeo joined the Packers, the team was among the NFL’s elite, having finished first or second in the Western Division every year since 1934. The team would continue the run through 1944, when the Packers won another NFL title. In 1943 Canadeo met Ruth Toonen at the Packer Playdium, a popular bowling alley and lounge owned by the former Packers player Don Hutson. The couple was married on 11 October 1943 by Ruth’s brother Harvey Toonen, a newly ordained priest. The couple had five children.
During World War II Canadeo served with an army antiaircraft unit, missing the 1945 football season. Before the war Canadeo was a versatile back, rather than the featured back. He contributed in rushing, passing, receiving, punt returns, kickoff returns, punting, and interceptions throughout his eleven-year career.
When Canadeo returned for the 1946 season, the Packers were in decline but were winning a few more games than they lost. By 1948 the team was in free fall, and a 6–6 record in 1952, Canadeo’s final season, was as close as the team came to a winning record during the remainder of his career. The workhorse halfback, however, weighing 195 pounds in the latter part of his career, came into his own. He was almost a one-man offense for the Packers. In 1949 Canadeo rushed 1,052 yards, becoming only the third player in NFL history to gain 1,000 or more rushing yards in a season. Steve Van Buren of the Philadelphia Eagles, however, won the league’s rushing title with 1,146 yards. Years later Canadeo asked philosophically, “I was on a 2–10 team in Green Bay. Steve was in Philly on a championship team. Who do you think got the ‘ink’?” Canadeo retired with the following career statistics: 4,197 yards rushing, 1,642 yards passing, 579 yards receiving, 513 yards on punt returns, 1,736 yards on kickoff returns, nine interceptions, a punting average of 37.1 yards, and a special place in the hearts of Packer backers.
Canadeo and his family remained in Green Bay, where he broadcast Packers games for WBAY-TV. When Canadeo needed a kidney transplant in 1972, his son Robert, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, donated the organ. At the age of eighty-four Canadeo lost consciousness at home and died at Saint Mary’s Hospital, Green Bay. He is buried in Allouez Catholic Cemetery in Green Bay, his adopted hometown. One who gave back to the community, Canadeo is remembered as an outstanding player and a better human being.
A biography is David Zimmerman, In Search of a Hero, the Life and Times of Tony Canadeo (2001). Canadeo’s life and career are discussed in Chuck Johnson, The Greatest Packers of Them All (1968), and Donald R. Smith, NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Time Greats (1988).