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Homegrown Heroes: The Original 49ers

Most expansion teams in the NFL include many local names to their rosters in order to attract local attention. The San Francisco 49ers did that very thing in 1946. Led by homegrown owners Tony and Vic Morabito and coach Buck Shaw (a legend at nearby Santa Clara University), the 49ers signed a large number of local high school and college stars who they hoped could attract attention. Who were these players? While not all had the same impact in the Bay Area as others, they all had one thing in common: they were an original

49er. These are their stories.

Frankie Albert:

Frankie Albert was born in Chicago, Illinois on January 27, 1920 but moved to Glendale, California when he was young. He starred at Stanford University where he became the first T-formation in college football history. He led Stanford to an undefeated record in 1940 and a second place national ranking after defeating Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.

After graduation, Albert served in the Navy during World War II and during his service he was drafted in the 1942 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. However, plans changed and after playing with the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League in 1945, he was signed by the San Francisco 49ers of the brand new AAFC.

Over the next seven years, Frankie Albert started most of the games and had a completion percentage better than 50% in every year but one. His best years were 1948 and 1949 when he led the AAFC with 29 and 27 touchdowns. When the 49ers merged with the NFL in 1950, Albert was invited to his first and only Pro Bowl after tossing 14 touchdowns and gaining 1,767 yards through the air.

After his retirement following the 1953 season with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, Albert went straight into coaching and scouting for the 49ers. He worked his way up to head coach in 1956 where he coached his former backup, Y.A. Tittle. Frankie Albert was much more conservative as a coach than he was as a player but he still led the team to the playoffs in 1957 where they blew a 20 point half time lead to the Detroit Lions. He left the organization after the 1958 season with a 19-16-1 coaching record. With football behind him, Frankie Albert dove into the real estate market where he worked for his remaining working days. He passed away from Alzheimer’s disease on September 4, 2002.

Bruno Banducci:

Bruno Banducci was born on November 11, 1921 in Tassignano, Italy, later immigrating to Richmond, California when he was young. After graduating from Richmond High School, he attended Stanford University, playing with Frankie Albert. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round of the 1943 NFL Draft and began playing for the franchise in 1944.

After two years in Philadelphia, Banducci was cut and returned home where the 49ers were beginning to get organized. He played as a guard and as a tackle for San Francisco from 1946 to 1954, earning five selections as a first-team All-Pro and his lone Pro Bowl invitation in 1954. After retiring from the NFL, he taught math at Marin Catholic High School and Sonoma High School. Bruno Banducci passed away on September 15, 1985.

Dick Bassi:

Dick Bassi was born on January 1, 1915 in San Louis Obispo, California. After playing on the offensive line at Santa Clara University, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Bears in 1937. He bounced around the NFL for a while from Chicago (1938-1939) to Philadelphia (1940) to Pittsburgh (1941). After his brief foray as a Steeler, Bassi was out of football until 1946 when the 49ers began. After playing two years in San Francisco, Dick Bassi retired. He passed away on August 12, 1973.

Alyn Beals:

Alyn Beals was born on April 27, 1921 in Marysville, California. After starring as an end at Santa Clara University, he was drafted and cut by the Chicago Bears in 1943. He signed with the 49ers in 1946 and immediately made an impact. He led the AAFC in touchdowns caught all four years of its existence. He was first-team All-AAFC in 1946, 1948 and 1949 and set an AAFC record with 278 points. He retired following the 1951 season with 211 receptions, 2,951 yards and 49 touchdowns. Alyn Beals passed away on August 11, 1993.

Ken Casanega:

Ken Casanega was born on February 18, 1921 in Alameda County, California. After starring as a halfback at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Casanega went to Santa Clara University from 1938 to 1942. He turned down an offer from the Steelers after his days as a Bronco ended but he turned it down to serve America as a U.S. Naval aviator during World War II. He served as a flier aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Theater and took part in raids over the Philippines and Japan.

After the war, Casanega signed with the 49ers where he rushed for 90 yards and one touchdown in five games as a rookie while adding five receptions, 102 yards and another touchdown. He was even better on defense as a rookie, recording eight interceptions for 146 yards. After that tremendous rookie campaign, Casanega’s career was virtually over as he only appeared in one more game in 1948 before calling it a career. After his football career ended, Ken Casanega worked as a coach, administrator and principal for 15 years at Napa High School before becoming the superintendent in the Hollister School District. He retired in 1981 and is still alive, having turned 100 in February of 2021.

Gerry Conlee:

Gerald Russell “Gerry” Conlee was born on August 22, 1914 in Porterville, California. After graduating from Chico High School, Conlee attended St. Mary’s College where he played center on its football team. After his college career ended, Conlee bounced around professional football sporadically over the years. He played for the Cleveland Rams in 1938 and the Detroit Lions in 1943 before signing with the San Francisco 49ers in 1946. He stayed in San Francisco for two years before retiring, having started in seven games over his professional career. Gerry Conlee died on July 15, 2005.

Eddie Forrest:

Edwin George “Eddie” Forrest was born on June 12, 1921 in San Francisco. After graduating from Saint Ignatius High School, Forrest attended Santa Clara University where he played guard on offense and linebacker on defense, later being inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame. He served in the Army during World War II where he was a paratrooper in Europe. After the war, he signed with the 49ers where he played for two years. He retired before the 1948 season having suffered a knee injury. He briefly served as an assistant coach at SCU but left that job after four years. He mortgage broker in San Francisco and stayed in that profession until the 1990’s when he retired. Eddie Forrest died on May 29, 2001.

Pete Franceschi:

Pete Franceschi was born on September 28, 1919 in San Francisco. After graduating from Mission High School, he attended the University of San Francisco where he played running back and defensive back on their football team. He played well enough to be inducted into USF’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1978. He fought in World War II after playing for the Dons. After the war, he signed with the 49ers where he rushed eight times for 35 yards and one touchdown in the franchise’s inaugural season. He was cut after that year and after playing for the San Francisco Clippers football team in 1947, his football career came to an end. He died on July 22 1989 in his hometown.

Jesse Freitas:

Jesse Freitas was born on February 7, 1921 in Red Bluff, California. After playing quarterback for Santa Clara University he signed with the 49ers. Playing behind Frankie Albert, Freitas didn’t do much for the 49ers but did find minimal success with the Chicago Rockets and the Buffalo Bills in 1948 and 1949, respectively. He finished his playing career with 21 touchdowns, 27 interceptions and 1,884 yards.

His greatest success was as the head coach at Serra High School in San Mateo, California. He won multiple league championships and coached a number of fine football players, including both of his sons and Lynn Swann, a future Hall of Fame wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Freitas retired from coaching following the 1974 season and passed away on May 17, 2020.

Visco Grgich:

Visco Grgich was born on January 19, 1923 in Croatia. His family immigrated to America when he was young and he graduated from West High School in Seattle, Washington. Grgich attended Santa Clara University where he starred on their offensive and defensive lines. Originally drafted by the Bears in 1946, Grgich opted to sign with the 49ers instead. In four years, Grgich made three AAFC All-Pro teams and when the 49ers merged with the NFL, he made a Pro Bowl there too.

He is known as being the first Yugoslav to play in the NFL. The 49ers admired his fiery pregame pep talks and even brought him back after his retirement in 1952 on a number of occasions to fire up the team for an important game. After his playing career ended, Grgich briefly became a car salesman before deciding to pursue a coaching career. He was the head coach at Oakdale High School in 1957 and 1958 and was later offensive line coach at the same school for a number of years. He also taught drivers education at Oakdale until his retirement in 1986. He was so loved at Oakdale High School that in the winter of 1982, his students raised money for him to attend the Super Bowl in Detroit, Michigan where his beloved 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals. He passed away on December 26, 2005.

Hank Norberg:

Hank Norberg was born on December 22, 1920 in Oakland, California. After graduating from Palo Alto High School, he attended Stanford where he played as an end on their football team. Though the Bears drafted him in 1943, he opted to serve his country in World War II. After returning home from the war, he signed with the 49ers where he played for two years. He was cut after the 1947 season and spent the 1948 season with the Bears. He retired following that season and passed away on December 4, 1974.

Norm Standlee:

Norm Standlee was born on July 19, 1919 in Downey, California. After graduating from Woodrow Wilson Classic, he attended Stanford where he starred as a running back and linebacker on their football team. Years later, he was inducted into Stanford’s Athletic Hall of Fame. He was drafted by the Bears in 1941 and made his first Pro Bowl that year after rushing for 414 yards and five touchdowns.

Standlee joined the military in World War II after his rookie year and when he returned from the war he signed with the 49ers. He rushed for 651 yards and two touchdowns in 1946 and 585 yards and eight touchdowns in 1947. His numbers dwindled over the years but he still managed to score seven total touchdowns in the remaining two years of the AAFC. He switched to linebacker in 1950, the 49er’s first year in the NFL and made his second Pro Bowl. He retired after the 1952 season and passed away on January 4, 1981.

Rupe Thornton:

Rupe Thornton was born on November 4, 1918 in Denver, Colorado. He moved to Portland, Oregon when he was young and graduated from Franklin High School. Thornton then attended Santa Clara University where he played along the offensive and defensive lines. Though he was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in 1942, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps to fight in World War II. Upon his return from the war, Thornton signed with the 49ers where he played for two years. He retired after the 1947 season and passed away on July 17, 1993.

Bob Titchenal:

Bob Titchenal was born on October 17, 1917 in Ventura, California. After graduating from Herbert Hoover High School, he attended San Jose State University where he played as a center on the football team. In his senior year, the Spartans went undefeated. Washington signed him in 1940 and by 1942, he was an NFL champion after defeating the Bears in the NFL Championship Game.

He joined the Navy after that game and was a starting left end for the Lakehurst Naval Air Station football team in 1943. In addition to football, he also served as a swimming instructor for recruits. Upon his return from service, Titchenal signed with the 49ers where he played as an end for a year. After playing with the Los Angeles Dons in 1947, he retired as a player. Titchenal was not quite through with football and immediately became the line coach for West Virginia, thus beginning a long coaching career. By 1953, he was the head coach at New Mexico and by 1957 he was the head coach at his alma mater, San Jose State. He remained in that position with the Spartans until 1964, compiling a 33-46-1 record. Bob Titchenal died on July 5, 2009.

Ed Balatti:

Ed Balatti was born on April 8, 1924 in Los Banos, California. Though he attended Oakland Tech High School, he never went to college. He played the 1942 season with the San Francisco Packers of the Pacific Coast Football League and then enlisted in the United State Coast Guard to fight in World War II. Upon his return, Balatti played for the San Francisco Clippers of the PCFL before going to the 49ers.

Playing as a tight end and cornerback for San Francisco, Balatti made an immediate impact, returning an interception 22 yards for a touchdown and catching four passes for 15 yards as a rookie. The following year, he caught eight passes for 98 yards and one touchdown. He played for three teams in 1948 but didn’t do anything for any of those organizations. He retired following that year and became a used-car dealer. Ed Balatti passed away on August 27, 1990.

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