"First of all, you want to know what they're going to write about and where they're going to start. And he was starting way back. I probably found out a hell of a lot about my early years having to go back because he (Zimmerman) did go back and research (my career) in Chicago. Thank God that Ruthie (his wife) is a saver and she saved a lot of newspaper clippings over the years. My mother was a great saver so we had to go down to her basement and go through a lot of scrapbooks and check up and see what I did. Most of all, it was really enjoyable to go back and reminisce about some of the old comrades and teammates that have passed away and it brought back a lot of old memories."
On a tradition-rich franchise that boasts legendary names like Lambeau and Hutson, Hinkle, Blood, and Herber, Lombardi, Starr, and Nitschke, it might be easy to overlook Number 3, a two-way player from 1941-44 and 1946-52, who excelled in every phase of the game. Offense and defense. Running. Passing. Returning punts and kickoffs. Punting. Intercepting passes.
How great a player was the man they called the ‘Gray Ghost of Gonzaga'? Many argue that Canadeo was the most versatile player in the team's history. Consider that Canadeo:
– Became only the third rusher in pro football history to gain 1,000 yards in a season in 1949 with 1,052 (12 game season)
– Led Packers in rushing five seasons: 1943, ‘46' ‘47' '48 and ‘49
– Ranks as the number three rusher in Packer history with 4,197 total rushing yards
– All-Pro 1943, '47 and ‘49
– Inducted into Packer Hall of Fame, 1973
– Inducted into Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, 1973
– Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1974
– One of only 4 Packer players to have his number retired (along with Hutson, Starr and Nitschke)
- Member, Packer Board of Directors, 1955-1993
– Member, Packer Executive Committee, 1958-1993
– Holds Packer collective service record of 50 years
"Tony was my hero as a teenager in 1949, '50, '51 and ‘52," said Zimmerman. "When I graduated from high school (1952) it was Tony's last year with the Packers. The years go by and then last year, I bought an autographed sketch of Tony from an art gallery and I took it home. That night, about 4 o'clock in the morning, I woke up with this knowledge that I was going to write a book about Tony. The first thing I did was go on the Internet to see if anyone had written such a book and nobody had, which surprised me."
Zimmerman spent a number of weeks in Green Bay piecing Canadeo's story together, talking hours with Tony, interviewing dozens of his former teammates, numerous associates, friends and family. Like a painter's brush splashing colorful images on each page, Zimmerman's pen spins the tale of a much simpler time in professional football. It was an era of hard-nosed, fundamentally sound, dedicated yet underpaid men who played for the love of the game. No huge contracts or endorsements. No raucous television fanfare. No TV, period.
In Search of A Hero spans Canadeo's entire life up to the present. However, most of the book covers his football career starting with his days as a star running back at Chicago's Steinmetz High School, at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington and through his years with the Packers. Beyond football, the book conveys a flood of images that, in the author's mind, make Canadeo a real hero. Strong family values. Honesty. Dedication. Loving husband and father. Loyal friend.
Canadeo was born in Chicago in May 1919, one of five children born to Anthony and Katie Canadeo. He grew up in the area of Grand and Western Avenue, known by the thousands of Italians who lived there as "the old neighborhood."
Influenced by Nagurski
Like many of his friends, ‘Little Tone' grew up dreaming of playing one day for the Chicago Bears. "You know, you go with your hometown team," explained Canadeo. "The first team I ever watched play was the Chicago Bears and I think I saw them playing the Chicago Cardinals. They had two professional football teams in Chicago at that time and you always wanted to be one of them." His favorite player with the Bears was a burly, bruising fullback named Bronco Nagurski. Bronco was 6 feet 2 inches of unbridled fury.
"He would average nearly five yards every time he carried the ball for the Bears for his entire career," Zimmerman writes. "When Tony and his buddies would go to a Bears game at Wrigley Field on a Sunday afternoon, the first thing they would look for was the big orange number three on the blue jersey." It was Canadeo who would also make the number three famous in later years.
One of Canadeo's biggest thrills occurred on his first high school touchdown. Tony's father, who saw most of his games, had come directly to the game from work, still wearing his streetcar motorman uniform and hat. Canadeo recalls the big play. "I had intercepted a pass and was running down the sidelines for a touchdown. As I started in the run, out of the corner of my e ye I saw a shadow on my side and it was my dad in his streetcar uniform running down the side, keeping pace with me. He beat me to the goal line and was there to hug me when I went over."
In 1937, Canadeo traveled north to Green Bay looking for summer work. At the encouragement of a DePere high school coach, Ivan "Tiny" Cahoon, he decided to attend college at Gonzaga University, an all-male, Jesuit college in Spokane. It was at Gonzaga that Canadeo got the nickname ‘Gray Ghost', partly because of his premature gray hair and also because of what sportswriters called a "ghostly gallop. He was hard to tackle and had a ghost-like appearance to the visiting team because they couldn't get their arms around him."
After a fine college career, Canadeo looked forward to the 1941 NFL draft. But he had no idea he'd end up in Green Bay. "I thought I was going to be drafted with the Redskins," Canadeo recalled. "They had a lot of Redskins people and the Redskins trained out in Spokane."
In fact, the Redskins wanted Canadeo but they figured that he was sufficiently obscure to most of the country and they could sign him as a free agent after the draft. What they weren't counting on was Canadeo's older brother, Savior, a welterweight boxer in Green Bay, tipping off Curly Lambeau about Tony. The Packers selected Canadeo in the seventh round and he signed a standard contract that called for $175 a game (roughly $3,000.00 per year).
"Green Bay was easy to get acquainted with because my brother had gone to St. Norbert's and there were a lot of people that we knew from our visits up here," said Canadeo. "I was happy to be in Green Bay because it was a friendly area."
And Green Bay was more than happy to have Canadeo. When he joined the team in 1941, they were one of the best teams in the league as the Packers and Bears dominated the 1920s, '30s and early '40s. But when Hutson retired in 1945, the Packers fell on very hard times. For all practical purposes, Canadeo was the Packers. Altogether, he amassed 8,626 yards on 1,488 multi-categorized attempts with the football, almost 75 yards in each of his 116 NFL games. In his first three seasons, Canadeo served as an understudy to the great Packer passer Cecil Isbell.
But his career was interrupted in his fourth season by a call to serve in World War II in 1944. He would miss much of the '44 season and all of '45 before returning home. By then, Hutson was gone and the team was in a sh ambles.
Active with Packers after football
Canadeo found himself, at varying stages of his career, working with the two biggest administrative forces in the history of the Packer franchise: he played for Lambeau and, as a member of the Packer executive committee, worked closely with Lombardi. "They were leaders and you knew who was in charge," Canadeo said. "In pro football, you have to have people in charge and you have to know they're in charge. Curly was boss man. I'll tell you one thing, you didn't second-guess him. He was a motivator and he was a student of football."
"I was on the executive board when Vince came here," said Canadeo. "We became friends and Vince was just an all business-type person. He was a great student of football and he ran the roost. He came around when Green Bay needed him."
The fact that both Canadeo and Lombardi were both Italian and had Jesuit schooling didn't hurt, either. "We glamorized it," laughed Canadeo. "He was a great, great coach and I'm glad that I had a chance to become a friend of his and work with him and know him."
Packer fans who were around during the Lombardi era probably remember Canadeo in yet another capacity – television color man alongside the legendary voice of the Packers, Ray Scott. Scott had been doing the Packer games since 1956 with former Chicago Bears' players Johnny Luljack and George Connor each spending a year handling the color duties. The book recounts the story of how Lombardi did not want former Bears doing television color for his Packers' games and asked Canadeo to try it.
"They were looking for a color guy to do the games," said Canadeo. "I was in Vince's office and as we were talking, he said, ‘Why the hell don't you do it?' I said, ‘Well, I don't know – it's weekends and all that,' but before you knew it, I was going to CBS in New York interviewing and ended up with the job. Thank God I fell in with Ray Scott because he was like a teacher, let alone one of the best announcers I've ever known in my whole life. He knew the game and he knew timing in broadcasting. He was a great one."
Count Zimmerman among those who feel Canadeo doesn't get the kind of recognition he truly deserves from football fans. "No, not at all," said Zimmerman. "We've got a Nitschke Field, the Hutson Center, Holmgren Way and streets named after different players. I think Tony is the most under-appreciated former Packer Hall of Famer around."
Settling back in his seat, Canadeo is asked how he would like Packer fans to remember him. With a soft smile, he replied, "I'd like them to remember me as a good citizen of the city of Green Bay and Wisconsin. I met a Green Bay girl here. We made our home here and our five children were raised here and still live here. I am glad that I was drafted by the Packers because it's not only playing with a great team but we found a great place to live."
(In Search of A Hero: Life and Times of Tony Canadeo by David Zimmerman is available through Eagle Books by calling (414) 425-2370, ext. 114.)