Before he was an actor, a poet and a painter, Bernie Casey was a professional football player.
Casey died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 78.
The 49ers selected Casey in the first round of the 1961 NFL draft with the No. 9 overall selection out of Bowling Green. He was a college teammate of Jack Harbaugh, father of Jim and John Harbaugh.
Casey led the 49ers in receiving in 1962, ’63 and ’64. He appeared in 79 games in six seasons with the 49ers before a trade sent him to the Los Angeles Rams, where he finished his career. In his eight-year NFL career, Casey caught 359 passes for 5,444 yards and 40 touchdowns.
But Casey had other interests outside of football. He was the subject of a 1999 NFL Films profile, telling Steve Sabol he never loved football.
“You don’t have to love it, just be proficient at it,” Casey said. “People do things all the time that they don’t love, and they’re good at it. It’s a steppingstone to get from one place to another. It allows you to facility to pursue much bigger, more important visions.”
Casey left his career as an athlete – he also finished sixth in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1960 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials – to establish careers in the arts.
He made his acting debut in 1969 in Guns of the Magnificent Seven. He returned to football but only for a role in the TV movie Brian’s Song. He has 78 acting roles to his credit, including Revenge of the Nerds, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the TV mini-series Roots: The Next Generation.
Casey spent more than 20 years as chair of the board of trustees at the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. Casey was also a prominent artist. During 2003 exhibit of Casey’s work at the Thelma Harris Art Gallery in Oakland, Dr. Maya Angelou described what she liked about Casey’s work.
“I cannot see what Bernie Casey sees,” Angelou said. “Casey has the heart and the art to put his insight on canvas, and I am heartened by his action. For then I can comprehend his vision and even some of my own. His art makes my road less rock and my path less crooked.”