Rock ‘n’ roll had Elvis. Pro basketball, LeBron.
In the National Football League in the 1950s, Hugh McElhenny was “The King.”
The pro football world today is mourning the death and recalling the life of McElhenny, a member of the San Francisco 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield” who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its Class of 1970.
McElhenny, nicknamed “The King” only four weeks into his pro career by a teammate who recognized his special skills, died Friday, June 17, of natural causes at his home in Nevada. He was 93.
McElhenny played in the National Football League for 13 years – 1952-1960 San Francisco 49ers, 1961-62 Minnesota Vikings and 1964 Detroit Lions.
– Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) June 23, 2022
“Hugh McElhenny was a threat in all phases of the game offensively – rushing, receiving pass and as a kick and pound returner,” said Jim Porter, president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “His all-around talent – obvious to pro football scouts when Hugh was still a teenager – will be celebrated and preserved forever in Canton.”
Born on New Year’s Eve in 1928 and raised in Los Angeles, McElhenny became a phenom in track at George Washington High School, where he won state championships in high hurdles (setting a national record), low hurdles and the long jump. In the fall, McElhenny played football and was so talented the San Francisco 49ers pursued him with a contract right out of school.
He turned down that offer to attend college. He spent a year at Compton Junior College, taking the team to an undefeated season and the Junior Rose Bowl title, before enrolling at the University of Washington. While playing for the Huskies, he twice was named to the All-Pacific Coast Conference team and was a first All-American team in 1951. Nearly seven decades later, his name can still be found on various all-time leaderboards for Huskies running backs .
McElhenny’s collegiate accomplishments set him up to be a first-round choice in the 1952 NFL Draft – and the 49ers finally signed their man. He jumped out of the gates, showing his arsenal of electrifying moves. He recorded the longest run from scrimmage (89 yards), the longest punt return (94 yards), most all-purpose yards (1,731) and most yards per carry (7.0) in the NFL his debut season. The first time he touched the ball, he scored on a 40-yard run; according to one source, the play had been drawn in the dirt because McElhenny hadn’t learned the full playbook.
The outcome of that 1952 season: unanimous election as Rookie of the Year, All-Pro status and a spot on the Pro Bowl team.
Throughout the 1958 season, McElhenny saw consistent action for the 49ers. He had three consecutive years (1956-58) with at least 100 carries and made the Pro Bowl each of those years. With the 49ers, he played nine seasons and appeared in five Pro Bowls.
With him in the legendary “Million Dollar Backfield” of the mid-1950s were YA Tittle at quarterback and Joe “The Jet” Perry and John Henry Johnson at running back. They are the only four-member backfield to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Injuries did what opponents couldn’t do: slow down McElhenny in 1959 and 1960. After two subpar years, he was not protected in the 1961 expansion draft, and the Minnesota Vikings grabbed him.
His first year with the Vikings, he returned to pre-injury form, recording 1,069 combined yards to make his sixth Pro Bowl appearance. His stint in Minnesota was short, but a move to New York in 1963 gave McElhenny a chance to live out a dream: the opportunity to play in a championship game. He rushed seven times and caught two passes for the Giants in a 14-10 loss to the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field.
McElhenny would finish his career in Detroit, playing eight games of the 1964 season with the Lions. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
When he retired, McElhenny, a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1950s, had accumulated 11,375 all-purpose yards – at the time the third highest in NFL history – along with 60 touchdowns, an MVP award from the 1958 Pro Bowl and, of course, the nickname “The King” as a feared offensive threat who combined speed, elusiveness and power.
After football, McElhenny served as a color commentator on 49ers radio broadcasts for six years. He also joined the Seattle Sea Lions group that was bidding to bring a franchise to that city in the 1970s, but another group brought the Seahawks to the city.
Later in life, McElhenny reflected on the ways the game changed over the decades, from bigger players to bigger salaries. He made far more money signing memorabilia than he did as a player, he said, but he never regretted his place in NFL history or its timing, saying he played in the game’s “greatest era.”
“We were in the glory years of the 1950s,” he said in a 1999 interview with a Las Vegas newspaper reporter. “That decade is when football really took off. Those were the fun years. ”
He confidently said he could total 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a season playing in a modern West Coast offense.
“I was a gifted athlete. Things came easy to me. … If I was playing today, I think I’d be a No. 1 draft choice. The only thing is I don’t know if I’d be a wide receiver or a running back. ”
He harbored no regrets that he lived his final decades in relative anonymity.
“Life was very good to me,” he said. “Football was very good to me. I had a lot of fun playing football. We played the game for the fun of the game.”
At McElhenny’s enshrinement, his presenter, longtime 49ers executive Lou Spadia, said of “The King’s” legacy: “The statistics were hollow, because there is no statistic that can describe the beauty and artistry of Hugh McElhenny running. He was simply the greatest runner of all time, but the magnificent thing about you is that he took this gift of God, nourished it, treasured it and carried it onto his public. ”
That legacy will live forever in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.