Rock ‘n’ Roll had Elvis. Pro basketball, LeBron.
In the National Football League, Hugh McElhenny was “The King” in the 1950s.
The professional football world today mourns the death and remembers the life of McElhenny, a member of the San Francisco 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield” who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his class in 1970.
McElhenny, who was nicknamed “The King” by a teammate who recognized his special abilities just four weeks after turning pro, died of natural causes at his home in Nevada on Friday, June 17. He was 93.
McElhenny played in the National Football League for 13 years, playing with the San Francisco 49ers from 1952 to 1960, the Minnesota Vikings from 1961 to 1962 and the Detroit Lions in 1964.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) June 23, 2022
“Hugh McElhenny was a threat offensively in all phases of the game – as a rush, a pass receiver and a kick-and-punt returner,” said Jim Porter, president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “His all-round talent — evident to pro football scouts when Hugh was just a teenager — will be celebrated and forever cherished in Canton.”
McElhenny was born on New Year’s Eve 1928 and grew up in Los Angeles. He became an athletics phenomenon at George Washington High School, where he won state championships in the high hurdles (which set a national record), low hurdles and the long jump. By fall, McElhenny was playing football and was so talented that the San Francisco 49ers pursued him with a contract right out of school.
He turned down the offer to go to college. He spent a year at Compton Junior College and led 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 was twice named to the All-Pacific Coast Conference team and was a 1951 First Team All-American. Nearly seven decades later, his name can still be found on various all-time leaderboards for Huskies running backs.
McElhenny’s college successes made him a first-round pick in the 1952 NFL draft — and the 49ers eventually signed her man. He jumped out of the gates and showed off his arsenal of electrifying moves. In his debut season in the NFL, he recorded longest run from scrimmage (89 yards), longest punt return (94 yards), most all-purpose yards (1,731), and most yards per carry (7.0). When he first touched the ball, he scored on a 40-yard run; According to a source, the play had been dragged into the dirt because McElhenny hadn’t learned the full playbook.
The result of that 1952 season: unanimous vote for Rookie of the Year, All-Pro status, and a spot on the Pro Bowl team.
During 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 in each of those years. He played nine seasons with the 49ers and appeared in five Pro Bowls.
With him in the legendary “Million Dollar Backfield” of the mid-1950s were YA Tittle as quarterback and Joe “The Jet” Perry and John Henry Johnson as running backs. They are the only four-man backfield enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Injuries did what opponents couldn’t: thwart McElhenny in 1959 and 1960. After two underperforming years, he was not protected in the 1961 expansion draft, and the Minnesota Vikings grabbed him.
In his freshman year with the Vikings, he returned to his pre-injury form and rushed for 1,069 combined yards to make his sixth Pro Bowl appearance. His stint in Minnesota was brief, but a move to New York in 1963 gave McElhenny the chance to pursue a dream: an 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 end 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.
By the time he retired, McElhenny, a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team in the 1950s, had amassed 11,375 all-purpose yards — then the third-most in NFL history — along with 60 touchdowns, an MVP honor the 1958 Pro Bowl and of course the nickname “The King” as a feared offensive threat that combines speed, dodge and power.
After football, McElhenny spent six years as a color commentator on 49ers radio shows. He also joined the Seattle Sea Lions group who struggled 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 how the game has changed over the decades, from bigger players to higher salaries. He’s made far more money signing memorabilia than he did as a player, he said, but he’s never regretted his place in NFL history or its timing, saying he was in the “greatest era” of the game played.
“We were in the glory years of the 1950s,” he said in a 1999 interview with a Las Vegas newspaper reporter. “Football has really picked up speed in this decade. Those were the fun years.”
He confidently said he could total 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a season on a modern West Coast offense.
“I was a gifted athlete. Things came easy to me. … If I played today, I think I’d be #1 in the draft. I just don’t know if I would be a wide receiver or a running back.”
He did not regret having spent his last few decades in relative anonymity.
“Life has been very good to me,” he said. “Football has been very good to me. I had a lot of fun playing soccer. We played the game for the fun of the game.”
At McElhenny’s inauguration, his presenter, longtime 49ers manager Lou Spadia, said of The King’s legacy: “The statistics were hollow because there are no statistics that can describe the beauty and the artistry of Hugh McElhenny’s running. He was just the greatest runner of all time, but the great thing about you is that he took that gift from God, nurtured it, cherished it and brought it to his audience.”
That legacy will live on forever in Canton, Ohio in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.