American Football Database
Hugh McElhenny
File:File:Hugh McElhenny at a collectors show in Jan 2014.jpg
McElhenny in January 2014
No. 39     
Personal information
Date of birth: (1928-12-31) December 31, 1928 (age 93)
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California
Career information
College: Washington
NFL Draft: 1952 / Round: 1 / Pick: 9
No regular season or postseason appearances
Career history
* San Francisco 49ers ( 1952 1960)
Career highlights and awards
* 6× Pro Bowl (1952, 1953, 19561958, 1961)
Rushing yards     5,281
Yards per carry     4.7
Rushing touchdowns     38
Receptions     264
Receiving yards     3,247
Receiving touchdowns     20
Stats at
Pro Football Hall of Fame
College Football Hall of Fame

Hugh Edward McElhenny Jr. (born December 31, 1928) is a former professional American football player who was a halfback in the National Football League (NFL) from 1952 to 1964 for the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions. He was noted for his explosive, elusive running style and was frequently called "The King" and "Hurryin' Hugh". A member of San Francisco's famed Million Dollar Backfield and one of the franchise's most popular players, McElhenny's number 39 jersey is retired by the 49ers and he is a member of the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame.

McElhenny first rose to stardom as a standout all-around player for Compton Junior College in 1948. He then transferred to the University of Washington, where he was a two-time All-Pacific Coast Conference fullback for the Washington Huskies football team and set several school and conference records. He was drafted by the 49ers with the ninth pick in the 1951 NFL Draft, and his versatility made him an immediate star in the league, earning him five first-team All-Pro honors in his first six seasons. With the 49ers, he was selected for five Pro Bowls, and he earned a sixth Pro Bowl appearance with the Vikings. He finished his career after short stints with the Giants and Lions.

An all-around player who was a threat as a runner and a receiver and also returned kickoffs and punts, McElhenny had amassed the third most all-purpose yards of any player in NFL history when he retired. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, "Hugh McElhenny was to pro football in the 1950s and early 1960s what Elvis Presley was to rock and roll,"[1] a reference to both his popularity and his nickname.

Early years and college

File:McElhenny 1952 Bowman.jpg

McElhenny depicted with Washington

Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Hugh McElhenny attended its George Washington High School,[2] where he set state high school records in the high and low hurdles and broad jump, and ran the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds.[3] He won both hurdles and the long jump at the 1947 CIF California State Meet.[4] After graduating, he attended Compton Junior College (now El Camino College Compton Center), where he was a standout on Compton's undefeated football team in 1948 that won the Junior Rose Bowl. That year, he had a 105-yard kickoff return touchdown in a game played at the University of Mexico.[5] Already being considered one of the best players in football, McElhenny drew high praise; Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon remarked he had "never seen such a combination of speed and size."[3] One of his Compton teammates was 1952 Olympic gold medalist Sim Iness.[5]

After a year at Compton, McElhenny attended the University of Washington in Seattle.[6] He starred as a fullback for the Washington Huskies football team, forming a prolific offensive duo with quarterback Don Heinrich in 1950.[7][8] He rushed for over 1,000 yards that season, and was the last Huskies player to eclipse that mark until 1977.[9] In a game against rival Washington State, he set school records with 296 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The 296 yards remains a school record as of 2016.[10]

One of McElhenny's celebrated plays at Husky Stadium was an uncommon 100-yard punt return against USC in 1951.[11][12][13] The following week, he successfully kicked nine out of nine extra points in a 63–6 blowout over Oregon.[14] He was a first-team All-Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) selection in both 1950 and 1951,[15][16] and was selected for the Associated Press (AP) 1951 All-America team as a fullback. Following his senior season he played in a regional college all-star game.[17] McElhenny led the team in rushing in each of his three seasons and set sixteen school records, including season (1,107) and career (2,499) rushing yards.[18][10]

Professional career

File:Hugh McElhenny 1955 Bowman.jpg

McElhenny depicted in 1955 with the 49ers

San Francisco 49ers

McElhenny was a first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1952 NFL Draft, ninth overall, and made an immediate impression as a rookie.[19] His first play as a professional was a 40-yard touchdown run which had been drawn in the dirt because he had not yet learned the team's playbook.[20] He recorded the season's longest run from scrimmage (89 yards), the longest punt return (94 yards), and the top rushing average (7.0 yards per carry). He was unanimously recognized as the season's top rookie.[21][22]

McElhenny was also an asset in the receiving game, becoming a favorite target of quarterback Y. A. Tittle on screen passes.[23] His versatility drew praise from opposing coaches, including George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Steve Owen of the New York Giants.[24] Former Bears quarterback Johnny Lujack lauded McElhenny as "the best running back I have seen in a long, long time."[19] Also noted was his vision; he had an uncanny ability of seeing and reacting to tacklers in his peripheral vision.[25] "If you ever watched McElhenny", explained Washington State coach Jim Sutherland, "you'd think he had eyes on the back of his head. I've seen him cut away from a tackler that 99 percent of the backs wouldn't even have seen. It wasn't instinct—he just saw the guy, out of the corner of his eye."[26] McElhenny described his playing style as such:

My attitude carrying the ball was fear—not a fear of getting hurt but a fear of getting caught from behind and taken down and embarrassing myself and my teammates.[27]

McElhenny repeated as a Pro Bowler for 1953, joining his backfield teammates, Tittle and fullback Joe Perry.[28] In 1954, with the addition of halfback John Henry Johnson, the 49ers formed their famed "Million Dollar Backfield" of McElhenny, Tittle, Perry, and Johnson.[29] The team had championship aspirations, but McElhenny separated his shoulder against the Bears in the sixth game, ending his season. The offense struggled without McElhenny in the lineup. Before the injury, he led the league with 515 rushing yards and an 8.0 yards-per-carry average.[30] He still managed to make the AP's second-team All-Pro team and was a first-team selection by the New York Daily News.[31]

After a down year in 1955 for the 49ers and for McElhenny, he had his most productive rushing season statistically in 1956, picking up 916 yards and eight touchdowns. He was invited to his third Pro Bowl.[32] John Henry Johnson was traded prior to the 1957 season, which broke up the Million Dollar Backfield. Led by McElhenny and Tittle, the 49ers finished the 1957 regular season tied for the Western Conference title with the Detroit Lions. In the Western Conference tiebreaker, McElhenny carried 14 times for 82 yards and caught six passes for 96 yards and a touchdown, but the Lions won with a comeback victory to advance to the 1957 NFL Championship Game.[33] Following the season, McElhenny was invited to the 1958 Pro Bowl and was named the player of the game.[34]

After another Pro Bowl year in 1958, injuries over the next two seasons hampered his production. The 49ers placed the 32-year-old McElhenny on the 1961 NFL expansion draft list.[35]

Minnesota Vikings

McElhenny joined the newly formed Vikings in 1961 through the expansion draft.[35] That year, he led the team in rushing and had seven total touchdowns, including his first punt return touchdown since his rookie season.[36] He was invited to his sixth Pro Bowl following the season.[37] In his second season with the Vikings in 1962, he was held scoreless for the first time in his career. The Vikings then looked to part ways with McElhenny as the team turned to an emphasis on youth. He described his time with the Vikings as a "dead end street," since he "didn't fit into their plans for the future."[38]

New York Giants and Detroit Lions

The Vikings traded McElhenny to the Giants in July 1963 for two draft choices and player to be named later.[39][40] The trade reunited him with Tittle, who had been traded to the Giants two seasons earlier.[23] On the reunion, McElhenny responded that it was "great to be with a winner," and he played with renewed enthusiasm.[38] The Giants made it to the 1963 NFL Championship Game, where McElhenny carried nine times for 17 yards, had two receptions for 20 yards, and had a 47-yard kickoff return in the 14–10 loss to the Bears.[41] He was released by New York during training camp in 1964,[42] and he was soon picked up by the Detroit Lions,[43] for whom he appeared in eight games before retiring after the season.[44]


McElhenny gained 11,375 all-purpose yards in his thirteen-year career and retired as one of just three players to eclipse 11,000 yards.[45] He was nicknamed "The King" while with the 49ers because he was "the most feared running back in the NFL."[46] 49ers quarterback Frankie Albert gave him the nickname in the locker room following McElhenny's fourth game as a rookie, in which he returned a punt 96 yards for a touchdown against the Bears.[47]

He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970, an honor he described as the highlight of his life.[27] Others inducted in the class were contemporaries Jack Christiansen, Tom Fears, and Pete Pihos.[48] His jersey number 39 is retired by the 49ers, and by virtue of his membership in the pro hall of fame, he was automatically inducted as a charter member of the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame in 2009.[49] NFL Network ranked him the fourth most elusive runner of all time in 2007.[50]

McElhenny was inducted into State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame in 1963 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.[51][45] As of 2016, his 12 rushing touchdowns in 1950 and 13 in 1951 both remain in the top ten all-time for a Washington player in a single season, and his 28 career rushing touchdowns tie him for sixth in school history.[10]

On January 20, 1985, McElhenny participated in the opening coin toss at Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium, along with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who participated by video feed from the White House after having been sworn into his second term of office earlier that day.[27]

Improper benefits

After denying rumors for decades, in 2004 McElhenny confirmed that he received improper financial benefits from the University of Washington during his time there, which included a $300 monthly check.[2] Per NCAA rules, the most a college can offer an athlete is a summer job and a scholarship covering boarding and tuition.[52] A popular (albeit usually jocular) spin on the rumor was that McElhenny essentially took a pay cut when he left the university to play for the 49ers.[6][53][54] This was not entirely untrue; all payments accounted for, including legitimate ones, McElhenny claimed he and his wife received a combined $10,000 a year while at Washington—with the 49ers, his rookie salary was worth $7,000.[2]

Personal and later life

After retiring as a player, McElhenny served as a color commentator on 49ers radio broadcasts from 1966 to 1972. In 1971, he signed a contract with a group called the Seattle Sea Lions in hopes of bringing an NFL franchise to Seattle.[55] He proactively named himself general manager of the non-existent "Seattle Kings" in May 1972,[56][57] and the next year the franchise gained the backing of entrepreneur Edward Nixon, brother of president Richard Nixon.[58] However, McElhenny's plans fell through, as the Seattle Seahawks were founded in 1974.[46]

McElhenny is related to the McIlhenny family of Louisiana, the makers of Tabasco sauce.[59] In his later life, McElhenny was diagnosed with a rare nerve disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome, which almost killed him. He was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down and had to use a walker for a year.[2][20]

See also

  • Washington Huskies football statistical leaders


  1. "The 1950s and "The King"". History Release (Pro Football Hall of Fame). Archived from the original on March 10, 2010. Retrieved October 17, 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Raley, Dan (September 1, 2004). "The untold story of Hugh McElhenny, the King of Montlake". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved February 29, 2016.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Grayson, Harry (December 1, 1948). "Compton College grid star one of best in nation". The Bend Bulletin. Newspaper Enterprise Association: p. 3. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Wagner, Dick (December 29, 1988). "Compton Gridders Relive Triumph in '48 Little Rose Bowl". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Saturday Heroes". Eugene Register-Guard: p. 8A. September 12, 1958.,1731504&hl=en. Retrieved September 12, 2016.
  7. "Two Huskies Top Gainers". Ellensburg Daily Record. Associated Press: p. 6. October 26, 1950.,3399484&hl=en. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  8. "Huskies to get JC's grid star". Spokesman-Review. Associated Press (Spokane, Washington). February 2, 1949.
  9. "Washington tailback may miss Rose Bowl". Star-News. Associated Press: p. 4-D. December 29, 1977.,5851260&hl=en. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 "2016 Media Guide". University of Washington Athletics. pp. 96–99. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  11. Few punts are caught near one's own goal line, as the returner usually opts for the probable touchback; those that are caught are rarely returned for significant yardage.
  12. "Southern Cal defense stops Huskies, 20-13". Eugene Register-Guard. United Press (Oregon): p. 13. October 7, 1951.
  13. Eskanzi, David (October 4, 2011). "Wayback Machine: McElhenny's 100-yard return". Sports Press Northwest. Retrieved February 29, 2016.
  14. Strite, Dick (October 28, 1960). "Highclimber". Eugene Register-Guard: p. 2B.,5170929&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  15. "Coast Stars Named By Platoon System". Idaho State Journal: p. 6. December 5, 1950. Retrieved September 12, 2016.
  16. "All-Pacific Coast Team". Nevada State Journal: p. 11. November 28, 1951. Retrieved September 12, 2016.
  17. "McElhenny Stars In Bellingham All-Star Game". Ellensburg Daily Record. Associated Press: p. 6. December 10, 1951.,2035993&hl=en. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  18. "Player Bio: Hugh McElhenny - University of Washington Official Athletic Site". University of Washington. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  19. 19.0 19.1 "Hugh McElhenny Rates a "Rookie of Year" Tag". Spokane Daily Chronicle. United Press: p. 19. October 21, 1952.,1972912&hl=en. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Graham, Tim (January 29, 1999). "Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny has seen NFL endure big chance". Las Vegas Sun. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  21. Hugh McElhenny Pro Football Hall of Fame Bio. Pro Football Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
  22. Eck, Frank (January 9, 1963). "Five Lions Are Honored; Hugh McElhenny Is Named Top Rookie Of '52 Season". The Clarion-Ledger. Associated Press: p. 8. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  23. 23.0 23.1 "Giants Reunite Passing Combo". Toledo Blade. Associated Press: p. 32. July 18, 1963.,3370399&hl=en. Retrieved September 4, 2016.
  24. Wright, Earl (November 21, 1952). "Rookies Making Good in Ranks Of Pro Gridders". The Bulletin. United Press: p. 9.,4040396&hl=en. Retrieved September 4, 2016.
  25. Wood, Hal (October 21, 1952). "Hugh McElhenny, Matson Compete For Pro Honors". The Bulletin. United Press: p. 2.,2367578&hl=en. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  26. "Cougar Backs Work On 'Wide Screen Vision'". St. Petersburg Times. Associated Press: p. 20. May 22, 1957.,3353875&hl=en. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Roberts, Rich (January 20, 1985). "The King and the President: Hugh McElhenny will assist Reagan with the coin toss". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 29, 2016.
  28. "Grid Rivalries Renewed Today In Pro Bowl". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Associated Press: p. 13. January 17, 1954.,2879978&hl=en. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
  29. Tameta, Andre (May 22, 2009). "San Francisco's Million Dollar Backfield: The 49ers' Fabulous Foursome". Bleacher Report. Archived from the original on June 9, 2011. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  30. "Shoulder Injuries Fell Stars, Reshuffle Pro Grid Standings". Daytona Beach Morning Journal. Associated Press: p. 9. November 20, 1954.,628532&hl=en. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  31. "1954 NFL All-Pros". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  32. "West Favored In Pro Bowl". Sunday Herald. United Press: p. 33. January 13, 1957.,1350878&hl=en. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  33. Stevenson, Jack (December 23, 1957). "Another Amazing Comeback Gives Lions 31–27 Victory". Ludington Daily News. Associated Press: p. 10.,5337745&hl=en. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  34. "West Rips East, 26-7 In Pro Bowl". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press: p. 2B. January 13, 1958.,1661045&hl=en. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  35. 35.0 35.1 "McElhenny Signs with the Vikings". The Lewiston Daily Sun. Associated Press: p. 12. May 17, 1961.,1752264&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  36. Rhinehart, Andy (February 15, 1995). "Expansion draft isn't a gold mine". Herald-Journal: p. D2.,5296994&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  37. "8 Packers'll Play For West In All-Star Pro Bowl Tangle". Prescott Evening Courier. United Press International: p. 7. December 20, 1961.,3912385&hl=en. Retrieved September 4, 2016.
  38. 38.0 38.1 Daley, Arthur (August 25, 1963). "Found: Fountain Of Youth". St. Petersburg Times: p. 4-C.,2104515&hl=en. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
  39. "McElhenny to Giants". Milwaukee Sentinel. UPI: p. 2, part 2. July 18, 1963.
  40. "McElhenny joins Giants after trade". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press: p. 13D. July 18, 1963. Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  41. "New York Giants at Chicago Bears - December 29th, 1963". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  42. Richman, Milton (August 28, 1964). "Heavy-hearted McElhenny says goodby [sic] to Giants". Wilmington Morning Star: p. 15. Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  43. "Detroit Lions sign McElhenny". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press: p. 10. September 5, 1964.
  44. "Hugh McElhenny honored at fete". Toledo Blade. Associated Press: p. 42. April 1, 1965. Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  45. 45.0 45.1 Dave Blevins (December 23, 2011). The Sports Hall of Fame Encyclopedia: Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Soccer. Scarecrow Press. pp. 654–. ISBN 978-1-4616-7370-5.
  46. 46.0 46.1 "'The King' But not at the bank, says Hugh McElhenny". The Tuscaloosa News. Associated Press: p. 22. November 8, 1979.,1950594&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  47. Hession, Joseph (1986). "Hugh McElhenny: The King". The Coffin Corner 8 (4). Retrieved October 17, 2016.
  48. Skinner, John R. (August 9, 1970). "Four inducted in fame hall". The Tuscaloosa News. Associated Press: p. 13. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  49. "49ers Announce Edward DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame". San Francisco 49ers. May 12, 2009. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  50. "Top Ten Elusive Runners: Hugh McElhenny" (video). NFL Network. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  51. "State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame: Football". State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  52. Dupree, David (November 10, 1970). "Paper Says Gridders Lured Improperly". The Free Lance-Star: p. 11.,6524491&hl=en. Retrieved September 12, 2016.
  53. Talbot, Gayle (October 16, 1953). "Cravath Tells Grid Secrets". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press: p. 3B.,2593129&hl=en. Retrieved September 12, 2016.
  54. "Hugh McElhenny Denies Charges Of 'Free Ride'". Toledo Blade. Associated Press: p. 32. February 17, 1956.,1279877&hl=en. Retrieved September 12, 2016.
  55. "McElhenny Gets Contract". The Evening Independent. Associated Press: p. 3-C. December 18, 1971.,967348&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  56. "Pro Football Expansion Hopefuls Join Hands". Lakeland Ledger. Associated Press: p. 2B. May 21, 1972.,6017540&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  57. "Are The Seattle Kings For Real?". Beaver County Times: p. B-3. August 14, 1972.,3439369&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  58. "Nixon's brother buys". Ellensburg Daily Record. United Press International: p. 3. March 16, 1973.,3993376&hl=en. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  59. Belson, Ken (February 5, 2013). "Tabasco's ties to football burn deep". The New York Times. Retrieved February 29, 2016.

Further reading

  • Sullivan, George (1972). The Great Running Backs. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 85–93. ISBN 0-399-11026-7.

External links