Hugh McElhenny, whose superb playmaking with the ball in his hands made him one of the biggest football stars of the 1950s, has died at the age of 93.
A California state champion in the both the hurdles and the long jump as a high schooler, McElhenny was about as close as a high school football player could get to stardom in the 1940s. Newspapers ran articles speculating about where he would attend college, and it was a shock when he decided to enroll not at a major football powerhouse but at Compton Junior College. After one year of stardom on Compton’s football team, he spurned hometown schools USC and UCLA and chose the University of Washington and became an All-American fullback as well as a punt returner, kickoff returner and kicker. McElhenny’s 296-yard rushing game against Washington State remains Washington’s all-time record.
When he was 91, McElhenny admitted in an interview with TheAthletic.com that he chose Washington because they offered him money to provide for his family.
“I had so many choices. I wanted to go to USC or UCLA and stay in Los Angeles, but the University of Washington came up with a package for me to be able to marry my wife, Peggy, so I took their offer,” McElhenny recalled.
The 49ers selected McElhenny with the ninth overall pick in the 1952 NFL draft, and he made an instant impact, leading the NFL with a whopping 7.0 yards per carry as a rookie. Along with quarterback Y. A. Tittle, halfback John Henry Johnson and fullback Joe Perry, McElhenny formed in the 1950s what was referred to as the Million Dollar Backfield, although all four players combined didn’t even make $1 million from the 49ers.
McElhenny was known for his great speed, elusiveness and field vision, and few players of his day could match his highlight-reel runs. He was chosen a first-team All-Pro halfback in five of his first NFL seasons.
By 1961 the 49ers felt that McElhenny had lost a step, and they placed him on the expansion list, allowing him to leave for the Minnesota Vikings a first-year expansion team. McElhenny had a good first season in Minnesota, leading the Vikings in rushing, finishing second on the team in receptions, and scoring a touchdown on a punt return. But he struggled to make much happen late in his career, serving as a backup for one more year for the Vikings, one for the Giants and one for the Lions before retiring.
McElhenny was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. After retiring he served as a commentator on 49ers radio broadcasts, and then in the 1970s he joined a group attempting to bring an NFL expansion team to Seattle, although his group’s efforts were unsuccessful and a different group founded the Seattle Seahawks.
Although most footage of his games is in grainy black-and-white, even today the NFL Films archive of McElhenny’s great plays stands the test of time. He was a football player for the ages.