Hugh McElhenny, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who used his speed and elusiveness to rise to prominence as a halfback in the 1950s, died on June 17 at the age of 93, the Hall of Fame announced Thursday.
McElhenny died of natural causes at his Nevada home, the Hall of Fame said.
Known for his long strides and knee-high propulsion, McElhenny rushed for 5,281 yards and 38 touchdowns in a 13-year career that included stops with the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Detroit Lions. But it was his nine years of running with the San Francisco 49ers that brought “Hurryin ‘Hugh” to football stardom.
Using a traditional T-line formation, the 49ers employed the famed “Million Dollar Backfield,” which featured winger Joe Perry, quarterback YA Tittle and midfielder John Henry Johnson, along with McElhenny, a six-time Pro Bowl selection that had a career record 916 yards and eight ground touchdowns in 1956.
“Hugh McElhenny was a threat at all stages of the game in an offensive way: running, getting passes and returning kicks and punt,” said Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter. “His all-round talent – obvious to professional football scouts when Hugh was still a teenager – will be celebrated and preserved forever in Canton.”
McElhenny played in the National Football League for 13 years: 1952-1960 San Francisco 49ers, 1961-1962 Minnesota Vikings, and 1964 Detroit Lions.
– Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) June 23, 2022
McElhenny’s unique running style stood out in an era where most running backs used more deliberate and smashmouth approaches.
McElhenny, number 9 of the overall selection in the 1952 NFL draft from the Washington 49ers, broke into the pro scene, turning his first scrimmage play into a 40-yard touchdown. McElhenny, also known as “The King,” quickly became a prime target for Tittle off the backfield, using his 6ft, 1.195lb frame to work his way through defenses out of the screen passages.
McElhenny had 37 receptions for 458 yards and two touchdowns in 1957, and ended his career with 264 receptions for 3,247 yards and 20 scores.
“The 49ers family is heartbroken to learn of the death of one of the NFL’s all-time greats, Hugh McElhenny,” said 49ers co-chair Dr. John York. “Growing up, my favorite team was the 49ers. I remember so many great players from the late 50s and 60s. When I started inviting an alum to every game, my goal was to meet the ‘Million Dollar Backfield’. Hugh he was the last of the four to join us and we remained friends. Hugh is a big part of the 49ers story. “
McElhenny, a native of Los Angeles, was selected five times in the first All-Pro team and was named to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade team. He was a first team All-American in 1951 with the Huskies and number 39 of him was retired by the 49ers.
After retiring after the 1964 season, McElhenny was one of only three players to have amassed more than 11,000 all-purpose yards (11,375). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
On the day of his consecration in Canton, a humble and emotional McElhenny opened by recognizing his teammates over the years, as well as his opponents.
“I want to pay tribute to the athletes I played with for their second efforts that made my runs successful,” said McElhenny, “and to my opponents for all the mistakes they made to make me look good.”
McElhenny played in just two post-season NFL games – one for the 49ers in 1957 and one for the Giants in 1963 – running 101 yards on 21 carries. He also received eight passes for 116 yards and a touchdown.