McElhenny, Hugh Edward, Jr.

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McELHENNY, Hugh Edward, Jr.

(b. 31 December 1928 in Los Angeles, California), football player considered to be one of the greatest broken field running backs, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame, and who was among the first offensive backfields in professional football history with all members enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

McElhenny is the son of Hugh McElhenny, a businessman, and Pearl McElhenny, a homemaker. McElhenny played childhood sports as a young boy, and two incidents from his youth had impacts on his ensuing career. In one incident, while McElhenny was playing football in a carrot patch, the irate garden owner appeared and fired off a shotgun, and buckshot pellets lodged in McElhenny's backside. Years later McElhenny remarked that on a football field he always ran scared. In the other incident, McElhenny was playing football in a vacant lot when he stepped on the jagged neck of a broken milk bottle, severing tendons and nerves in his left foot. After surgery and months of bed rest, the foot was placed in a cast, and doctors warned that it might never grow normally. But McElhenny strengthened the foot through exercises and became an outstanding school athlete in both football and track and field. AtGeorge Washington High School in Los Angeles, he set national scholastic records in high and low hurdles and received over fifty scholarship offers after his senior year.

After graduating from George Washington mid year, McElhenny entered the University of Southern California in January 1948 but left school when his pay for a campus job was late. After several months of traveling around the country with a high school friend and working at part-time jobs, he became homesick and returned to California, where he enrolled in Compton Junior College. In 1948 he led Compton to an undefeated season and a victory in the Junior Rose Bowl. He scored 23 touchdowns, including a punt return of 105 yards, over the course of the season. Also that year he married his childhood sweetheart, Peggy Ogston. The couple had two children. In the fall of 1949 McElhenny entered the University of Washington.

McElhenny's legend was created over time, starting with his high school and junior college exploits and continuing during his career at the University of Washington. At six feet, one inches tall and 198 pounds, he had craggy good looks, and his arrival on the Seattle campus was heralded by the local press. McElhenny and his wife lived in financial comfort, benefiting from the largesse of team boosters. (During the 1940s and 1950s, the Greater Washington Advertising Club provided illegal payments and other perks to the University of Washington's athletes; penalizations of the university's athletic program began after McElhenny had moved on to professional football, and the specifics of his case were not investigated.) Between 1949 and 1951 McElhenny rushed for 2,499 yards, including a team record 296 yards against Washington State University in 1950. His 233 points became a long-standing team mark. While in college, he developed a reputation for being temperamental, hard to handle, and something of a free spirit.

In 1952 McElhenny was selected in the first round of the National Football League (NFL) draft by the San Francisco 49ers. The team quarterback Frankie Albert influenced that decision with an early morning telephone call to Coach Buck Shaw. Albert had witnessed McElhenny's remarkable performance in the Hula Bowl All-Star game in Honolulu, Hawaii, against a team of professionals, including Albert. In his first professional play in an exhibition game against the Chicago Cardinals, McElhenny made a forty-two-yard touchdown run. It was the beginning of a brilliant rookie season that included rushing touchdowns of 89 and 82 yards and a 94-yard punt return touchdown. After McElhenny's performance on 19 October 1952 against the Chicago Bears, Albert presented him with the game ball and anointed him with the title "King of the Halfbacks," and McElhenny came to be known as simply, "The King." Throughout his career McElhenny retained the designation, which was universally recognized by his peers, the press, and football fans. Playing for San Francisco (1952–1960), the Minnesota Vikings (1961–1962), the New York Giants (1963), and the Detroit Lions (1964), his greatness was based not so much on his statistical attainments, although those are impressive, as on his distinctive running style. He uncannily navigated a broken field, used blockers expertly, and stopped, started, feinted, and accelerated with an intuitive ability to sense unseen defenders and avoid their tackles.

In 1952 McElhenny was named the NFL Rookie of the Year, was chosen for the first of six Pro Bowl appearances, and was named by Sport magazine as the NFL Player of the Year. With the 49ers, McElhenny was part of an exciting team that often fell just short of championship caliber. From 1954 to 1956 he played in the same offensive back-field with the quarterback Yelberton Abraham "Y. A." Tittle, the fullback Joe "the Jet" Perry, and the halfback John Henry Johnson, who comprised the first professional football backfield to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Despite their scoring capacity, the 49ers never played for a championship during McElhenny's time with them, instead fading after strong starts in 1952, 1954, and 1959. In 1954 McElhenny missed the final half of the season with a separated shoulder after running for 515 yards with an average of 8 yards per carry. His best season statistically with the 49ers was in 1956, when he ran for 916 yards and scored 8 touchdowns. Although foot injuries hampered McElhenny throughout his career, he was chosen Most Valuable Player of the 1958 Pro Bowl game.

The arrival of Coach Red Hickey in 1959 led to the break-up of the 49ers offensive nucleus, and McElhenny, who had his differences with the caustic Hickey, began playing less. In 1961 the expansion Minnesota Vikings acquired McElhenny, and he had his last good season, gaining 1,067 yards in rushing, pass receiving, and kick returns. Included in that total was a thirty-nine-yard touchdown run against his old team that the Viking coach Norm Van Brocklin called the greatest run he had even seen. After one more year with the Vikings, McElhenny underwent a knee operation in January 1963 and was traded to the New York Giants, where he was reunited with Tittle and played in the 1963 NFL championship game. McElhenny spent his final season with the Detroit Lions in 1964. At the time of his retirement McElhenny was one of three players with over 10,000 all-purpose yards (yards gained rushing, pass receiving, and returning kicks), with 11,369 yards. In addition he scored sixty-three touchdowns. In 1970 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in 1981 he was elected to the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame.

McElhenny began working for a potato chip manufacturing company in the offseason of his rookie year. He drove a delivery truck and opened new accounts with grocery stores and supermarkets, learning public relations and merchandising, and within five years he was a department head. In 1959, McElhenny opened his own food markets in California, but financial problems led to bankruptcy after only a few years. McElhenny then worked as a management trainee for the Burns Detective Agency in New York before moving back to the West Coast, where he worked in advertising and was associated with a group seeking an NFL franchise in Seattle in the early 1970s. After another failed business venture, he became a director with Pepsi-Cola in 1981, and retired from that position in 1995. In October 1996 he was stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a virus that attacks the motor nerve system. Despite several months of incapacitation, he recovered.

McElhenny's football legacy is multifaceted. As a collegian his skills helped establish attendance records at Compton Junior College and the University of Washington, and he received All-America recognition in 1951. His emergence as the most exciting halfback in the NFL in 1952 brought more fans to 49ers games, and he became, in the words of the 49ers general manager Lou Spadia, a "franchise saver." The team owners Tony Morabito and Vic Morabito had considered selling the franchise, but they reconsidered after McElhenny's arrival. In a time before professional football effectively exploited television coverage and press coverage to seize national attention, McElhenny's heroics helped popularize the professional game. Through it all he remained popular with his teammates as a low-key, unassuming team leader who played without displays of ego or false bravado. Yet he was a believable, flawed hero who struggled with marital problems, a fiery temper, altercations with police, and conflicts with coaches. He was described by one writer as "among the last of a species, the open-field runners who lived on guile, their instincts, on reserves of the matador's art." At its finest, McElhenny's ability to run with the football approached an art form, a heightened level of self-expression combining athletic talent, grace, and intuitive brilliance.

An informative, insightful look at McElhenny and his Hall of Fame backfield mates is Dave Newhouse, The Million Dollar Backfield: The San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s (2000). McElhenny is profiled in Phil Berger, Great Running Backs in Pro Football (1970); and Mickey Herskowitz, The Golden Age of Pro Football: A Remembrance of Pro Football in the 1950s (1974). A perspective sketch of McElhenny with the Minnesota Vikings that waxes lyrical in describing his unique running style and rugged, elemental personality is in Jim Klobuchar, Tarkenton (1976). Reminiscences and statistics of McElhenny's college career are in John D. McCallum, PAC-10 Football: The Rose Bowl Conference (1982). His professional statistics are in David S. Neft, Roland T. Johnson, Richard M. Cohen, and Jordan Deutsch, The Sports Encyclopedia: Football (1976); and Bob Carroll, Michael Gershman, David S. Neft, and John Thorn, Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (1999). Team histories of the 49ers are plentiful. Among the most useful in regard to McElhenny's career are Dan McGuire, The San Francisco 49ers (1960); Glenn Dickey, The San Francisco 49ers: The First Fifty Years (1995); and Joseph Hession, Forty Niners: 49th Anniversary Collectors Edition (1995). A somber, forthright look at McElhenny nearing the end of his career is Steve Gelman, "The King and the Turk," in Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre, eds., Best Sports Stories (1965). Among the many magazine articles that profile McElhenny during his heyday is Melvin Durslag, "Takes Two to Touchdown," Collier's (3 Sept. 1954).

Edward J. Tassinari

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McElhenny, Hugh Edward, Jr.

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