Hugh McElhenny, a Hall of Fame running back whose elusiveness baffled NFL defenses for 13 seasons, died June 17, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced Thursday. He was 93.
McElhenny died of natural causes at his home in Henderson, Nevada, the Hall of Fame said on its website. His daughter, Karen Lynn McElhenny, confirmed her father’s death on Thursday but did not specify a cause, The New York Times reported.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound halfback rushed for 5,281 yards and scored 38 touchdowns, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. McElhenny starred for nine seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and was a member of that team’s “Million Dollar Backfield,” ESPN reported. McElhenny was a halfback in the 49ers’ T-formation offense with quarterback Y.A. Tittle, fullback Joe Perry and halfback John Henry Johnson.
McElhenny was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.
McElhenny was nicknamed “The King” by a teammate in 1952, just four weeks into his pro career, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also known as “Hurrying Hugh” because of his long strides and high-knee moves, ESPN reported.
In addition to the 49ers, McElhenny played two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and one year each with the New York Giants and Detroit Lions until retiring after the 1964 season.
McElhenny perfected his twisting, turning runs while at the University of Washington and was a first-team All-American in 1951, the Times reported.
“Hugh McElhenny was as good an open-field runner as you’ll ever see,” Perry, another Hall of Famer, once said.
“I was best running up the middle, and Hugh was a great outside runner who would zig and zig all over the place,” Perry told Andy Piascik in “Gridiron Gauntlet” (2009). “Sometimes he zigged and zagged so much that the same guy would miss him twice on the same run.”
McElhenny was a six-time Pro Bowl selection who had a career-high 916 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in 1956, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
“Hugh McElhenny was a threat in all phases of the game offensively — rushing, pass receiving and as a kick and punt returner,” Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter said in a statement. “His all-around talent — obvious to pro football scouts when Hugh was still a teenager — will be celebrated and preserved forever in Canton.”
The No. 9 overall selection in the 1952 NFL draft by the 49ers, McElhenny ran for a 40-yard touchdown on his first play from scrimmage as a pro, ESPN reported. He also was a threat as a receiver, catching 37 passes for 458 yards and two touchdowns in 1957 during an era where running still dominated pro football. He finished his career with 264 catches for 3,247 yards and 20 scores, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
“The 49ers family is heartbroken to learn of the passing of one of the NFL’s all-time greats, Hugh McElhenny,” 49ers co-chairman John York said in a statement. “Growing up, my favorite team was the 49ers. I remember so many great players from the late ‘50s and ‘60s. When I started to invite an alum to every game, my goal was to meet the ‘Million Dollar Backfield.’ Hugh was the last of the four to join us and we remained friends. Hugh is a great part of 49ers history.”
McElhenny, born Dec. 31, 1928, in Los Angeles, was a five-time first-team All-Pro selection and was named to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team, ESPN reported. His No. 39 uniform is retired by the 49ers.
He also was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
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