NFL Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny, an elusive 1950s running back, has died. He was 93 years old.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame said in a press release that McEhlenny died of natural causes on June 17 at his Nevada home, and his son-in-law Chris Permann has confirmed the death.
Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970, McElhenny’s thrilling runs and versatile skills as a runner, receiver and kick returner made him one of the NFL’s finest players of the 1950s. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 1952 (before the award became official) and made two All-Pro teams, six Pro Bowls, and the 1950s NFL All-Decade team.
“Hugh McElhenny was a threat in all phases of the game offensively – rushing, receiving passes and as a punt and punt returner. His versatile talent – evident to professional football scouts when Hugh was still a teenager – will be forever celebrated and preserved in Canton,” Hall of Fame chairman Jim Porter said in a statement.
An all-conference player in Washington, where he set several Pacific Coast Conference records, McElhenny was selected ninth overall in the 1952 draft and made an immediate impact. Not only did he lead the Happy NFL in yards per rush (7.0) that season, but McElhenny had the longest rush from scrimmage, 89 yards, and the longest punt return, 94 yards. He scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie.
It was the start of a nine-season streak in which McElhenny was the 49ers’ primary offensive weapon. It wasn’t until 1954, when a severed shoulder sidelined him after six games, and 1960, his final year in San Francisco, that McElhenny was not the Niners’ focus.
He was also something of a franchise savior, which was fitting since the 49ers once tried to get him out of high school while still in the All-American Football Conference.
“When Hugh joined the 49ers in 1952,” said Lou Spadia, then the team’s general manager, “it was doubtful that our franchise could survive. McElhenny removed all doubts. That’s why we call him our franchise savior.
Defenders would call it something else because they had their arms full of air instead of the ball carrier.
“My attitude while carrying the ball was fear,” he said. “Not a fear of getting hurt, but a fear of being picked up from behind and taken down and embarrassing myself and my teammates.”
Easily recognizable by his long stride and high knee, McElhenny was not only fast, but had the moves of a break dancer decades before break dancing was a thing.
“Preparing for a team that puts McElhenny on the roster,” said Hamp Pool, who coached the rival Rams from 1952-54, “you just can’t take chances.”
Coincidentally, his longtime 49ers fieldmate, fullback Joe Perry – another Hall of Famer – had played at Compton Junior College in California, where McElhenny played before heading to Washington. Together in San Francisco, they formed one of the best backfield tandems in professional football.
But the Niners only made the playoffs once with McElhenny, losing a Western Conference title playoff game with Detroit in 1957. left on the expansion draft roster and picked up by Minnesota. He had a solid season and made the Pro Bowl as the Vikings went 3-11 in their inaugural season.
Knee problems then slowed him down. He played one more year with Minnesota, spent 1963 as a substitute with the New York Giants, where he played his only NFL title game, losing to Chicago, and ended his career in 1964. with Detroit.
When he retired, McElhenny was one of three players to gain over 11,000 all-purpose yards.
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