Hugh McElhenny, the elusive Hall of Fame halfback who starred in the San Francisco 49ers‘ “Million Dollar Backfield” in the mid-1950s, has died. He was 93.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame said Thursday that McEhlenny died of natural causes June 17 at his home in Nevada, and that son-in-law Chris Permann confirmed the death.
Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970, McElhenny’s thrilling runs and all-around skills as a runner, receiver and kick returner made him one of the NFL’s top players of the 1950s. With the 49ers from 1954-56, McElhenny was part of the “Million Dollar Backfield” with quarterback Y. A. Tittle, halfback John Henry Johnson and fullback Joe Perry – also all Hall of Famers.
“The 49ers family is heartbroken to learn of the passing of one of the NFL’s all-time greats, Hugh McElhenny,” San Francisco co-chairman Dr. 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.”
McEhlenny was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1952 (before the award became official) and made two All-Pro teams, six Pro Bowls and the NFL’s All-Decade squad of the 1950s.
“Hugh McElhenny was a threat in all phases of the game offensively – rushing, pass receiving and as a kick and punt returner,” 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.”
From Los Angeles, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound McElhenny began his college career at Compton Junior College before starring at Washington, where he set several Pacific Coast Conference records.
McElhenny was selected ninth overall by the 49ers in the 1952 draft and made an immediate impact. He led the NFL in yards per carry (7.0) that season and had t McElhenny had the longest run from scrimmage (89 yards) and the longest punt return (94 yards). He scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie.
It was the beginning of a stretch of nine seasons in which McElhenny was the 49ers’ primary offensive weapon. Only in 1954, when a separated shoulder sidelined him after six games, and 1960, his final year in San Francisco, was McElhenny not a focal point for the Niners.
McEhlenny also was something of a franchise savior, which was fitting because the 49ers once tried to sign him out of high school – where he starred at George Washington – when they were still in the All-American Football Conference.
“When Hugh joined the 49ers in 1952, it was questionable whether our franchise could survive,” said Lou Spadia, then the team’s general manager. “McElhenny removed all doubts. That’s why we call him our franchise saver.”
Defenders would call him something else as they got arms full of air instead of the ball carrier.
“My attitude carrying the ball was fear,” he said. “Not a fear of getting hurt, but a fear of getting caught from behind and taken down and embarrassing myself and my teammates.”
The Niners made the postseason only once with McElhenny, losing a Western Conference title game to Detroit in 1957. In 1961, McElhenny was left on the expansion draft list and was scooped 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. He played one more year with Minnesota, spent 1963 as a backup with the New York Giants, where he played in his only NFL title game, losing to Chicago, and finished his career in 1964 with Detroit.
When he retired, McElhenny was one of three players to have gained more than 11,000 all-purpose yards. In 146 career regular-season games in 13 seasons in the NFL, he rushed for 5,281 yards and 38 touchdowns and had 3,247 yards and 20 touchdowns receiving.