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Hugh McElhenny, Hall of Fame NFL running back, dies at 93

With the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s, he was one of the NFL’s most elusive and explosive runners

Hugh McElhenny with the New York Giants in 1963. (Harry Harris/AP)
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Hugh McElhenny, a Hall of Fame running back who was one of the NFL’s most elusive and exciting runners of the 1950s, died June 17 at his home near Las Vegas. He was 93.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced his death in a statement but did provide further details.

As a college all-American at the University of Washington and for more than a decade in the National Football League, Mr. McElhenny was known as one of the most dynamic and charismatic players of his generation. He was skilled as a running back, receiver and kick returner and was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1952 and a two-time first-team all-pro.

Drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1952, Mr. McElhenny led the NFL in yards per carry (7.0) in his rookie season and had the league’s longest run from scrimmage (89 yards) and longest punt return (94 yards). He scored 10 touchdowns: six by rushing, three on pass receptions and one on a punt return. His teammates gave him a nickname that stuck with him throughout his career: the King.

“When Hugh joined the 49ers in 1952,” Lou Spadia, the team’s general manager at the time, once said, “it was questionable whether our franchise could survive. McElhenny removed all doubts. That’s why we call him our franchise saver.”

In San Francisco, Mr. McElhenny was considered the brightest star in the 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield,” which included quarterback Y.A. Tittle, fullback Joe Perry and bruising running back John Henry Johnson, all of whom later entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Y.A. Tittle, gritty quarterback forever in search of a championship, dies at 90

Mr. McElhenny, who had movie-star good looks, was 6-foot-1, weighed about 200 pounds and played much of his career without a face mask. In one game in 1952, he caught a pass from Tittle near midfield as a defender ripped off his helmet, but Mr. McElhenny kept barreling downfield bareheaded for a 40-yard gain.

His teammate Perry called him the best broken field runner he had ever seen. Mr. McElhenny had a long stride, high knee action and could change directions with rabbit-like agility. His running style likened to those of later NFL greats Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders.

“My attitude carrying the ball was fear,” Mr. McElhenny once said. “Not a fear of getting hurt, but a fear of getting caught from behind and taken down and embarrassing myself and my teammates.”

He was remarkably fast for a player of his era and could blow past defenders with a burst of speed or leave them sprawling with a deceptive move.

“I was never an individual that appreciated body contact, so I always tried to avoid it as much as I could,” he said in an NFL Films production. “And maybe that was the reason I ran the way I did.”

Mr. McElhenny was off to perhaps his best start in a season in 1954, leading the league in rushing with 515 yards in the 49ers’ first six games, for an average of 8 yards per carry. But he separated his shoulder and missed the remainder of the season. He gained a career-best 916 yards on the ground in 1956. (NFL seasons consisted of 12 games at that time.)

In 1961, the Minnesota Vikings selected Mr. McElhenny in the expansion draft, and he showed flashes of his old self. He ran for 570 yards, caught 37 passes, returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown and was chosen for the Pro Bowl for the sixth time in his career.

Traded to the New York Giants in 1963, he was reunited with Tittle, his old quarterback, and played in the Giants’ 14-10 loss to the Chicago Bears in the NFL championship game. His final season came with the Detroit Lions in 1964.

When he retired, Mr. McElhenny’s 11,375 all-purpose yards — from running, pass receiving and returning kicks — were the third most in NFL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. The 49ers retired his No. 39 jersey in 1971.

Hugh Edward McElhenny Jr. was born Dec. 31, 1928, in Los Angeles. His father was a vending-machine distributor, and his mother was a homemaker.

As a high school athlete in Los Angeles in the 1940s, he set a national record in the high hurdles and state records in the low hurdles and long jump. He also could run the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds.

He was a football standout at Compton Junior College in Los Angeles before going to the University of Washington, where he played three years. He set a team record by rushing for 1,107 yards in 1950 — a total not surpassed until 1978. He gained 296 yards on the ground against Washington State as a junior, still the Huskies’ single-game record.

In his senior season, he returned a punt for 100 yards against Southern California, faking out another future Hall of Famer, Frank Gifford, on the play. Even though Mr. McElhenny’s Washington team won only three games in 1951, he was a consensus all-American.

In 2004, Mr. McElhenny admitted that, as a college player, he had accepted under-the-table payments from football supporters.

“I know it was illegal for me to receive cash, and every month I received cash,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2004. “I know it was illegal to receive clothing, and I got clothing all the time from stores.

“I got a check every month, and it was never signed by the same person, so we never really knew who it was coming from. They invested in me every year.”

After his playing career, Mr. McElhenny was a broadcaster for the 49ers for several years. He later was an executive for a soft-drink distributor in Seattle. In his late 60s, he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder that left him temporarily unable to walk and affected his balance.

His wife of 70 years, the former Peggy Ogston, died in 2019. Survivors include two daughters; a sister; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Mr. McElhenny, who said his highest salary as a player was $25,000, said modern-day football had become too complex for his taste.

“It’s just so complicated,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2020. “What you can and can’t do when you tackle a guy — sometimes I get the feeling you’re supposed to not even touch somebody. And there are too many delays [for replays]. “The game was a lot simpler in my time — but I think it was just as much fun to watch.”