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Hugh McElhenny, elusive Hall of Fame halfback, dead at 93

Hugh McElhenny, a Hall of Fame halfback known as King for his thrilling prowess in 1950s football, first with the University of Washington and then with the San Francisco 49ers, is died June 17 at his in Henderson, Nevada. He was 93 years old.

His daughter Karen Lynn McElhenny confirmed the death Thursday but did not specify a cause. The Pro Football Hall of Fame also announced the death on Thursday.

McElhenny was a dazzling figure on the pitch, twisting and turning as he evaded frustrated defenders during his deflected antics into the end zone.

“Hugh McElhenny was the best outfield runner you’ll ever see,” teammate Joe Perry, 49ers Hall of Fame guard Joe Perry, once said.

“I ran better in the middle, and Hugh was a great outside runner who zigzagged and zigzagged all over the place,” said Perry, one of the first black stars in professional football, as quoted by Andy Piascik in “Gridiron Gauntlet” (2009), a oral history of the racial pioneers of the game. “Sometimes he would zigzag and zag so much that the same guy would miss him twice in the same race.”

McElhenny was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. He was also named to the NFL Team for the 1950s.

At 6-foot-1 and around 200 pounds, he set a host of running records for the Washington Huskies of the Pacific Coast Conference. As a junior, he rushed for 296 yards and scored five touchdowns in a win over Washington State. As a senior, in 1951, he ran a 100-yard punt against Southern California. He was an All-American for a team that won just three games that season.

By his account, he was well paid for his collegiate exploits. In an interview with The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2004, he said that while playing for Washington, he regularly received cash payments and other improper benefits from alumni and team boosters totaling nearly $10,000. $ per year (about $115,000 in today’s money).

“I know it was illegal for me to receive money, and every month I received money,” he said. “I know it was illegal to receive clothes and I bought them all the time in stores. I got a check every month, and it was never signed by the same person, so we never really knew. who it was from. They invested in me every year. I was a movie star there.

The 49ers selected McElhenny as their first-round pick and signed him to a $7,000 contract, which meant he received a pay cut to play professional football.

McElhenny said he got his nickname, the King, from 49-inch quarterback Frankie Albert after fending off a punt for a 94-yard touchdown against the Chicago Bears in his fourth professional game.

“Albert gave me the game ball and said, ‘You are the king now,'” he recalled in Joseph Hession’s book “Forty Niners: Looking Back” (1985). (The College Football Hall of Fame compared him to another celebrity known as King, saying McElhenny was “to professional football in the 1950s and early 1960s what Elvis Presley was to rock and roll. “.)

McElhenny was the NFL’s rookie of the year in 1952, averaging seven yards per carry. Two years later, while averaging eight yards per carry, Albert’s successor at quarterback, YA Tittle, and three others – McElhenny and John Henry Johnson at halfback and Perry at fullback – were collectively dubbed the Million Dollar Backfield for their offensive power. All four were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.

McElhenny played in six Pro Bowls, was a two-time First-Team All-Pro and had 11,375 total yards – running, catching passes and returning punts, kickoffs and fumbles – in its 13 years in the NFL: nine with the 49ers, two with the Minnesota Vikings, the 1963 season with the Giants and one final year with the Detroit Lions.

Hugh Edward McElhenny Jr. was born July 31, 1928 in Los Angeles to Hugh and Pearl McElhenny. He was a football and hurdles star in high school, then played a season at Compton Junior College in the Los Angeles area.

He became a football star in Washington, although the Huskies never bowled in his three years there. The payments he admitted to receiving were part of a larger scandal that led the Pacific Coast Conference to penalize Washington in 1956, as well as the University of Southern California, UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley, for illegal payments made to athletes by supporters.

After his stint with the 49ers and his stint with the Vikings, McElhenny reunited with Tittle, who had been traded to the Giants by the 49ers in 1961. Tittle took the Giants to an NFL championship game for the third straight time in 1963 – a loss to the Chicago Bears – but McElhenny, after knee surgery, gained just 175 yards that year and was later released.

He then became part of an investment group that made an unsuccessful bid for an NFL expansion franchise for Seattle, the team that started playing with the Seahawks in 1976.

In addition to her daughter Karen, McElhenny is survived by another daughter, Susan Ann Hemenway; one sister, Beverly Palmer; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His wife, Peggy McElhenny, died in 2019.

In the spring of 1965, Frank Gifford, McElhenny’s college rival when he played for USC and later his Giants teammate, threw a retirement party for him and narrated film clips of McElhenny’s spectacular escapades, including may – being his most famous: the 100-yard punt. comeback for Washington against USC

McElhenny had ignored his coach’s pleas to let the football into the end zone for a touchdown, giving Washington the ball at the 20-yard line.

“Our coach, Howie Odell, was running down the sideline yelling, ‘Leave it, let it go!'” he told the Seattle Times. “All of a sudden, he stopped screaming. It was a stupid game on my part, but it worked.

McElhenny once said that his running style was not something he was taught. “It’s just a gift from God,” he said. “I did things by instinct.”

Maia Coleman contributed reporting.

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