GREATS: McElhenny profiles the career of HB Hugh McElhenny, a 49ers great of the 1950's and 60's.

Hugh McElhenny 49ers
Hugh McElhenny |photo:

HB Hugh McElhenny

  • NFL Career: 1952 through 1964 (13 years)
  • 49ers Career: 1952 through 1960 (9 years)


Hugh McElhenny played in 143 games during his 13-year career, 97 of them with the 49ers. He played his last 46 games in his final four seasons with the Vikings, Giants and Lions. During that time, he amassed 8,528 combined rushing/passing yards gaining 5,281 on the ground and 3,247 yards receiving. While with the 49ers, he achieved 4,288 yards rushing (4.9 yard average) and 2,666 receiving yards (13.7 yard average). He scored 58 career touchdowns, 50 of them with the 49ers. Of tese totals, 35 of his 38 rushing touchdowns and 15 of his 20 receiving touchdowns were with the 49ers. His career rushing year was in 1956 when he played in 12-games, rushing for 916-yards on 185-carries (5.0 average) and scoring 8-rushing touchdowns. He followed up the following year with a career receiving performance, catching 37-passes for 458 yards (12.4 yard average) and 2 touchdowns.

Passing was also something McElhenny dabbled in from time to time. The went 3-for-7 for 13-yards and 1-touchdown during his career. All but one of his pass attempts, an incomplete pass with the Vikings in 1961, were during his 49ers career.

McElhenny was also a dangerous return man. His first year as a 49er he had a career year returning 1-punt and 10-kickoff returns for touchdowns. In his career, he scored 2-punt return and 60-kickoff return touchdowns.


McElhenny, later nicknamed "The King" by QB Frankie Albert, made an early impression with the 49ers. On his second day with the team in 1952, and during their first exhibition game of the season vs the Chicago Cardinals, McElhenny would get his chance. Albert called a time out and asked coach Buck Shaw to put McElhenny in to the game. Hugh hadn't been on the team long enough to know the plays, so Albert drew up a pitch play in the huddle and outlined what each person needed to do. McElhenny took the ball and ran 42-yards for a touchdown on his first play as a 49er, and as a professional football player. It was a spectacular beginning to an equally spectacular career.

Later that season, McElhenny would again make a big impression. In week 4 the 49ers were playing the Chicago Bears, who punted to McElhenny. The ball came down at the 4-yard line, but instead of letting the ball bounce in to the endzone, he fielded the punt and then returned it 95-yards for a touchdown. This was the play, and the game, which inspired Albert to label him "The King".

McElhenny finished his rookie season with 684-rushing yards (7-yard average), 367-passing yards, and 9-touchdowns. He was named Sport Magazine's "Player Of The Year".

McElhenny signed with the 49ers for $7,000 his first season, after asking owner Vic Morabito for newrly $30,000. Ironically, Frankie Albert is credited with getting the 49ers organization to draft McElhenny. The 1952 Hula Bowl in Hawaii matched the top college players against professional players. Albert was playing for the pros. McElhenny played for the college all-stars, and made the All-Hula Bowl team. His performance impressed Albert, who returned to San Francisco and urged coach Buck Shaw to draft the young prospect. The 49ers did just that, making McElhenny their 1st pick, and the 9th overall pick, of the '52 draft.


In 1954, the Niners put in place one of their best offensive backfields. McElhenny still considers it the best backfield that has ever played the game. It featured Y.A. Tittle at quarterback, McElhenny and Joe "The Jet" Perry at halfback, and John Henry Johnson at fullback.

The team was playing exceptionally well when McElhenny separated his shoulders against the Chicago Bears. Without him, the 49ers lost three straight games and ended the season 7-4-1. With him, they would have had a chance at an undefeated, or nearly undefeated season. McElhenny's injury that year was one of nine to starting players and the team never realized its potential.

Three of the four in the "Million Dollar Backfield" have been inducted in to the Pro Football Hall of Fame including McElhenny, Tittle and Perry.


Despite his greatness, the 49ers were never able to win a championship while McElhenny was with the team. In 1957, they needed to win their last two games to stay in the playoff race. In the first game, the 49ers faced the Baltimore Colts. After falling behind 13-10, QB Y.A. Tittle was injured and a rookie named John Brodie was forced in to action. Brodie joined the huddle and asked his teammates what play he should call. McElhenny instructed him to throw the ball to him on an out pattern to the sideline.

The ball was snapped and Brodie dropped back to pass only to face a heavy Colts rush from Big Daddy Lipscomb and Gino Marchetti. But Brodie somehow got the pass off to McElhenny who scored, giving the 49ers a 17-13 win.


McElhenny remained a 49er faithful long after his career ended. He often remarked about how well Bill Walsh's system worked, and how Walsh was able to find players of adequate talent that played exceedingly well in that system.

Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. has done a great job of keeping past players close to the organization.

McElhenny once said, "I don't want to be overly sentimental, but I'll always be a 49er".


49er Halfback Hugh McElhenny Running with the Football


  • 1952 Pro-Bowl Selection
  • 1952 All-NFL Selection
  • 1952 NFL Rookie Of The Year
  • 1953 Pro-Bowl Selection
  • 1954 Pro-Bowl Selection
  • 1956 Pro-Bowl Selection
  • 1957 Pro-Bowl Selection
  • 1958 Pro-Bowl MVP
  • 1961 Pro-Bowl Selection
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