Hugh McElhenney, a linebacker who played for San Francisco in the mid-1950s before being drafted by the Vikings in the 1961 expansion draft, has died. He was 93 years old.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame reported on Thursday that McElenny died of natural causes on June 17 at his home in Nevada, and that brother-in-law Chris Permann confirmed the death.
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970, McElhenney’s spectacular running and all-round skills as a runner, receiver, and kickback made him one of the NFL’s top players of the 1950s and part of the 49ers’ Million Dollar Backfield. with quarterback Y. A. Tittle, linebacker John Henry Johnson, and defenseman Joe Perry—also all Hall of Famers.
He had a good year and made the Pro Bowl, as did the Vikings with their 3-11 in their first season.
“The 49ers family is heartbroken to learn of the passing of one of the greatest NFL players of all time, Hugh McElhenney,” San Francisco co-chairman Dr. John Yorke 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 inviting alumni to every game, my goal was to face the Million Dollar Backfield. Hugh was the last of the four to join us and we remained friends. Hugh is a big part of 49ers history.”
McElenny was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1952 (before the award became official) and was named to two All-Pro teams, six Pro Bowls, and the 1950s NFL All-Decade team.
“Hugh McElhenney has been a threat in every part of the offensive game – rushing, receiving a pass and hitting back,” said Hall of Famer president Jim Porter. “His all-round talent, evident to professional football scouts when Hugh was still a teenager, will be celebrated and forever preserved in Canton.”
From Los Angeles, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound McElhenney began his college career at Compton Junior College before starring in Washington DC, where he set several Pacific Coast Conference records.
He was selected ninth overall by the 49ers in the 1952 draft and made an immediate impact. That season, he led the NFL in yards per carry (7.0) and had the longest run after scrimmage (89 yards) and longest punt return (94 yards). As a rookie, he threw 10 touchdowns.
“When Hugh joined the 49ers in 1952, it was doubtful whether our franchise could survive,” said Lou Spadia, the team’s then general manager. “McElhenney dispelled all doubts. That’s why we call him our franchise lifesaver.”
Then knee problems slowed him down. He played another year with the Minnesota, spent 1963 as an understudy for the New York Giants, where he played in his only NFL title game in a loss to Chicago, and ended his career in 1964 with Detroit.
When he retired, McElhenney was one of three players with over 11,000 all-purpose yards. In 146 regular season games in 13 NFL seasons, he rushed for 5,281 yards and had 38 touchdowns and received 3,247 yards and 20 touchdowns.