NFL Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenney, an elusive running back from the 1950s, has died. He was 93 years old.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame said in a press release that McElenny died of natural causes on June 17 at his Nevada home, 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-around skills as a runner, receiver, and kickback made him one of the best NFL players of the 1950s. He was the league’s 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 menace in every part of the offensive game – sprinting, receiving passes and kicking back and punting. His all-round talent, evident to professional football scouts when Hugh was still a teenager, will be celebrated and forever preserved in Canton,” said Hall of Fame President Jim Porter.
An all-conference player in Washington, where he set several Pacific Coast Conference records, McElhenney was selected ninth overall in the 1952 draft and made an immediate impact. Not only did he lead the NFL in carry yards (7.0) that season, McElhenney had the longest rush after scrimmage, 89 yards, and the longest punt return, 94 yards. As a rookie, he scored 10 touchdowns.
It was the start of nine seasons during which McElhenney was the 49ers’ main offensive weapon. It wasn’t until 1954, when a torn shoulder knocked him out of the game after six games, and in 1960, his final year at San Francisco, that McElhenney was out of the Nine’s spotlight.
He was also something of a franchise savior, which was fitting because the 49ers once tried to get him out of high school while they were still in the All-American Football Conference.
“When Hugh joined the 49ers in 1952,” said Lou Spadia, then general manager of the team, “it was doubtful whether our franchise could survive. McElhenney dispelled all doubts. That’s why we call him our franchise lifesaver.”
Defenders would call him something else because they had hands full of air, not a ball carrier.
“My attitude towards the ball was fear,” he said. “Not the fear of getting hurt, but the fear of being caught from behind and knocked down and embarrassing yourself and your teammates.”
Easily recognizable by his long stride and high knees, McElhenney was not only fast, but had the moves of a break dancer decades before breakdancing was anything special.
“Getting ready for a team that includes McElhenney,” said Hump Pool, who coached the Rams archrival from 1952 to 1954, “you can’t take risks.”
Coincidentally, his longtime 49ers linemate, quarterback Joe Perry—another Hall of Famer—played at Compton Junior College in California, where McElhenney starred before heading to Washington. Together in San Francisco, they formed one of the best professional football teams.
But the Niners made it to the postseason only once with McElhenney, losing a Western Conference title playoff game to Detroit in 1957. By 1961, when McElhenney was a little worn out, he remained on the expansion draft list and was picked up by the Minnesota. He had a good season and made the Pro Bowl when the Vikings went 3–11 in their first season.
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.
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