Stories You Should Know: Hugh McElhenny

Hugh McElhenny: “The King”

NFL Commissioner Bert Bell said of him, “McElhenny is the best runner in the history of the National Football League.”

When asked who was the greatest running back of all time, long time NFL official Tommy Timlin didn’t hesitate; “”Hugh is the best runner of all time, college or pro.”

So who was this mythical figure who today is largely forgotten.

Hugh Edward McElhenny, Jr. was born on New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1928 in Los Angeles, California to an Irish father and Canadian mother. He attended George Washington High School in Los Angeles from 1943-1946, and made the football team as a 15 year old, 125 lbs freshman. While he was in high school he set the California state high school record in the high and low hurdles as well as the broad jump. He ran the 100 yard dash in 9.8 seconds and starred on the George Washington football team. 

He was such a dynamic football talent that the San Francisco 49ers, who at the time were in the All American Football Conference, tried to sign him straight out of high school. He wisely spurred the offer, but due to academic problems was forced to spend a year in junior college. 

While at Compton Junior College he led the team to an undefeated season and victory in the 1948 Junior Rose Bowl. Seeing McElhenny run for Compton former Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon said of him, “I’ve never seen such a combination of speed and size.” That speed and size made the young man highly sought after by the big schools, he chose the University of Washington. 

His years in Seattle were highly successful, he was first team all-Pacific Coast Conference in 1950 and 1951 and first team All-American in 1951. But he also was very controversial. He married his high school sweetheart, Peggy Ogston, when he was 21, so he had to make a living. Though never verified, rumor had it that he made $10,000 a year while a Huskie. In fact it was reported that he was forced to take a pay cut when he signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1952. He was constantly in conflict with his college coach, Howie Odell, being notoriously late to practice, ignoring training rules and drinking too much. Years later he admitted to the latter charges, but explained the being late to practice was because of his class schedule. His excellence on the football field was unquestioned and he left Washington holding the record for rushing yardage in a career (2,499), a season (1,107) and a game (296 against rival Washington State). He still holds the single game record. 

SEATLE – 1948: Hugh McElhenny #32 of the University of Washington Huskies tries to avoid a tackle during a game circa 1948 at the Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Washington/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

In the 1952 NFL draft, he was taken by the 49ers as the 9th pick overall in the first round. This was a surprise for many, because many speculated that he would go first to his hometown team, the Los Angeles Rams, who controlled that pick. The Rams chose quarterback Billy Wade instead, explaining to their disappointed fans that they questioned McElhenny’s work ethic and temperament. 

The Rams’ selection ended up being a poor one and they soon realized it.

 From Los Angeles Ram Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin:

“You may be able to contain him for 58 minutes, but in those last two , he’ll burn you.” 

McElhenny would earn first team All-Pro his first five years in the league, and be the most electrifying figure in the NFL. 

Hugh McElhenny’s elusiveness in the open field was unprecedented. With his speed and vision he was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. In fact the first time he touched the ball as a pro he scampered 40 yards for a touchdown. He had the longest run from scrimmage (89 yards) and the longest punt return (94 yards) in the league during his rookie season. He averaged 7 yards a carry for the year and was a unanimous selection as NFL Rookie of the Year.  

Former San Francisco 49ers coach Buck Shaw said of him: “He has amazing peripheral vision. He has an exceptional wide range to each side.” 

He changed the way opponents prepared for the 49ers. His explosive speed and agility forced them to put two men on him.  Let’s hear from Los Angeles Ram coach Hampton Pool:

“Preparing for a team that lists McElhenny on the roster, you just can’t take any chances.”

Or the old Papa Bear himself, George Halas said when discussing the 49ers with a scout during a pre-game meeting before a game against San Francisco, cut the scout short and asked, “Okay, okay, never mind that. Just tell me, where’s McElhenny.”

His years in San Francisco ended in 1960, when they failed to protect him in the expansion draft, and he was selected by the Minnesota Vikings. He made his sixth, and final Pro Bowl that year, leading the Vikes in rushing and touchdowns. After a disappointing 1962 the Vikings traded him to the New York Giants, where teamed with Y.A. Tittle, he helped the team to a division title. His career would end the next year when he retired after an injury plagued season with the Detroit Lions.

So how do we summarize McElhenny’s place on the All Time running-back list? While active San Francisco 49er head coach Red Strader said of him in 1955:  “Hugh McElhenny is the greatest of them all. I played fullback with the old Chicago Bulls against Red Grange. Grange was an elusive but soft runner. McElhenny has better change of pace, is two seconds faster and more than 20 pounds heavier than Grange, which gives Mac a lot more power.” At the time Grange was considered the greatest running back of all time. 

Jim Brown came along just as McElhenny’s skills began to slide. We can say conclusively that Jim Brown was a better player than “The King”, but he was not a better open field runner. Just watch some of the highlights of McElhenny in his prime. His 94 yard punt return in his rookie season may be the greatest punt return in history. He had many more spectacular plays on his resume. As he himself said of his style:

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

He may not have been the best back in history, but you can make a pretty good argument, as SPORT MAGAZINE said in their December,1955 article that he was “The Most Exciting Runner In Football.” We believe that’s still the case. 

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