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Hugh “The King” McElhenny Was a 49ers Franchise Savior

Jun 4, 2021 at 10:18 AM


The San Francisco 49ers were one of three teams from the old All-American Football Conference to join the NFL in 1950. The others were the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts. When the schedule was announced, some NFL owners balked about playing in San Francisco because, they claimed, the cost of traveling to the West Coast was too high and that the 49ers' ticket prices were too low.

The 49ers charged $3.60 for seats between the 30- and 50-yard line, $2.40 for other reserved seats, $1.80 for general admission, and 50 cents for children under twelve at Kezar Stadium. So then, team owner Tony Morabito hiked the tariff to $3.75, $3, and $2, maintaining 50 cents for youngsters. Still, the 49er prices were the lowest in the league.

After a sorry 1-4 exhibition season in 1950, this was an indication of sadder things to come in the regular season. After a 35-14 humiliation against the Rams, the Los Angeles coach, Joe Stydahar, declared: "The 49ers aren't big enough or tough enough to play in the NFL." The 49ers first season playing against established NFL teams ended up a dismal three-win, nine-loss season. Ticket sales were under 20,000 a game.

In that era, the game was tougher, more of a test of strength than finesse. The rules were more liberal, permitting the defense to do things that are forbidden today. There were fewer officials, so players didn't have to worry as much about being penalized.

The 49ers bounced back in 1951 to finish in third place with a 7-4-1 record, and most of the players felt a wonderful esprit de corps and couldn't wait until they got organized for the 1952 season, while the other clubs were laughing at them. Still, the franchise wasn't making much money, but the players knew that Morabito would do the best he could for them.

Prior to the 1952 NFL Draft, quarterback Frankie Albert called Morabito from Honolulu and told the owner he played with one of the greatest running backs he'd ever seen — Hugh McElhenny — in the Hula Bowl. Albert said, "Tony, we've got to draft him!"

Although McElhenny had been a star at the University of Washington, some coaches and scouts claimed he was temperamentally not suited for the pro level — a "problem kid," one report said. The 49ers discovered later how erroneous those reports were. So the 49ers snagged McElhenny at the ninth pick in the first round of the NFL draft.

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But Morabito almost didn't live to see him play, for, in March of 1952, he suffered a serious heart attack. 49ers physician, Dr. Bill O'Grady, after examining him and his charts, shook his head sadly and said it was 60-40 against him. A priest was summoned, and Morabito received his last rites. He was told he would have to get out of football, as there was too much tension and pressure for a heart like his to contend with.

Morabito agreed to sell the club, or at least the doctors thought he did. A steady parade of would-be buyers from as far away from Miami, Atlanta, and Buffalo marched in and out of the 49ers office on Stockton Street. Strangely, when a deal would be just about set, Morabito would find some excuse to end negotiations.

So Morabito was on borrowed time and knew it. He did not let his illness interrupt his paternal interest in his personal affairs. He was so excited about the drafting of McElhenny and the chances of his team winning a championship. There was a supercharged atmosphere at training camp, especially after Albert had introduced McElhenny.

Said Albert, "I want you to meet the only college-star ever to take a salary cut to play pro football." Many observers had heard about McElhenny being paid to play college ball, amounting to much more than the $7,000 he received from the 49ers as a rookie.

For the first time, the 49ers had a big halfback. McElhenny was 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, and had sprinters' speed. Head coach Buck Shaw said McElhenny had every requisite to become a great running back in the league. In his debut against the Cardinals, he ran 42-yards for a touchdown the first time he got his hands on the ball.

Most of us growing up during the golden age of pro football never had that "free-as-the-wind" feeling, of seeing someone like McElhenny slipping and weaving through a broken field, of dodging and ducking around people as though they were garbage cans. Our man with the sixth sense, with the kind of wide angle-vision that told him at a glance where every tackler was stacked out, was McElhenny.

In a recent interview with McElhenny, he said, "It's like when you walk down a dark alley. That's how I feel when I'm out in the open, all alone — as if I'm walking down a dark alley. And you see at the end of the alley a glimmer of light from the cross street. That's the goal line, and you're in a hurry to get there.'

McElhenny had many nicknames. To the public, he was known as "Hurryin' Hugh," "Hustlin' Hugh," and "Hurricane Hugh." After he ran wild in a 40-16 rout against the Chicago Bears in his rookie season with the 49ers, which included a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown, teammates, in presenting the game ball to him – namely quarterback Albert — called him "The King" — the King of the running backs, and that name has stuck through his entire 13-year career.

McElhenny remembers that game against the Bears well.

"I fielded a punt at my own six and rocked on my feet for a split-second or two," he recalled. "This was a habit of mine that enabled me to see how the field was spread. As two Chicago ends thought they had me trapped. I zipped straight ahead, and the two ends collided, bumping heads, a moment of fine burlesque (he chuckled). In a few steps, I was in overdrive again. I straightened up and went through the rest of the Bears. They say that run covered 94-yards, not including the millage I must have traveled sideways, another 100 yards!"

George Halas, coach of the Bears, never a man to mince words, told McElhenny, "That was the damnedest greatest unbelievable run I've ever seen in football!" Until John Taylor's 95-yard punt return in 1998, McElhenny held the 49ers record with that punt return for 46 years.

Lou Spadia, then President of the 49ers, said the organization was completely unprepared for the success which followed with that excitement McElhenny brought to the fans. He became rookie of the year, and a unanimous All-Pro selection, and Sport Magazine's "Player of the Year," including a remarkable 7.0 rushing average. His 89-yard run against Dallas was the year's longest from scrimmage.

That season the 49ers won twelve straight games with the addition of McElhenny — all seven of their exhibition games and their first five league games. But injuries would hit the squad hard, and only 28 players were available by the season's end. In 1953, season ticket sales doubled, and the 49ers went on to a 9-3 record and finished second in the Western Division. For McElhenny, it was the beginning of a great career.

McElhenny, age 92, lives in Henderson, Nevada, and is the fourth oldest living Hall of Famer behind Charlie Trippi (94), Marv Levy (95), and Bud Grant (94).

Author's note:

I was a young boy at the ripe age of nine years old sitting in the end zone at old Kezar Stadium when I watched him run for his first touchdown against the Cardinals. Sixty-nine years have passed, and I'm still a huge McElhenny fan. To me, he ran the ball the way little boys do in their wildest dreams. He had speed and power and guts, and the complete repertoire of moves — the pivot, the sidestep, the change of pace, the high stepping, the sudden bursts, the spinning, the shoulder fakes, his use of his straight arm, and an uncanny gift for breaking a tackle.

To honor McElhenny, I've authored a new book called, "'THE KING' Hugh McElhenny-A San Francisco 49ers Legend." The book is 300 pages with 290 fantastic photos. It can be ordered here from Amazon.com, eBay, or from me, Martin Jacobs, for a signed copy. I can be reached at [email protected]
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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