Hugh McElhenny, a Hall of Fame running back who rose to fame as a member of the 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield,” died last Friday at age 93. The 49ers announced the news of his passing on Thursday afternoon.
A member of the NFL‘s all-decade team for the 1950s, McElhenny was a five-time Pro Bowler during his nine seasons with the 49ers. Hailed for his elusive and explosive running style, McElhenny was part of San Francisco’s iconic backfield that also consisted of quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfback John Henry Johnson and fullback Joe Perry. Each player has a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.
“The 49ers family is heartbroken to learn of the passing of one of the NFL’s all-time greats, Hugh McElhenny,” 49ers co-chair Dr. John York 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 to invite an alum to every game, my goal was to meet the ‘Million Dollar Backfield’. Hugh was the last of the four to join us and we remained friends long thereafter. Hugh is a great part of 49ers history.”
Nicknamed “The King,” McElhenny was one of the NFL’s most popular players during the course of his 13-year career. In fact, John Madden, the future Hall of Fame coach and legendary broadcaster, would pretend that he was McElhenny during childhood sandlot football games while growing up in Daly City, California. McElhenny’s rise to stardom began as a rookie, as he earned All-Pro and Rookie of the Year honors that season while recording the NFL’s longest run (89 yards) and punt return (94 yards) during the regular season. His 7.0 yards-per-carry average also led the league.
McElhenny would earn another All-Pro nod the following season (1953) and was a Pro Bowler each season from 1956-58. In 1957, he helped the 49ers win their first-ever division title. A player who was way ahead of his time, McElhenny was a serious threat out of the backfield; he had nearly as many receiving yards as rushing yards during the ’57 season.
McElhenny was a Pro Bowler during his first season with the Vikings in 1961, playing alongside rookie quarterback and future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton. He spent another season in Minnesota before spending one season each with the Giants and Lions.
A member of the Hall of Fame’s induction class of 1970, McElhenny was part of the inaugural 49ers Hall of Fame induction class in 2009. His No. 39 is one of just a dozen numbers that have been retired by the 49ers.
“Hugh McElhenny was a threat in all phases of the game offensively – rushing, pass receiving and as a kick and punt returner,” said Hall of Fame president Jim Porter. “His all-around talent – obvious to pro football scouts when Hugh was still a teenager – will be celebrated and preserved forever in Canton.”