Hugh McElhenny was to pro football in the 1950s and early 1960s what Elvis Presley was to rock and roll. Known as “The King” (McElhenny that is), he had it all. He was an artist whose electrifying moves left opponents and observers spellbound.
McElhenny, a University of Washington All-America halfback, began his football career by rewriting the Pacific Coast Conference’s record book. A first-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers in 1952, Hugh made an immediate impression as a rookie leaving sportswriters groping for new superlatives to describe his exciting style of play. He recorded the season’s longest run from scrimmage (89 yards), the longest punt return (94 yards), and the top rushing average (7.0 yards per carry). Not surprisingly, he was a unanimous choice for the league’s Rookie of the Year honors.
Considered the greatest “thrill runner” of his day, McElhenny ran with a tremendously long stride and high knee action. His breakaway speed and unique ability to change direction at will left defenders dazed and confused.
In 1961, after nine seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances, McElhenny joined the expansion Minnesota Vikings. It was, all things considered, his finest season. With the Vikings he accounted for 1,069 combined yards and made his sixth trip to the Pro Bowl.
Two years later, as a member of the New York Giants, McElhenny realized a dream that had escaped him – playing on a championship team. Although Hugh’s knees were already shot, Giants coach Allie Sherman knew he would give the team “his very best,” something he did automatically his entire 13-year career.
When he retired after the 1964 season, McElhenny was one of only three players to have gained more than 11,000 all-purpose yards. Altogether, on rushing, receiving, kickoff returns, punt returns, and fumble returns, he totaled 11,375 yards — or more than six miles.