Collector and long-time historian Martin Jacobs has a new book devoted to one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. “The King: Hugh McElhenny, a San Francisco 49ers Legend” draws on Jacobs’ own collection of photographs and memorabilia—and his long-time friendship with the Hall of Famer.
The 300-page book includes 297 photos of McElhenny’s life and career and Jacobs was there for all of it, starting as a nine-year-old in 1952 when he watched McElhenny zig-zag 42 yards for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball.
“Hugh influenced me in everything I did in my life and shaped my character,” Jacobs told us. “My feeling was if McElhenny could escape tacklers like he did, anything was possible.”
McElhenny is 92—the fourth oldest living Hall of Famer. He was part of the Niners’ famous “Million Dollar Backfield” of Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson in the 1950’s. He 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.
“There have been running backs as fast as McElhenny, but I never saw another who had the elusiveness and agility and speed much like Gale Sayers,” fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers once said.
As a University of Washington All-American halfback, McElhenny established conference records for yards gained (2,499) and longest punt return (100 yards) and led the conference in scoring in 1950 and 1951. McElhenny was a first-round draft choice of the 49ers in 1952 and was an instant hit, recording the 49ers’ 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 NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
In 1961, after nine seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances with the 49ers, McElhenny played for the Minnesota Vikings. It was, all things considered, his finest season. With the Vikings, he accounted for 1,067 combined yards and made his sixth trip to the Pro Bowl. Two years later, as a member of the New York Giants, McElhenny realized his dream that had thus far escaped him – playing on a championship team. When he retired after the 1964 season, McElhenny was one of only three players to have gained more than 11,000 all-purpose yards.