Persistence and patience can often pay off for collectors. It certainly did for Martin Jacobs and now he owns a piece of historic football memorabilia he’d all but given up on.
Jacobs owns an extensive collection of San Francisco 49ers memorabilia and has published books about the team’s history, sometimes through the eyes of game-worn jerseys, game-used footballs and other artifacts.
His childhood hero, running back Hugh McElhenny, became a close friend. Jacobs wrote another book about the Hall of Fame running back he’d idolized as a kid, highlighted by some of The King’s memorabilia.
About 17 years ago, he was honing in on buying McElhenny’s 1951 University of Washington jersey from well-known football collector Gus LeDonne.
The two men were already acquainted. On previous occasions, Jacobs had purchased McElhenny’s wool letterman sweater, his 1952 East-West Shrine Game jersey and his 1952 College All-Stars jersey from the annual game in Chicago. After purchasing a cashier’s check to pay for his most recent purchase, Jacobs got some bad news. Gus LeDonne had passed away.
He later reached out to the family in hopes of completing the purchase.
“I spoke with his brother who had Gus’s collection. I explained that Gus and I were completing a deal for McElhenny’s college jersey,” Jacobs recalled. Sadly, before another transaction could be arranged, LeDonne’s brother also passed away.
Jacobs thought any chance to acquire the jersey was lost.
Seventeen years later, his luck changed.
“I received a phone call a week ago from a collector in Boston, Nick Coppola. He asked me if I had any interest in a McElhenny college jersey he had. He said he had read my book and he decided to contact me knowing I was a huge fan of McElhenny. I was elated to receive the call.”
But was the jersey Coppola was offering the same one he’d come so close to buying years earlier?
“Ultimately, he scanned photos for me of the jersey, front and back, the tagging along with the repairs from game use. Also, the jersey was autographed by McElhenny. Everything was right, and it was the same jersey Gus had originally offered me.”
Jacobs quickly struck a deal and the jersey was delivered.
“A week later I received the jersey, and I immediately called McElhenny and told him the good news. He promptly replied, ‘Where the hell did you find my jersey?’ I told him the story. Then he said, ‘Amazing!’
McElhenny is now 93—one of the oldest living pro football players. Jacobs says his Hall of Fame friend suffers from dementia, but still remembered when he wore No. 32 for Washington.
“He said, ‘You know, I ran a 101-yard kickoff return against USC, and scored all 26 points against UCLA, and ran for 274-yards against Minnesota wearing that jersey’.”
It’s one of those rare pieces that has not one, but two pretty good stories to tell.