Before there was Joe Montana, Steve Young or Jerry Rice, the San Francisco 49ers celebrated Hugh McElhenny.
McElhenny was one of the NFL’s brightest stars in the 1950s, as the game was growing at a fast rate. He was one of the first 49ers players to have his number retired. Nobody has worn No. 39 for the 49ers since 1971, when his number was retired by the team.
McElhenny died at age 93, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced on Thursday.
It is with deep sadness the Pro Football Hall of Fame shares the passing of Hugh McElhenny. He died at the age of 93.
We pass along our heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and to the many whose lives he touched.
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— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) June 23, 2022
He was known as “The King,” and that nickname fit him well in his prime.
Hugh McElhenny was a star for 49ers
In 1952 McElhenny joined the 49ers as a first-round pick after a great college career at Washington. As a rookie he was a Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro. He had a 94-yard punt return and 89-yard run as a rookie, both the longest in the NFL that season.
His dominance continued through the 1950s. He was named to the all-decade team. His darting running style contributed to his 11,375 all-purpose yards.
McElhenny is best known as a 49er. He made the Pro Bowl five times in nine seasons with the team. He moved on to the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961 and made another Pro Bowl with them, an impressive feat for a 33-year-old on a brand new team. He also played for the Detroit Lions and New York Giants before retiring following the 1964 season.
McElhenny was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970. McElhenny was ahead of his time, an all-around talent at running back whose open-field ability made him nearly impossible to stop.
Other backs in the decades since have copied McElhenny’s style to great success. But McElhenny will always be “The King,” especially to older 49ers fans.
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