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“The King” of The 49ers Million Dollar Backfield

How did Hugh McElhenny get the nickname, “The King?” Learn this and more about his incredible NFL career that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. McElhenny interviewed for The Game Before the Money Podcast via email in 2020.

How Much Did NFL Rookies Make in the 1950s?

McElhenny was one of four future Hall of Famers selected in that 1st round of the 1952 NFL draft, having been selected as the 9th overall choice. He reportedly signed for $7,000. Frank Gifford said that he signed with the New York Giants for $8,000 when he interviewed for the book, The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL.

For perspective, cornerback C.J. Henderson was the 9th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Henderson signed a contract that guaranteed $610,000 for his rookie year and reportedly has over eight million dollars in guaranteed money over four years. He also reportedly got a twelve million dollar signing bonus.

Hugh McElhenny Rookie Year

Hugh McElhenny showed up to the 1952 San Francisco 49ers training camp and 49ers quarterback Frankie Albert was already a fan. He had seen McElhenny play in the Hula Bowl and helped convince 49ers head coach, Buck Shaw to draft McElhenny.

Frankie Albert had a lot of sway with the team and he asked Shaw to put McElhenny in a preseason game against the Cardinals. Legend has it that Coach Buck Shaw responded, “Well, he doesn’t know any plays.”

Frankie Albert responded, “when has that stopped us?”

Albert did things the old-fashioned way: he drew up a play in the dirt right there on the spot. McElhenny took a pitch out 42 yards for a touchdown. And thus began Hugh McElhenny’s pro career of making big yardage on spectacular plays.

In Week 2 of his rookie season, he rushed for 170 yards on only 7 carries. He also had a 33-yard reception.

In Week 4 against the Bears, McElhenny gained 103 yards on only 12 carries, and he had a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown. That stood as the longest punt return in San Francisco 49ers history until John Taylor broke it with a 95-yard punt return in 1988, 36 years later.

A lot of McElhenny’s runs picked up quite a bit of yardage, so he would gain more in one carry than many running backs would gain in several. He scored ten touchdowns in his rookie season. All except for two of those touchdowns were on plays that gained more than 15 yards. He averaged 7 yards per carry his rookie season, the third-highest single-season total in NFL history at the time. And in his rookie season, he had both the NFL’s longest rush and the longest punt return of the year.

Why Is Hugh McElhenny the King?

I asked McElhenny when he first remembered being called “The King”, and he said that Frankie Albert gave him that nickname during his rookie season. According to San Francisco 49ers: Where Have You Gone? by Matt Maiocco, it was after the Bears game that Albert handed McElhenny the game ball and told the team that Hugh was “The King” of the halfbacks.

1952 San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers stood as the NFL’s only unbeaten team in 1952, after four games. They extended the streak to 5-0 the next week. Hugh gained 93 yards on only 5 carries. He scored two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. And this brings us to two points about McElhenny’s outstanding career.

The first is that although the 49ers bolted out to a 5-0 start in a 12-game season, they didn’t make the playoffs. In fact, they lost five of their next six games. When I asked McElhenny what he thought defined those San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1950s, he replied, “The only way I can describe the 49ers of the 1950s is they seemed to keep coming up short of the championships.”

The Million Dollar Backfield

You may have noticed that “The King” gained a lot of yards but only had a few carries in those games I mentioned earlier. That’s because of the great 49ers backfields of the 1950s. There were called the Million Dollar Backfield.

The San Francisco 49ers Million Dollar Backfield consisted of Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, and Y.A. Tittle. All four are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

McElhenny said in the book 49ers Looking Back that Y.A. Tittle used to joke about trying to keep everybody happy. As a result, McElhenny didn’t carry the ball as much as if he were the sole workhorse for a team. There were only four games over his entire career that he carried the ball 20 times or more in a game, and in his first four seasons, he only carried the ball over 15 times or more in three games.

McElhenny was an all-time expert at using the entire field. He was famous for razor-sharp cuts and zigzagging through an entire defense. I highly recommend that you check out some of his highlights, which are often easily found on YouTube.

The San Francisco 49ers of the 1950s were one of two teams in NFL history to have a “Million Dollar Backfield.” The Chicago Cardinals of the 1940s also had a group with that title, led by Hall of Famer Charley Trippi.

Hugh McElhenny NFL Stats and Bio

  • Born on December 31st, 1928
  • Hugh McElhenny grew up in Los Angeles, CA
  • Hugh McElhenny played college football at the University of Washington
  • He played for four NFL teams: 49ers, Vikings, Giants, and Lions
  • Played in the 1957 Western Division Playoff for the 49ers
  • Played in the 1963 NFL Championship for the New York Giants
  • Had the NFL’s longest runs in 1952 and 1956
  • Hugh McElhenny was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970

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