San Francisco

Hugh “The King” McElhenny 

Pardon us if we got you “All Shook Up” but we recently had the pleasure of visiting with the only man who could literally shake his hips better than Elvis and his name is Hugh “The King” McElhenny. He was anointed the title during his 1952 rookie year with the Forty Niners. After a rare win over the Bears in Chicago in which McElhenny scored on two thrilling touchdown runs (and also had three other apparent touchdowns that were called back for penalties), the team captain and quarterback Frankie Albert tossed him the game ball in the clubhouse and announced “this is for the King of all halfbacks.” McElhenny proved out Albert’s initial observations. He is still considered to be one of the most exciting runners in the history of the NFL. McElhenny was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility in 1970 and his number 39 was ultimately retired by the Forty Niners.  

The single bar facemask was introduced by Riddell in 1955 and McElhenny wore it for the first time that season while part of San Francisco’s famous “Million Dollar Backfield” (a term reflecting their worth to the team but certainly not their salaries) which also included  John Henry Johnson, Joe Perry and Y.A. Tittle. Although they were together for only three years, 1954 through 1956, each of these immensely talented players went on to be inducted into The Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

It has been precisely 50 years since Hugh first start wearing this now legendary facemask and it seemed like a “golden” opportunity for us to track down “The King” and present him with a Helmet Hut authentic reproduction of the same helmet that he wore while making those unforgettable broken field runs during his “Million Dollar Backfield” days.

Hugh and his wife Peggy are enjoying their retirement in a suburb of Las Vegas. They relocated to this area about ten years ago in order to live close to their children and grandchildren.  

Hugh has wonderful recollections from the glorious 1950s and early 1960s “Golden” era of pro football. He stresses that for him football was simply “fun” to play and players of that era played more for the love of the game than for the money. Hugh actually made significantly more money while “working” at various jobs arranged by the athletic department during his senior season at the University of Washington compared to his $7,000 rookie year salary for the Forty Niners. He fondly remembers the special relationships he formed with teammates during long road trips other with players from other teams during his five Pro Bowl trips. In those days the Forty Niners would travel to Chicago each season and stay there for a three week period playing the Bears and commuting back and forth from there to play the Lions and Packers on subsequent weekends. An additional extended road trip was made to New York where the team was headquartered for two weeks while the team commuted back and forth from the “Big Apple” to play east coast teams.  While traveling he and Billy Wilson, Hugh’s roommate on the road and the team’s outstanding receiver, would save their $25 weekly meal allowance and spend it all at the best restaurant in town each Saturday night before the next day’s game.  

To get in shape for each upcoming season Hugh and Billy would go to Lake Tahoe for two weeks of waterskiing and touch football before reporting to training camp. McElhenny never lifted weights in his life and says his tremendous speed, strength and physique were “God given.”  Born and raised in Los Angeles he further developed his natural physical qualities by playing all kinds of sports including swimming, track and football. As a youth he worked as an usher in the LA Coliseum for the Rams, Dons (AAFC) and USC games. He has kept physically active his entire life and like clockwork he still takes his morning walk, midday swim and afternoon golf. Never seriously injured during his playing career (he says he hated contact and would weave back and forth across the field to avoid it) Hugh still looks like he could suit up for one more season. 

When asked who was the most colorful or memorable player he encountered during his playing days, without hesitation Hugh replied Bobby Layne. Hugh recalled, “He was a fun loving guy and everyone enjoyed being around him.” “He married a wealthy woman and he always had plenty of money to spend on his late night escapades but it never interfered with his performance on the field.” Hugh was also close to the fiery former quarterback and coach Norm “Dutch” Van Brocklin. Hugh and Van Brocklin were teammates on the same Hula Bowl squad and on several Pro Bowl teams during the 1950s. Towards the end of his playing career Hugh actually played on the 1961 expansion franchise Minnesota Viking team coached by Van Brocklin.

Because of their previous friendship Hugh was one of the few Viking players who got along well with the “no nonsense” Van Brocklin. He would refer to Hugh as “Amos Alonzo” (Stagg) when he wanted to needle his aging halfback and friend. After practice “Dutch” would order a 50 yard race between the 31 year old McElhenny and a 21 year old rookie lineman named Jim Marshall. After giving Hugh a ten yard head start Van Brocklin would derive special pleasure from watching the young lineman beat the once lightning fast (he could run a 9.6 second 100 yard dash in high school and college) running back. Although Van Brocklin and his rookie Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton did not get along, Hugh remembers that the weight lifting program “Dutch” designed and mandated for Tarkenton enabled him to develop the necessary arm strength to perform in the NFL which he originally lacked coming out of college.   

McElhenny did not pay much attention to the color and pageantry associated with the game. When asked to name his favorite stadium, he quickly replied “Stanford Stadium.”  When asked to explain why, he simply stated “because of the quality of the grass.” Likewise, Hugh did not pay much attention to uniform designs other than to say that the color purple, which ironically he wore while playing for both the University of Washington and the Vikings, was not an appropriate team color. 

Although he may not have paid much attention to the equipment he used or the various stadium environments he played at, Hugh “The King” McElhenny still clutches and fidgets with the authentic reproduction of his old one bar helmet in a way only a former player would recognize. The anxious mannerisms of a tired but willing player relegated to the sidelines late in the game and pleading – “hey coach, put me back in the game.”