"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.
October 19, 1952
Halfback Hugh McElhenny knew he was violating special teams protocol by fielding a punt on the 6 yard line. Still, he juked a couple of Chicago Bears players, darted to the sideline and scampered 94 yards to the end zone.
In just his fourth NFL game, McElhenny posted the longest punt return in 49ers history at the time, a record that stood until John Taylor's 95-yard dash in 1988. He also registered 103 rushing yards on 12 carries that day as the 49ers beat the powerful Bears 40-16, the first time since joining the NFL.
The rookie's uncanny elusiveness and wildly weaving touchdown jaunts quickly turned him into a Kezar Stadium rock star. Even McElhenny's veteran teammates watched his runs with bewildered amusement. They were not quite sure what they were seeing or where their new running back might be going.
"After that game, in the locker room," McElhenny said, "Frankie Albert gave me the game ball and said, 'You're now the King.' Then he turned to Joe Perry and said, 'Joe, you're still the Jet.'"
That's when the legend was born. "The King" was finally crowned, and McElhenny was definitely backfield royalty. His breakaway speed and intuitive cutbacks created nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.
"McElhenny was the greatest broken field runner I ever saw play. There's no doubt about that," claimed Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle, McElhenny's teammate for eight years and a veteran of 17 pro seasons.
Joe Perry, the fullback alongside McElhenny in the backfield, was even more effusive in his praise for "the King."
"Mac was the best open field runner of our era," said Perry, another member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "He was a will o' the wisp out there. Gale Sayers was a great open field runner too, but he was different from Mac. It's hard to say which one was better."
McElhenny developed his running ability as a prep hurdling star in Los Angeles, and reportedly could run a 9.8 in the 100-yard dash. McElhenny had more than speed. He claimed it was an undefinable trait that many great backs possess.
"Speed is one ingredient," McElhenny said. "I had pretty good speed but I couldn't beat Joe Perry in the 50. I could beat him in the 100 though. To be a good running back, well, it's just God's gift. That's not something you can teach. I did things by instinct. Running, balance, all of it was instinct. You also have to intuitively know where other people are on the field."
McElhenny earned the NFL's Rookie of the Year award in 1952 after posting a league-leading 1,731 all-purpose yards and averaging seven yards per rushing attempt, best in the NFL. The former University of Washington star also recorded 10 touchdowns that season, including 89 and 82-yard runs that still rank among the four longest in 49ers history.
During his nine years in San Francisco, McElhenny earned five Pro Bowl selections and was widely acclaimed as one of the NFL's most dangerous skill players.
"There's no question he could do everything," former teammate Billy Wilson said. "He could change direction on a dime."
In the mid-1950s, "the King" teamed with Tittle, Perry and John Henry Johnson to form the famed "Million Dollar Backfield." All four men are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.