The San Francisco 49ers have surprised everyone with two playoff victories, and face their rival the Los Angeles Rams this weekend with the winner going to the Super Bowl. A major reason for the team’s success has been the big plays from third year wideout/running back Deebo Samuel. The elusive hybrid scored the winning touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys, and then his punishing run in the snow against the Green Bay Packers set up Robbie Gould’s game winning field goal. Watching Samuel move in the open field reminded me of the greatest San Francisco running back Hugh McElhenny, the man they called the “King.”

Running back is a position governed by instinct and nerve, and many of the greatest ballcarriers will tell you they can’t teach anyone else how to run. Each runner has his own style, and if the coach likes what he sees, he doesn’t do any editing.

“A great runner is like a Picasso,” said former San Diego Charger coach Sid Gilman. “No one’s going to tell him, ‘This is the way to paint.’”

McElhenny was a rookie in 1952 when 49er quarterback Frank Albert convinced head coach Buck Shaw to put him in a preseason game against the Chicago Cardinals. Shaw said, “He doesn’t know any plays.” Albert responded, “Since when has that stopped us?”

They drew up a play the old-fashioned way, in the dirt, and McElhenny took a pitchout 42 yards for a touchdown. And thus began his pro career of making big yardage on spectacular plays. McElhenny made an immediate impact when the regular season started. In the second game he gained 170 yards on just seven attempts, and he had a 33-yard pass reception. In week four against the Chicago Bears, he gained 103 yards on 12 carries, and had a 94 yard touchdown on a punt return that would stand as a 49er record for 36 years. That year he would also have an 89 yard TD run from the line of scrimmage.

It was in that first season that McElhenny got his nickname. After a victory, Albert was giving out the game ball. He turned to future Hall of Fame fullback Joe Perry and said, “Joe, we call you the “Jet”, but Hugh, you are the “King” of all halfbacks,” giving him the ball.


McElhenny had track star speed, 9.6 in the 100 yards, and he had been a state champion in the high hurdles which gave him incredible balance. Also, he had size, 6’ 1”, 195 pounds, which was big for a back in the decade of the 50’s.

The “King” was first team All-Pro his first two years when he set records for all- purpose yards- running, receiving, and kick returns. He would play for 13 years [1952-64] with injuries to his battered knees eventually slowing him down. He played in the era of vicious tackling and piling on, when unnecessary roughness penalties were rarely called. A testament to his durability was that McElhenny made All-Pro at age 33, on the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961 after San Francisco let him go, thinking he was too old.

I can close my eyes and see McElhenny, number 39, whirling and dodging, high-stepping and cutting across the field. If I needed yards up the middle, I would give the ball to Jim Brown with his power and grace. Off tackle, I’d pick Gale Sayers or Walter Payton for their explosiveness. But if it was third down and twenty, I’d want the quarterback to throw a reverse screen pass to Hugh McElhenny, and watch him go.

After his HOF playing career, Hugh was a radio commentator for the 49ers. One morning he woke up with numbness in his legs, and he couldn’t move. His wife Peggy rushed him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with Guillian-Barre Syndrome, a rare nerve disorder that brings paralysis and is sometime fatal. Imagine one of the greatest running backs in history not being able to move his legs. His weight dropped from 210 to 145. Someone had to feed him for 3 months. He almost died.

But he persevered and recovered and was able to walk again without a cane. In his 90’s now, he lives with his family near Las Vegas. I’m sure he will be watching his old team this weekend, and I’m hoping someone will mention his name. The King has yet to relinquish his throne.

Mike Wood is a correspondent for The Daily Advance.