McElhenny is remembered as a symbol of the 1950s. He was a first-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers in 1952 from the University of Washington, and was an instant hit. His rookie season, the versatile halfback recorded the 49ers season’s longest run from scrimmage (89-yards), the longest punt return (94-yards) and the top rushing average (7.0-yards per carry). Not surprisingly, he was a unanimous choice for the league’s NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
Descriptions of his runs were like passages out of children’s fiction, literally sprinkled with opposing players bouncing off each other and diving helplessly at his vanishing heels.In college, he broke every rushing record at Washington, and many of his marks – for example, most yards in a game (298-yards), and best career per carry average (7.8-yards) – still stand nearly seven-decades later.
Said McElhenny, “I always looked at it this way. Since I knew where I was going, and the defensive players don’t, I feel it’s their problem to worry about me.”
“McElhenny was like a bowling ball thrown with body English, said 49ers head coach Frankie Albert, “It slides crazily down the alley, curls around the pins and scatters them gently.”
Said McElhenny to me in an interview in 2000, “It’s like when you walk down a dark alley. That’s how I feel when I’m out in the open all alone – as if I’m walking down a dark alley. And you see at the end of the alley, a glimmer of light from the cross street – that’s the goal line, and you’re in a hurry to get there. But, on the way, even though the alley is dark you can’t see a thing, you sense a telegraph pole to your right, and you veer away from it. A few steps farther you sense a doorway with a man in it, even though you can’t see him. You just feel it. So you turn away from that too. Haven’t you had that experience many times? I have.
In 1961, after nine seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances with the 49ers, McElhenny played for the Minnesota Vikings. It was, all things considered, his finest season. He accounted for 1,067 combined yards, and made his sixth trip to the Pro Bowl. Two years later, as a member of the New York Giants, McElhenny realized a dream which had thus far escaped him – playing on a championship team. When he retired after the 1964 season, McElhenny was one of only three players to have gained more than more than 11,000 all-purpose yards.