New York Giants halfback Hugh McElhenny, a University of Washington alum, poses at the team’s training camp in Sept. 3, 1963, in Fairfield, Conn. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)

New York Giants halfback Hugh McElhenny, a University of Washington alum, poses at the team’s training camp in Sept. 3, 1963, in Fairfield, Conn. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)

Legendary UW halfback McElhenny dies at age 93

The Pro Football Hall-of-Famer’s record for rushing yards in a game (296 against WSU in 1950) still stands at UW.

By Mike Vorel / The Seattle Times

Hugh McElhenny was the Apple Cup King.

On Nov. 25, 1950, McElhenny — who died of natural causes at his home in Nevada on June 17, at age 93 — produced the greatest performance in the rivalry’s 113-game history. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound halfback and Los Angeles native amassed 296 rushing yards — still a program record — and five touchdowns on just 20 carries in a 52-21 win, the highlight being a game-ending 84-yard sprint.

“That (run) really wasn’t that unusual,” former UW middle linebacker Jim Wiley told The Times in 1997. “That year, Mac had a run of 65 yards or more in every game. He had to be the most dominant runner in college football at that time. The guy was just fantastic.

“In my mind, I still think he’s the greatest running back Washington has produced. We were fortunate to get him. If he had gone to USC and played behind some of the offensive lines they had, he’d still be the all-time leading rusher in college football.”

Indeed, McElhenny could have played anywhere — including the pros. After winning state championships in the high hurdles (while setting a national record), low hurdles and long jump at George Washington High School, the San Francisco 49ers offered McElhenny a contract to bypass college football entirely for the NFL. Instead, he spent a year at Compton Junior College, then transferred to the University of Washington.

“It is my opinion that McElhenny right now is good enough to step into the starting backfield at either Notre Dame or Michigan next fall,” former Michigan All-American and Los Angeles broadcaster Tom Harmon told The Times in 1949. “Or he could make any good professional team if he should so elect.”

Instead, McElhenny elected to make a name on Montlake — and he wasted little time. In three seasons in Seattle, from 1949 to 1951, McElhenny was twice named an Associated Press first-team All-American (1950-51). He amassed 1,107 rushing yards as a junior in 1950, the first Husky to eclipse 1,000 yards. McElhenny left Washington with 16 school records, including season and career rushing yards.

“Hugh McElhenny of Washington certainly is All-America caliber,” Seattle Times sports editor Eugene H. Russell wrote on Nov. 28, 1951. “So much has been said of Hugh as a brilliant ball-carrier that nothing can be added.”

Besides, the highlights speak for themselves.

Take Oct. 6, 1951, when McElhenny returned a punt for an equal-parts-stupid-and-sensational 100-yard touchdown in a 20-13 loss to USC.

“We were behind Southern Cal 20-7 my senior year, and I was getting really frustrated at running back,” McElhenny told The Times in 2011. “I received a punt at the goal line and decided to run it back. I went 100 yards. Our coach, Howie O’Dell, was running down the sideline yelling, ‘Let it go! Let it go!’ All of a sudden, he stopped yelling.

“It was a stupid play on my part, but it worked out.”

Or take Oct. 13, 1951, when McElhenny accepted emergency placekicker duties and promptly converted nine extra points — tying a Pacific Coast Conference record — in a 63-6 romp over rival Oregon.

The next morning, The Times’ headline read: “What Do You Know! We Worried About a Point Kicker and Had One All the Time — Hugh!”

Or take his final game as a Husky, a 20-20 tie with UCLA in his hometown of Los Angeles — where McElhenny provided all 20 of Washington’s points, via three touchdowns and a pair of extra points.

“In a blaze of glory in his last collegiate game in his hometown, Hugh McElhenny, Washington Huskies’ great fullback, definitely stamped himself as an All-American player,” Russell wrote that day.

“We have been certain for a long time McElhenny is one of the really superb players on the gridiron today, but his brilliant games against the California Bears at Berkeley a week ago and his playing in the UCLA game yesterday were displays of such exceptional talent that the experts just can’t leave him off the top team.”

Or take McElhenny’s 13-year NFL career — which included Rookie of the Year honors and six Pro Bowl nods in stints with the 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Detroit Lions. The Husky halfback was selected by San Francisco with the No. 9 overall pick in the 1952 NFL draft — combining with quarterback Y.A. Tittle and fellow running backs Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson to form the “Million Dollar Backfield.”

McElhenny was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. He was one of 10 inaugural members enshrined in the Husky Hall of Fame in 1979.

“The statistics were hollow, because there is no statistic that can describe the beauty and the artistry of Hugh McElhenny running,” former 49ers executive Lou Spadia said at McElhenny’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement. “He was simply the greatest runner of all time, but the magnificent thing is that he took this gift of God, nourished it, treasured it and carried it onto his public.”

Or take …

Or take …

Or take …

When it comes to McElhenny, the examples are endless.

“Today’s news is extremely sad for our program,” UW head coach Kalen DeBoer said in a statement Thursday, after the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced McElhenny’s passing. “Hugh’s name is synonymous with Washington football and we know he was a huge part of the incredible history we have here. His impact stretched far beyond UW and he did so many great things for the game of football. We offer our heartfelt sympathies to all that knew him.”

Indeed, Hugh’s name is synonymous with Washington football.

As well as the Apple Cup.

McElhenny’s 296-yard, five-touchdown assault on WSU in 1950 was attended by 30,000 people — “the largest crowd that ever has witnessed a collegiate contest in this Inland Empire metropolis,” The Times’ George M. Varnell wrote that day. (They also witnessed Washington score a then-record 52 points against their rival.)

But, besides that bombardment, McElhenny wasn’t done. Later dubbed “The King” by a 49ers teammate, the Husky halfback also contributed 147 yards against WSU in 1949 and 135 more in 1951. All told, McElhenny amassed 578 rushing yards, 10.1 yards per carry and seven touchdowns in three Apple Cup appearances (and two wins).

Seventy years later, he’s still the rivalry’s most prolific performer.

That legacy is everlasting.

Long live the king.

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