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November 18, 2018

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Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny has seen NFL endure big chance

Currently a Henderson resident, former great can't fathom today's salaries or selfishness

It has been a long time.

When Hugh McElhenny strapped on his helmet, he didn't have to look through the bars of a facemask. When he saw game footage, his slashing runs were not on a glitzy highlight show within moments of the final gun. When he lay on the turf hurt, he didn't see a specialist come off the sideline to pamper him.

McElhenny was open-faced, black and white, broken bones -- all the things today's NFL player is not.

The legendary San Francisco 49ers halfback was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970, before many current NFL players were born. Since his retirement, he has witnessed the game's amazing growth through lucrative television contracts, merchandising and expansion into foreign lands.

"It blows my mind," he says.

McElhenny, 70, now lives in Henderson with his wife, two daughters and four grandchildren.

When he watches the Denver Broncos play the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in Super Bowl XXXIII, he still will enjoy the action. But he will recall how much simpler the sport used to be.

"It wasn't a business," McElhenny says of his playing days. "It was still a game. It was fun. The 49ers paid $25,000 for the franchise in 1946. How do you compare that with the Washington Redskins at 800 million bucks? That's out of my range of thinking.

"When I go back for my 30-year (Hall of Fame induction) anniversary next year, I won't know the young guys and they won't know me. What would we talk about? How do I even talk to a guy who makes $5 million a year?"

This Sunday will mark only the sixth time McElhenny has not attended a Super Bowl. He chose to stay with his wife, Peggy, who is facing possible knee replacement surgery.

McElhenny will watch this year's title game at Si Redd's Oasis in Mesquite. He will join two dozen other football personalities, including former All-Pros Elvin Bethea, Dave Dalby, Haven Moses and Pat Studstill, as well as retired coaches Hayden Fry and John Ralston, for a golf tournament today and a party on Sunday.

McElhenny made immediate impact as a No. 1 draft pick out of Washington in 1952. He ran 40 yards for a touchdown on his first pro play, which was drawn in the dirt because he hadn't yet learned the 49ers' playbook. He won rookie and player of the year honors.

Before his inaugural season the 49ers had been put up for sale. But McElhenny became so wildly successful in the Bay Area the owners took the team off the market.

He was a staple in the legendary "Million Dollar Backfield." The full-house formation also featured Y.A. Tittle at quarterback and Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson at running back. They are the only four-member backfield to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

It was during McElhenny's tenure the NFL really started to blossom.

"I was in the greatest era," says McElhenny, who also played for the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Detroit Lions before retiring in 1964.

"The Art Donovans, the Frank Giffords, the Y.A. Tittles, the Otto Grahams, the Norm Van Brocklins, the Doak Walkers ... We were in the glory years of the 1950s. That decade is when football really took off. Those were the fun years.

"When my salary went from $7,000 to $25,000 in a three-year span (during the late 1950s), that's when I knew the game was going to be around a while. But the real truth was when the league expanded to Minnesota and Atlanta" in 1961 and 1966, respectively.

When McElhenny entered the NFL there were 12 franchises. Now there are 30.

The growth obviously is a direct result of the league's ever-increasing popularity. And the bigger it gets, the more money it seems to make.

While expansion has generated massive money for everyone involved, McElhenny asserts there are unworthy players on every payroll. Active rosters consist of 45 players now as opposed to 33 when McElhenny broke in.

"Some of us old-timers look at the game today," he says, "and the majority of us feel the game is watered down in talent, even at the salaries they receive today. I don't begrudge anybody making money, that's what the name of the game is. But when a guy makes a million a year and drops a pass right in his bread basket, that bothers me.

"There are better athletes today playing all sports than when I played. But there are more players that wouldn't even have been on our football team when I was playing. Every team has 10, 15, maybe 20 really outstanding players, and I think the others are watered down, there to fill the spots."

Dollars and sense

McElhenny can only scratch his head when he hears about a marginal player making seven figures, while some of the legends from his era are destitute.

"If I could play five years today and make a million a year, be conservative, put the money in the bank ... I'd be retired," says McElhenny, who played on national TV only once. "I wouldn't have to work anymore.

"I make more money with autographs through the mail and with (memorabilia) shows than I ever did playing. I think there's 182 in the Hall of Fame, 117 of us are living and about 42 who need every penny."

That's why it further boggles his brain when certain players don't appreciate the exorbitant incomes they draw.

During his off-seasons in San Francisco, McElhenny worked for Granny Goose Foods, which made potato chips, to make ends meet. He started off sweeping floors and worked his way up to sales.

"Some of these guys today are so greedy," he says. "I don't understand that. Guys like (Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael) Irvin. He's a degenerate nothing.

"The only athlete I've ever met who deserves every penny he gets is Michael Jordan. What he did for the (NBA) is unbelievable. That's what (Joe) Namath did for the Jets. He made the Jets."

Black and white

But for all the glory he associates with the old days, McElhenny admits there were many ills surrounding the NFL. Like every other aspect of society then, the NFL experienced its share of racial strife.

"When I played in college, we didn't have any black players on our team," he says. "When I signed with the 49ers, Joe Perry was the only black guy.

"We played a game in San Antonio, Texas, in 1952. And when we went to practice I would see Joe. But when we would go to dinner, I would never see him around the hotel.

"We got on the train to take off for St. Louis after the game and I asked 'Where you been, Joe?' And he said 'I can't stay in the hotel. I was staying in a private residence.'

"I couldn't even fathom that."

But a revolution eventually occurred. McElhenny, as a Caucasian running back, would be a minority today.

"When I went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, (Green Bay Packers coach Vince) Lombardi said that by 1980 you wouldn't have a white defensive back," McElhenny recalled.

"And (then-commissioner) Pete Rozelle called me the last great white hope of pro football. There haven't been any great white running backs since Gale Sayers came in. But, then again, 70 or 73 percent of the players are black today."

Time travel

In talking about the differences between eras, an inevitable question arises for McElhenny, who played at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. He is asked if he could have played in the contemporary NFL.

"The guys are a lot bigger than when I played," McElhenny concedes. "I was considered a big back. Today I'd be considered ordinary. I'd be rangy. Probably, if I played today, I'd be a receiver rather than a running back.

"I was a gifted athlete. Things came easy to me. If I was playing today, I think I'd be a No. 1 draft choice. The only thing is I don't know if I'd be a wide receiver or a running back.

"Where I'd really fit in is in the West Coast offense as a guy like (former 49ers running back Roger) Craig, who gained 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving one year. I was a good receiver and a good runner."

But McElhenny never once has wished he was born 40 years later.

"Life was very good to me," he says. "Football was very good to me. I had a lot of fun playing football. We played the game for the fun of the game."

The postseason

McElhenny was able to earn a comfortable living when he got out of the game, joining Allen & Dorward Advertising, the forerunner of NFL Properties.

He thought he would become even more active in the league when he helped Seattle lobby for a franchise.

The Seahawks were established in 1974, but McElhenny was snubbed when the team's front office was put together.

He then went on to work for Pepsi-Cola as its distributor to Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

McElhenny, save for the dozen or so autograph signings he does each year, is retired. He spends his free time golfing, traveling and visiting with his grandchildren -- the reason he moved to Henderson.

Three years ago, however, he nearly lost all hope of ever doing anything again.

McElhenny woke up one morning totally paralyzed.

"Why it happened to me I have no idea," he says. "You talk about the worst things in life that can happen ..."

He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder that stems from damage to the peripheral nervous system. It can be fatal, but most patients fully recover. It took McElhenny months to do so.

He remains weak because of it.

"If the wind's too strong, it blows me off," he says. "Playing golf, a strong breeze will blow me off. But, hell, I can't just do nothing."

Passing time

McElhenny enjoys the anonymity the Las Vegas area provides. He sometimes is surprised when he goes out in public and no one recognizes him.

But McElhenny knows the reason his fleeting fame has more to do with time than space.

"When you go into the Hall of Fame it goes like this," McElhenny says, shooting his right hand upward before slowly letting it fall back down. "It fades away.

"Kids today only care about what's going on now: John Elway, Dan Marino.

"Who in the hell can remember that gray-haired, old fart?"