In his 13-year National Football League career, former 49er great Hugh McElhenny played in only one championship game, and that was in the twilight of his career with the New York Giants, who lost to Chicago in the 1963 title game.
Now, 20 years after his retirement, he’ll be in the Super Bowl. He and President Reagan will handle the coin toss.
“Going into the professional football Hall of Fame was the highlight of my life,” McElhenny, 56, said last week. “This is probably No. 2.”
At first, McElhenny, known as the King of running backs in his day, was invited by the NFL to toss the coin before the game. He was asked if that would be convenient for him.
Convenient? He was prepared to run all the way from Seattle, reversing his field several times and straight-arming a redwood or two.
Then the White House approached the NFL about having Reagan toss the coin in Washington.
Arrangements now are for McElhenny to ask Miami center Dwight Stephenson, one of the Dolphins’ captains, to call the toss at midfield, then relay Stephenson’s call by phone to the President, who will then toss a coin commemorative of Super Bowl X--the U.S. Bicentennial Super Bowl game in which the Steelers defeated the Cowboys, 21-17.
Reagan will tell the nation who won. Presumably, a Democrat will check the coin.
It’ll be a busy day for Reagan, since the inauguration is also today.
McElhenny’s friends and fans in Seattle think the President may be trying to upstage the King. McElhenny admitted he did, too, at first.
“Then I went back and checked the letter, which said, ‘Would you like to participate in the coin flip?’ I had just kind of taken it for granted.”
A generation of football fans whose total impressions are electronic imagery probably couldn’t appreciate the artistry of McElhenny, who may have been the best broken-field runner of all.
Don’t check the statistics. After two seasons, the Rams’ Eric Dickerson, with 3,913 yards, is only 1,368 behind what McElhenny gained in 13. McElhenny never even had a 1,000-yard year.
It was a different game then, with shorter 12-game seasons, and the ball was spread around a lot.
“I personally feel that Frankie Albert, Y.A. Tittle and the others never gave me the ball enough,” McElhenny said. “The most I ever carried the ball in a game was 15 times.”
But his greatness is in old black-and-white film clips, or in the faded visions of his playing days at Washington High School in Los Angeles’ tough old Southern League, a one-year ride on a rocket with one of Compton College’s national junior college championship teams in ’48, three years at the University of Washington and nine with the 49ers.
McElhenny concluded his pro career after playing with the Minnesota Vikings for two seasons, the Giants for one and the Detroit Lions for one (1964).
McElhenny almost went to USC. He was enrolled there for about five minutes, until the Huskies came through with a better offer. He has always been very honest about it, to the chagrin of the NCAA.
“The reason I went to the University of Washington was they paid me more money,” he said.
McElhenny had just married his high school sweetheart when Washington offered him a scholarship and a job “where I didn’t have to do anything” that paid $75 a week.
The Trojans had offered him $65 to tend the flowers around Tommy Trojan.
Albert, briefly his quarterback and later his coach with the 49ers, always joked that McElhenny had to take a pay cut to turn pro. It was no joke.
“I signed for $7,000,” McElhenny said. “But seven grand was pretty good back in ’52.”
After he became NFL rookie of the year, owner Tony Morabito gave him a $500 bonus. The most he ever earned was $25,000.
“Money was never my motivator,” said McElhenny, who is now a distributor of soft drinks. “I just loved to play the game.
“When I got into pro ball, training camp was on a train. We’d play all of our exhibition games on the road. When we got to a town, they’d drop our two cars off, we’d work out at a local field, then the next train would pick us up.”
McElhenny remains a solid football fan. He has seen all the runners who have come along since.
“I always compared myself to Gale Sayers,” he said. “I think Dickerson is closer to Sayers and myself in style of running. He runs into the line straight up, looking for direction. I always liked to see where I was going, too.
“My attitude carrying the ball was fear--not a fear of getting hurt but a fear of getting caught from behind and taken down and embarrassing myself and my teammates.”
McElhenny, gray but erect at 6-1, said he is only three pounds over his high school playing weight of 198.
“I have the lower back pain,” he said. “My knee hurts. Arthritis, I guess. I can’t play tennis because it swells up on me. But my ego’s so big that I would say I could have played today.”