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He put Seattle on the map
Provincially speaking, Seattle needed a King
By: Richard Linde, 11 June 2002


Hugh McElhenny as a 49'er. Photo by Frank Rippon
After losing six games in a row to the hulking farm boys from Minnesota, the Washington Huskies needed some resuscitation and respect. Looking to Los Angeles for help, the Huskies found a guy they called “Hurricane Hugh.”

Clad in purple-and-gold storm gear, Hurricane Hugh raced the opening kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown against the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis near the beginning of the 1949 season. His lightening gallop--a seminal run in Husky history--shocked the partisan crowd, electrified Husky fans and etched “SEATTLE” boldly onto the map.

During the World War II years, the only good thing that can be said about Husky football was the trip to the Rose Bowl in 1944; due to travel restrictions, they played that game against USC. For Washington fans left at home, the fact most remembered is that the legendary sportscaster Bill Stern announced the game on the radio. Incidentally, the Huskies lost 29-0.

Having the nationally known Bill Stern announce the game was a big deal for us Husky fans. After all, we Seattleites were accustomed to the nasal, high-pitched voice of Leo Lassen, who announced the Seattle Rainier baseball games. “Mmm, Gyselman slides” or “back, back, back and it’s over” were among the many "Leoisms," we kids mimicked.

During those times, the Seattle Rainier baseball team and the Huskies were the only sports shows in town. If you told people from east of the Rockies that you were from Seattle, Washington, they thought you meant Washington D.C. If they’d been to Seattle, they called you a webfoot. At that time, most Seattleites, along with me, had an inferiority complex about our city and its weather. But the recruitment of Hugh McElhenny in 1949 gave us a feeling of self worth. 

Alas, we were to be pitied.

After all, Starbucks Coffee was years away from becoming a reality and Nordstrom’s was that funny little shoe store that offered a free shine for the new shoes you'd just bought. I still remember the gentle raindrops bubbling on them as I left the premises. And sans Bill Gates, almost everybody worked at Boeing or knew someone who did.

Hugh McElhenny was what Seattle needed at the time. Although the Emerald City hosted a minor league baseball team, it had a major league football player to boast about. He was 6-1, 190 pounds and a member of the record-setting 440-yard relay team.

How did the Huskies manage to get him?

Years before his recruitment, Roscoe C. “Torchy" Torrance--a feisty, diminutive, likeable redhead--played baseball for the University of Washington and later became their freshman baseball coach. Still later in his life, he functioned as a vice-president for the Seattle Rainiers under Emil Sick, their owner and president. Born in 1899, Torrance enrolled at Washington in 1918, just after Gil Dobie’s remarkable tenure. Torrance graduated from Washington in 1923; during World War II, he served as a marine and was awarded the Bronze medal.

Still an avid Husky fan after World War II, Torrance presided over an organization called the Greater Washington Advertising Association that helped Husky players financially and with jobs. It was perfectly legal to do that in those days, and many an athlete who would have otherwise been unable to attend school was able to graduate from Washington because of the financial help he received. 

As Torrance wrote in his biography, “I went down to Compton, California, and visited with Hugh (McElhenny) and his parents. I got along real well with his dad, who was a little shorter than I was, and his mother, a very lovely person. We had Hugh over to Palm Springs and did our best to keep ahead of the other coaches until we finally signed him up in Seattle.” [Torrance].

Hugh McElhenny enjoyed an outstanding prep career at Washington High School in Los Angeles. He went on to play one year (1948) at Compton (California) Junior College before transferring to Washington in 1949. McElhenny put up phenomenal numbers at Compton, averaging nine yards per carry while rushing for 1,184 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Everybody was after his services, since he was an outstanding high hurdler and trackman as well as a remarkable football player.

But Washington prevailed. All of a sudden, Washington had the “King” (McElhenny) and the “Arm” (Don Heinrich) in the same backfield. * Because of injuries to both of them, in the main, they played just one year together. McElhenny sat out much of the 1949 season and Heinrich missed the 1951 season.

Recruiting Hurrin’ Hugh wasn’t easy if you put it in a modern-day context. This season the Huskies battled Los Angeles weatherman Dallas Raines for Lorenzo Booker’s (Port Hueneme) services.  During the recruiting process, Raines put in a phone call to Booker, which was shown on television locally, and urged him to attend his alma mater Florida State--which is where Booker eventually ended up.

Likewise in 1949, Los Angeles sportscaster Tommy Harmon of Michigan football fame told McElhenny he’d never be able to run in the mud in Seattle. It wasn’t until 1968 that Husky stadium was layered with Astroturf. Ironically,  McElhenny’s muddiest game was played at the Coliseum against USC on November 18, 1950. The Huskies won 28-13. Torrance, who was supposed to introduce Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands at halftime, wrote, “Unfortunately, it was raining cats and dogs and there was about four inches of water in the tunnel so we couldn’t get out on the field…Of course, McElhenny became known as The King, but he was a different kind of royalty."

But McElhenny was the glitz the Huskies were looking for, and with an expansion to Husky Stadium on the drawing board, he looked to fill it.

In the 1950 Kansas State game, when the Huskies dedicated their new upper deck, McElhenny raced 91 yards for a touchdown. That play broke a 31-year-old rushing Washington rushing mark for the longest single play rushing gain. However, the stadium was only partially filled, since many fans stayed away, fearing the new deck would collapse.

Like a lot of athletes at that time, McElhenny was somewhat flamboyant in high school, according to one old-timer. “We knew each other quite well. And as he passed me in the high hurdles one time, he yelled out endearingly, 'so long, a******.' I reminded him of that incident when I played in a celebrity golf tournament with him not long ago.”

But, according to Torrance, McElhenny quickly curried favor with his Husky teammates thanks to an incident that occurred on the practice field. On Hugh’s arrival--preceded by his numerous press clippings--his teammates blocked lackadaisically for him in practice and put the hurt on when they tackled him. However, one play turned their feelings towards him around. As a tackler collared him in practice, they both skidded towards a pile of rocks that lay on the sidelines. As they skidded to a stop, McElhenny held the tackler's head up so he would avoid the sharp rocks. Everyone noticed it, and after that there “was no more trouble about his acceptance.”

McElhenny was the greatest runner in Husky history. One publication put it this way, “He was the kind of runner who could make more magic, write more stories and paint bigger pictures in the span of five yards than practically anybody else could do in 30, 40, or 50 yards…In all the history of football, perhaps only Red Grange before McElhenny and Gayle Sayers after him made open-field running such a spectacle.” [100].

Although he played in only twenty-eight games for the Huskies, McElhenny still holds many Husky records. Players who played in more games than he did were able to break some of them. However, he returned a punt 100 yards against USC in 1951, which is still a record and ties an NCAA record.

Frank Gifford, former USC halfback and New York Giants great, who became a member of the Monday Night Football team, tells it this way:

"I'll never forget that game," said Gifford of the 1951 USC-Washington clash in Seattle. "I wasn't our regular kicker, but I did the punting when we got to midfield because supposedly I was more accurate at getting the ball down to the corner. Well, in this game, I got the ball down in the corner all right and The King took it there, right on the goal line. He started down the sideline and all of a sudden there was only one man -- me -- between him and the goal line. He left me flat on my face and ran it 100 yards for a touchdown! It was like a touchdown run out of a cornball movie...only it was real." [gohuskies.com].

McElhenny is also remembered for a particular move he put on a would-be tackler in another game. As the tackler approached him, McElhenny leaned his upper body toward the sideline, as if trying to avoid him. Then he turned and rammed his body full bore into the tackler as they met, knocked him down, turned and raced for a touchdown. [Daves].

Did McElhenny take a pay cut to turn pro, as one of his teammates at San Francisco suggested?

According to Torrance’s biography, McElhenny was given $7,000 to play for the San Francisco Forty-niners after he left Washington. McElhenny figured he’d earned $10,000 during his stint at Washington if his wife’s salary was combined with the $300 monthly allowance (it’s not clear who wrote him the check) he was paid during the academic year. He also worked summer jobs. Hence, he took a pay cut to turn pro.

Nobody ever gave McElhenny a car; however, he urged Torrance to buy Heinrich a ’41 Chevy, and he did. After each game, Torrance gave McElhenny $25 for each touchdown he scored. [Torrance].

According to McElhenny, Torrance wasn’t around to give him the money after the Washington State game (1950) at Spokane, where he’d scored five touchdowns. In that game, McElhenny rushed for 296 yards, which is still a Washington record. In one of the Huskies’ weirdest games, the UW allowed WSC (as it was known then) to score late in the game so that Don Heinrich could set an NCAA passing record (134 completions for the season). After the record-breaking completion, McElhenny broke loose on an 84-yard gallop a few moments before the game ended. He averaged over fourteen yards per carry in that game.

The Huskies won 52-21, and tried an on-side kick that failed with two seconds left in the game.

The King would juke, stomp, cut, whirl, bull or do anything necessary to elude a would-be tackler. He put Seattle on the map, and a most grateful Seattle named Hugh McElhenny “Man of the Year,” in 1951. 

As a kid growing up during those times, he made me feel better about myself. He was as much a part of Seattle as any of us who were born there--maybe a little more.

Afterward:

McElhenny earned second team UPI All-Coast honors (third team AP) as a sophomore, then first team UPI and AP All-Coast honors as a junior and senior. By the time he ended his record-breaking career in 1951, McElhenny was a unanimous All-America pick.

The King is a member of the prestigious National Football League (NFL) Hall of Fame (inducted in 1970), the College Football Hall of Fame (inducted in 1982) and the Washington Hall of Fame (inaugural group in 1979). He was also selected to the Washington Centennial team in 1990. [gohuskies.com].

* McElhenny has been called the King, Hurrying Hugh and Hurricane Hugh.

Table 1. Hugh McElhenny's record at Washington [gohuskies]

Year Games Net Yards Average TDs
1949 8 456 4.4 2
1950 10 1107 6.2 12
1951 10 936 5.5 13
Totals 28 2499 5.5 27

 

References:

[Torrance]. Torrance, Roscoe with Bob Karolevitz, "Torchy!, The Biography and Reminiscences of Roscoe C. Torrance," Dakota Homestead Publishers, 1988.

[Rockne]. Rockne, Dick, “Bow Down to Washington,” The Strode Publishers, Huntsville, Alabama, 1975.

[Daves] Daves, Jim; Porter Thomas W., “The Glory of Washington,” Sports Publishing Incorporated, 2001.

[100]. “100 Years of Husky Football,” Professional Sports Publications, New York City, New York.

[gohuskies]. www.gohuskies.com, The Official Website for the Washington Huskies.

[Linde]. Linde, Richard, “Scandal in the Fifties,” (http://www.4malamute.com/torrance.html), 8 March 2002.

 

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