By Kaiyo Funaki
Martin Jacobs sits in the office of his childhood home, surrounded by the souvenirs and collectibles he has accrued in his nearly seven decades of 49ers fandom. The room is a manifestation of his passion, filled to the brim with rare memorabilia that has escaped the withering effects of time in neatly organized binders.
To consider the Sunset District native as anything less than a superfan would fall woefully short of the truth. While Jacobs’ personal museum provides glimpses into a bygone era of football, it speaks volumes to the intensity and duration of his support for his local team.
After all, not many people can say they called Bob St. Clair a good friend, exchanged Christmas cards with Denise York, or owned game-worn jerseys from the days when the Niners called Kezar Stadium home.
Jacobs has also authored four books dedicated to the illustrious history of the 49ers and even has a plaque at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the team’s number one fan.
But for all the legendary players that have suited up in the red and gold, there is only one man that managed to capture the imagination of a young Jacobs and set him forth on the path he finds himself on today.
Hugh “The King” McElhenny debuted in 1952 when Jacobs was 9 years old.
Jacobs did not understand the rules of the game, nor did he particularly care about the sport beforehand, but from the moment McElhenny scored on his first touch as a professional, he was hooked.
“I didn’t know a thing about football,” Jacobs said, “but I watched how he dodged, the way he lifted his legs, twisted and turned, and then he broke away. Just when I think he stopped, he got away again, and I just loved that.”
McElhenny played for four franchises across his 13-year career, nine of which came with the 49ers. He was part of the famed “million dollar backfield,” alongside fellow 49ers legends and Hall of Fame inductees Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson.
The 1952 Rookie of the Year also made the Pro Bowl six times and earned two All-Pro nods. He was one of three players with 11,000 all-purpose yards at the time of his retirement in 1964 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1970.
Mere statistics and accolades, however, fail to capture the flair he brought to the game.
In a period where bruising, north-and-south running backs dominated, McElhenny found himself running sideways and backward more often than he did vertically. His unorthodox style only added to his versatility, as he was just as valuable as a running back as he was a receiver and punt returner.
McElhenny was such a dynamic threat that one rival bet the farm in the hopes of neutralizing him.
“The Los Angeles Rams traded 11 players to get one player from the Dallas Texans, a guy named Les Richter, just for the purpose of stopping McElhenny,” Jacobs gloated. “And guess what? It didn’t work.”
It was anecdotes like this that added to the allure of “The King,” and Jacobs soon found his world revolving around the man he considered to be his second father.
He collected anything and everything on McElhenny, from magazine clippings to trading cards. He made collages out of cutouts from the San Francisco Chronicle and ran onto Kezar after games in the hopes of snatching up something McElhenny may have left behind.
McElhenny served as an inspiration to Jacobs after his adolescence, too, whether it was when Jacobs played football at George Washington High School or as an entrepreneur opening a chain of sports memorabilia stores.
“I always knew in the back of my mind that if McElhenny could get out of a tight situation, I could get out of a tight situation,” Jacobs said. “When the pressure is on, I think of McElhenny.”
Jacobs eventually befriended McElhenny in the late 1980s, a relationship that continues to this very day. And through this bond, Jacobs compiled the greatest gift he felt he could give his mentor.
“McElhenny had always been my life, but I wanted to give something back to Hugh,” he said.
“The King: Hugh McElhenny, a San Francisco 49ers Legend” is an intimate account of McElhenny’s life on and off the field, telling stories that extend far beyond what the box scores say. From childhood photos of McElhenny to quotes from his teammates and adversaries, Jacobs immortalizes the legacy of a man whose history might have otherwise succumbed to time.
“It’s my biggest accomplishment. To me, it’s the pinnacle of my life,” Jacobs said. “When I really think back on my life, he was my inspiration.”
“The King: Hugh McElhenny, a San Francisco 49ers Legend” can be purchased online on Amazon and eBay, and is available at Green Apple Books and BookShop West Portal. To contact Jacobs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.