Emlen Tunnell Biography
Given Last Rites, Moved to Defensive Squad, Became Giants Scout
Professional football player
Emlen Tunnell was, as he himself pointed out to Maury White of the Des Moines Register, the "first black everything" with the New York Giants of the National Football League—"player, scout, talent scout, assistant coach, and first full-time black assistant in the whole league." Tunnell was more than a pioneer, however. Playing the position of safety, he was one of the greatest defensive backs in the history of the game, setting records that lasted for decades after his retirement in 1961. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, he was not only the first African American to join that body but also the first defensive player. And on top of all this Tunnell was an individual with strong leadership skills that helped smooth the way for the integration of a pro game that was almost all-white when he first took the field.
Known as Em, Tunnell was born on March 29, 1925, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, and grew up in nearby Garrett Hill. One of four children of Elzie Tunnell and Catherine Adams, he was raised along with his three siblings by his mother, a household worker. Tunnell was an all-sports standout at Radnor Township High School, and for quite a while it was unclear whether his primary game would be football, baseball, or basketball. He won an athletic scholarship to the University of Toledo in Ohio and took the field as a tailback in the fall of his freshman year.
Given Last Rites
The 17-year-old Tunnell's promising football career almost ended that fall when his neck was broken during a game. He woke up to find a Catholic priest in his room, administering the Last Rites even though he was not of the Catholic faith. Tunnell had to wear a neck brace on and off for a year, and he was told he would never play football again. By winter, however, he was playing basketball for Toledo and leading the team to the National Invitational Tournament finals. After the outbreak of World War II he attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army and Navy, but both turned him down because of his neck injury. He succeeded in joining the Coast Guard and saw action in the Pacific. Tunnell had a second brush with death when his ship, the U.S.S. Etamin, was hit by a Japanese torpedo off New Guinea.
Transferred to a Coast Guard facility in San Francisco, Tunnell met University of Iowa tackle Jim Walker. He heard from Walker about African Americans who had played for Iowa previously. "So I knew blacks got a fair share there," he recalled to White. Playing on both offense and defense at Iowa for two seasons, Tunnell attracted attention with his grace on the field—he was never a real speedster—and with his waist-level catches, similar to those of baseball star Willie Mays. Teammates dubbed him Emlen the Gremlin. In 1947 he became only the second Iowa player to catch three touchdown passes in a single game. A player with a stubborn streak, he once quit the team during a scrimmage but asked to come back, and was accepted, by the end of the same day. During summers, he played semipro baseball.
Tunnell was frustrated when coach Eddie Anderson wanted to restrict him to defense for his last year at Iowa, and he possessed a form letter confirming his eligibility for the pros since his original freshman class had by now graduated from college. Needing money for himself and his family and convinced that he could play at a professional level, he hitchhiked from Garrett Hill to New York in the summer of 1948, getting a ride from a banana truck driver. Despite the fact that the color barrier in the modern NFL had been broken only two years before and the New York Giants had never hired a black player, he showed up at the Giants' offices. The team's general manager, aware of Tunnell's strong play at Iowa, gave him a tryout and soon signed him to a $5,000 one-year contract with a $500 bonus.
Moved to Defensive Squad
After a few games playing both offense and defense in the fall of 1948, Tunnell intercepted four passes in a game against the Green Bay Packers. Once again he was slated for defense exclusively, and once again he protested. "I didn't like it that way, but I lasted longer [as a result]," he conceded to White.
Indeed, Tunnell's record in the NFL was notable for its consistency. He missed just one game over his entire 14-year career and played in 167 consecutive games. The Giants during Tunnell's years were perennial NFL championship contenders thanks in large part to their innovative "umbrella" defense. With Tunnell a fearsome interception threat at safety, the Giants' defensive ends dropped back to harass potential offensive pass receivers. Big and strong, Tunnell was an essential part of the umbrella concept. "Emlen changed the theory of defensive safeties," Giants coach Jim Lee Howell told the New York Times. "He would have been too big for the job earlier, and they'd have made him a lineman. But he had such strength, such speed, and such quickness I'm convinced he was the best safety ever to play."
Named All-Pro four times and getting into eight Pro Bowls, Tunnell was a yard-gaining threat despite his defensive role In 1952 he gained 923 yards on punt returns, kickoff returns, and pass-interception run-backs, and that year and the next he ranked second on the Giants in offensive yardage, trailing only the quarterback. Amazed Giant fans dubbed him "offense on defense." He paced the Giants to the NFL championship in 1956 and to finalist status the following year. Moving to the Green Bay Packers in 1959, Tunnell rounded out an impressive set of career statistics. He set four NFL records—most career interceptions, most punt returns, and most yardage on interceptions and punt returns—that remained unsurpassed at his death in 1975; his 79 career interceptions were still good for second on the all-time list in the early 2000s.
Became Giants Scout
After helping the Packers to a 37-0 rout of the Giants in the 1961 NFL championship game, Tunnell retired after he realized that he could no longer jump up and touch the crossbar of the goalposts during his pregame wind sprints. Working as a scout in both the Packers and Giants organizations after he retired, he signed on full time with the Giants in 1963. Two years later, he was named assistant coach, becoming the NFL's first full-time African American coach. His selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967 was not met with notable controversy.
An easygoing figure, Tunnell was a natural team leader whom some credited with smoothing the overall integration of the Giants in the 1950s. "One of the reasons we never had problems was because of Em Tunnell," Giants operations director Andy Robustelli told Neil Amdur of the New York Times. "Emlen was good to all people. He was a hell of a decent person who meant a lot to young ballplayers." The legendary Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi, telling Dave Anderson of the Times that Tunnell "meant a lot to the Packers then. He was a pastor, a cheerleader, and a coach as well as a player." A familiar figure as he traveled the country during scouting season, Tunnell in later life protested the lack of opportunities available to black coaches in the NFL. Well before the head coaching color barrier was broken, Emlen Tunnell died of a heart attack in Pleasantville, New York on July 22, 1975.
Tunnell, Emlen, with William Gleason, Footsteps of a Giant, Doubleday, 1966.
Des Moines Register, March 30, 1975.
Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), February 12, 2004, p. B2.
New York Times, May 2, 1963, p. 55; May 10, 1964, p. S3; February 9, 1967, p. 44; July 24, 1975, p. 27; July 26, 1975, p. 17.
Washington Post, July 24, 1975.
"Emlen Tunnell," Pro Football Hall of Fame, www.profootballhof.com (August 8, 2005).
"Emlen Tunnell, football pioneer," African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com (August 8, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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