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Emlen Tunnell: Pioneer and One Tough SOB

March 8th, 2010 at 5:36 PM
By Dan Benton

In the hectic world that is the National Football league, we spend more time looking forward than we do back. But with the NFL Draft still about seven weeks away, I thought it might be time to take a break, look back and appreciate a true giant among men, Emlen Tunnell.

As a long-time Giants fan who greatly appreciates the history of the organization, I was relatively familiar with Emlen Tunnell. I knew he was a talented safety for the team in late 40′s through the late 50′s and I knew he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. I also knew he went on to become a scout and ultimately an assistant coach for Big Blue, but what I didn’t know would be unearthed while simply searching through some statistics.

Born on March 29th, 1925, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Tunnell was one of four children. He had a typical childhood for a minority at that time, and didn’t really appear to stand out. In fact, it wasn’t until he began attending high school at Radnor Township that his parents, Elzie and Catherine, realized he had a gift.

Tunnell became an all-sports star. He seemingly excelled at everything he did and promptly earned himself an athletic scholarship to the University of Toledo in Ohio where he took the field as he teams tailback.

Unfortunately, Tunnell’s athletic career, and his life, almost ended just as quickly as it had begun.

During a game in the fall of 1942, at the age of 17, Tunnell went down with a devastating injury…a broken neck. The injury was so severe that he awoke the following day to a Catholic priest in his room, administering the Last Rites.

Tunnell would persevere, however, returning to sports after nearly a year of wearing a neck brace. And although he was warned that football should no longer be in consideration, it wouldn’t take long before he found peace on that beautiful green grass once again.

That place of peace and green, green grass? Well…let’s just say it wasn’t exactly something many people would refer to as relaxing or peaceful.

After being turned down by both the Army and the Navy because of his previously broken neck, Tunnell found a home in the Coast Guard. And as I mentioned above, it’s where he found his way back to football.

After only a single season, Tunnell was named to the United Press Pacific Coast All-Service team. It was a testament to not only his heart and determination, but the ability to adapt and overcome all odds. And it was just the beginning of what would be one of the great careers and stories of all time.

Following the war, and thanks to his new-found friend Jim Walker, whom he had met while playing semi-pro baseball on the West Coast, Tunnell decided it was time to return to school. But rather than returning to Toledo, he decided to enroll at Iowa…a school comprised of much more color than he was used to seeing.

“I had never seen so many negro guys in one place in my life,” he said.

At the time, it was still a rarity to see a minority be treated equally, so it was a breath of fresh air to Tunnell and many others like him.

“Most of those negro boys had come to Iowa for the same reason I had,” he said. “They knew they would be given a chance to play. Great negro players were a part of the tradition at Iowa, going back to the days around World War I.”

Still, racism and prejudice weren’t completely erased. It existed, but in much smaller doses and Tunnell managed to make due and fly under the radar.

“I wasn’t afraid of prejudice,” Tunnell said, “But I didn’t intend to go looking for it. I wanted to go to a school where I could get an education and where I would be allowed to play football. I didn’t want to have to fight my way onto the practice field every afternoon.”

Tunnell quickly earned himself a spot on the football team, beating out 21 other left halfback’s (Iowa ran a single-wing offense at the time) and eventually found his way up the depth chart; playing on offense, defense and special teams.

The team went 5-4 in 1946, but it was in 1947 that Tunnel would have arguably his greatest game of all time.

Against a Notre Dame team that is now considered one of the best college teams of all time, Tunnell put on a show. He led Iowa in both rushing and pass receiving and nearly won the game for his Hawkeye’s. Unfortunately, they came up a tad short…but that didn’t stop local papers from praising his effort. In what would surely be considered racist today, a writer from a Cedar Rapids newspaper shared the following statement:

[Johnny] Lujack was put in the shade by a dusky Hawkeye, Emlen Tunnell.The shifty left halfback provided the day’s top thrill with a 65-yard sprint through the entire Notre Dame team to set up what should have been an Iowa score in the third quarter.”

Just as things were beginning to look up for Tunnell, another unsuspecting injury would put his athletic career in jeopardy once again. This time, the then junior came down with an eye-infection that required an operation. It meant that he’d miss at least the finally two weeks of his season and the same amount of classes. So rather than sticking around Iowa, Tunnell packed up and headed home to Pennsylvania. And while he intended to return and finish college the following year, fate had a different plan for him.

When he arrived home, he was met with a questionnaire sent by the New York Giants. And under NFL rules at the time, since Tunnell’s original college class had graduated, he was able to sign a professional contract.

Still, Tunnell was skeptical. Although the color barrier in the NFL had been broken two years earlier, the Giants were not one of the teams to carry a black player. And assuming his chances were slim-to-none, he prepared to discard the questionnaire and move onto a life without football. However, a run-in with an old friend named Vince McNally, who had recently been let go as the general manager of the Los Angeles Dons in the All-American Football Conference, changed his mind.

“Emlen, if I were you I’d at least go over to New York and talk to the Giants. Tim Mara is a square shooter and he’ll level with you. The Rams have Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, and the New York Yanks (then an NFL team) have Buddy Young, so a colored player won’t be anything new. Maybe the Giants are ready for a colored player. If so, it might as well be you,” McNally said.

Realizing that his dream, in his own words, had “substance,” Tunnell, with only $1.50 to his name, hitchhiked all the way to upper Manhattan (The Polo Grounds) for an unannounced tryout with the New York Giants.

Surprised by the visit, Mara was somewhat reluctant to give Tunnell a tryout. But ultimately, in the Mara’s typically good nature, he decided to move forward and give the kid a shot.

“Well, since you had the nerve to come in and ask for a tryout, we might as well give you one,” Mara said.

And that’s all it took. Following his workout, Tunnell was signed to a one-year, $5,000 contract that included a $500 signing bonus.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Tunnell went on to play 14 NFL seasons (11 with New York and three with Green Bay), missing only a single game throughout the duration. In 167 professional games, Tunnell intercepted 79 passes (including a record 10 for a Giants safety in 1949) and brought four back for scores. He also racked up big numbers as a return man, was name to nine Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro teams. He played in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and, as I noted above, was the first African American named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“In 1950,” he recalled later, “we developed a defense against the Browns that came to be known as the Umbrella. Our ends, Jim Duncan and Ray Poole, would drift back and cover the flats while tackles Arnie Weinmeister and Al DeRogatis and guards Jon Baker and John Mastrangelo were charged with rushing the passer and containing the run. The lone linebacker, John Canady, was told to follow the Brown fullback wherever he went.”

“Tom Landry played the left corner, Harmon Rowe the right,  I was the strong safety and Otto Schnellbacher the weak.  If you would look at this alignment from high in the stands it looked like an opened umbrella.  In truth, it was the same 4-3-2-2 used today.  We did go into other formations, but mostly we used this 4-3 arrangement.  It was so successful against the Browns that we beat them twice.  The first time we played them we shut them out, the first time that had ever happened to them.”

The man who had overcome everything decided to retire only after he realized he could no longer jump up and touch the goalposts during his pregame wind sprints.

His 79 career interceptions are still the second most all time (Paul Krause, 81), while his 1,282 interceptions yards ranks third most (Rod Woodson, 1,483 and Deion Sanders, 1,331) in NFL history.

He was named to the NFL 1950′s All-Decade Team and listed #70 on The Sporting News‘ list of 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999.

Tunnell passed away on July 22nd, 1975. He was only 50.

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120 Responses to “Emlen Tunnell: Pioneer and One Tough SOB”

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  1. Terrence TTerrence T says:

    nice piece dan….
    i just picked up the 10 greatest giants games. im watching the 87 playoffs against the 49ers! omg! i love this. i was only 5 at the time….what a team!

    • Dan BentonDan Benton says:

      I got that about two weeks ago. Watched some of those games with my Father. Damn…what a D! Carl Banks is UNREAL in some of those games.

  2. ri giantsfanri giantsfan says:


    Why has there been so little talk around the NFL about Morrison? Hes a 3rd round tender right? I havent even heard rumors about him

  3. kujonicuskujonicus says:

    Good article, Dan. I gotta say that my knowledge of the history of the Giants is woeful at best. I’m a passionate fan, but I have a gaping hole of my knowledge of this team prior to the 80s. I appreciate this wonderful article about our lineage and would definitely enjoy similar ones in the future.

  4. jfunkjfunk says:

    Oops…update posted while I was writing this in last thread:

    I don’t know anything about the college kids, all my info leading up to the draft comes from here.

    That being said, even with our glaring need at DT and MLB…if this Haden kid has a real chance to be a “shutdown” corner, I’d take him if he dropped.

    MLB and DT are easier to fill with “stopgap” players (and from the sounds of it there will certainly be serviceable starters available at least at LB later in the draft – not to mention our own Goff may very well be just fine as a starter after a full offseason in that role at least for a little while as we look for an upgrade). Top tier CBs are up there with QBs and DEs as far as difficulty acquiring one.

    Webster, TT, and Ross isn’t a long term solution anyway…decisions on both Webster and Ross will likely be coming soon. We certainly can use another starter prospect on our roster.

  5. ri giantsfanri giantsfan says:


    He has 120 tackles a year. In 4 years hes had 6 FF and 7 INT. Plus since 05, hes played in all 16 games every year.

    And yes hes from the raiders…put him around our guys and lets see how much better he does.

    Worth every bit of a 3rd rounder IMO

  6. Lawrence56TaylorFanLawrence56TaylorFan says:

    Quote of the day goes to Kujo “….an atrocious decision which was only surpassed in stupidity….” LMAO classic. That pretty much defines my thoughts on TC as a coach right there.

    And Kujo, I like your example in the last post section but I have to rebut with the fact that Nicks never displaced SS, they play different WR positions, and the rest of the WR positions weren’t anywhere set in stone. Now, I agree Sintim should have been given more chances I also think Clark played a lot better than most give him credit for. Also, Nicks was one of the most NFL ready players in the draft and there’s no way of telling if Sintim was grasping the material. I understand your point and agree for the most part but I think a good CB has just as much chance at playing time as a good DT would. In fact there are more packages with more CBs used than their are DTs.

    • kujonicuskujonicus says:

      Could be, bro. But name me a corner who started and excelled in his rookie year and I’ll named you a dozen or more who rode the pine or who saw extensive action on special teams.

      • Bballbkd1001Bballbkd1001 says:

        Pshhh! Bruce Johnson :) haha. He is one of the few. Just shows the giants know how to pick up role players later in the draft and undrafted. (Bruce and Michael Johnson, Bradshaw, boss. All in 3 years)

  7. Lawrence56TaylorFanLawrence56TaylorFan says:

    Kujo-Morrison sucks now? Dude I love your knowledge but you are way off about this one. Morrison is a very solid MLB in the NFL. You are crazy if you think different. Dude could instantly start here. Its not even close. In fact, he’d be a fan favorite very quickly if he came here. Not saying he will or should because I think JR is a bit too over protective with his draft picks but you CAN NOT judge Morrison because he plays in the black hole.

    • kujonicuskujonicus says:

      I was making a joke. I don’t think he’s very good and I don’t know that he brings more to the table than Jon Goff could, under the right circumstances. I guess I’m just one of those people on here who are more comfortable with Goff starting with a vastly improved defensive line eating up blockers in front of him.

  8. fanfor55yearsfanfor55years says:

    Dan, now this is GREAT!!!

    I’m sure only a few of us ever saw Em Tunnell play, but I had the pleasure of watching him for a number of years, both at the Polo Grounds and at Yankee Stadium. This guy was the best safety the Giants have ever had, and perhaps the best safety I ever saw play. He had a knack for making big plays at the right time, and when he made an interception the crowd used to rise in expectation of a big return.

    You youngsters will just have to believe me. If Kenny Phillips continues to improve for 3-4 years he MIGHT be the #1 guy on a depth chart that included Tunnell. It would not be easy to pass that guy.

  9. ri giantsfanri giantsfan says:

    LT56 –

    Thanks bro…exactly my pt. This guy is no stud, I know that. But very solid when it comes to sure tackling and being a leader on D. No off the field problems that Im aware of and very little injuries throughout his first 5 years.

    If he is placed with Osi Kiki Tuck Sintim Boley – I think he would shine. AP was no stud when he came here and he really had a very nice career with us.

    • ri giantsfanri giantsfan says:

      Also…in the 3rd round, its slim that you’ll get someone that has had a solid career like Morrison. If we can go DT in the first and OL in the second…plus rolle and morrison…great great offseason.

      • Lawrence56TaylorFanLawrence56TaylorFan says:

        Well gotta disagree with this 3RD stance you just took. Theres probably more successful 3RDs than 1RDs in the NFL. However, Mirrison is a very good player and shouldn’t be disrespected.

  10. kujonicuskujonicus says:

    LOL. I’m like the Sandra Bullock of G101. I get both a Razzie AND an Oscar. SWEET!

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