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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