To play defensive back in the NFL, one has to be fearless and full of confidence.
Emlen Tunnell displayed both traits for the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
He was the first African-American elected to the @ProFootballHOF and named one of the top 100 players in @NFL history, and nearly a half-century after he passed away, Emlen Tunnell's legacy continues to grow. 🙏https://t.co/oyF6Z6uuJK | @Giants | @CGA_Football pic.twitter.com/s2LPoLvvjz
— NFL Legends (@NFLLegends) February 12, 2022
During his pro career, opposing quarterbacks consistently tried to test Tunnell and wound up paying for it.
In 1949, his second year in the NFL, Tunnell grabbed 10 interceptions and he had seven or more picks in six other seasons.
His no-nonsense approach to the sport of football was also evident in the way he tackled.
Tunnell had an uncanny ability to read a ball carrier, and he arrived with authority.
After winning two championships as a player, Tunnell became the first African-American to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
What set Tunnell apart from many of his peers was his unique ability to be a defender both on and off the gridiron.
As a member of the Coast Guard during and after World War II, Tunnell served with distinction and saved the lives of two of his crewmates.
This is the story of Emlen “The Gremlin” Tunnell.
Growing Up in Philly
Emlen Lewis Tunnell was born on March 29, 1924 (although his birth year has also been listed as 1922, 1923, and 1925) in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
His parents divorced when he was young, and Tunnell’s mother worked as a housekeeper for wealthy Philadelphia families.
As he got older, Tunnell befriended neighbors of different ethnicities and thrived.
“It was a different kind of upbringing, with Italians, Polish and blacks living together,” said Tunnell’s sister, Vivian. “We went to the local, mostly white schools, and everybody mingled. I think that had a significant effect on Emlen. He learned from his environment—be yourself, but adapt to others who might be different in the group.”
When he arrived at Radnor High School in Radnor, Pennsylvania, Tunnell became a three-sport athlete and excelled at football, baseball, and basketball.
We were delighted to be in attendance at the Emlen Tunnell statue unveiling this afternoon. Tunnell, a Radnor High School graduate, was the first African American to be inducted into the @NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame. @RadnorTownship @RadnorTSD #DelcoProud pic.twitter.com/JJDkMuF6Jt
— VisitDelcoPA (@VisitDelcoPA) June 2, 2018
He shined as a halfback for the Raptors and had various colleges interested in his talents.
The University of Toledo offered the best scholarship opportunity for Tunnell. He accepted.
Broken Neck Interrupts Tunnell’s College Career
Tunnell began playing football for the Rockets in 1942 and proved to be a spark plug on offense and defense.
64. Emlen Tunnell, safety – Giants (1948-1958,) Packers (1959-1961.) Toledo, Iowa. pic.twitter.com/xQ1rbXo8XA
— Hansen Hillmer (@HansenThrillmer) June 12, 2015
Not long into the season in a game against Marshall University, Tunnell was blocked while attempting to make a tackle.
The block ended up breaking Tunnell’s neck, and he was knocked unconscious.
Next thing he knew, Tunnell awoke to see a priest standing over him and giving him last rites.
“We weren’t even Catholic,” Tunnell’s sister, Vivian Robinson said. “But they weren’t waiting to ask.”
Thankfully, Tunnell recovered, although a doctor told him he would never play football again.
Not to be deterred, Tunnell played basketball for the Rockets and helped the team get to the finals of the NIT tournament where Toledo lost to St. John’s, 48-27.
After Tunnell returned home following the 1942–43 school year, he wore a neck brace to help heal his injury.
At the same time, World War II was raging. Tunnell dropped out of school to do his part.
He tried to enlist in the Navy and Army, but both passed on Tunnell due to his injury.
Tunnell pressed on and went to the Coast Guard where he was accepted.
He was used as a steward’s mate aboard the USS Etamin.
In late April of 1944, the Etamin was just offshore of Papua New Guinea unloading several tons of gasoline and explosives.
Without any warning, a Japanese plane flew low and dropped a torpedo that struck the side of the Etamin.
Happy Veterans Day to all who have served our Country, especially my Dad, James W. Gilmore. Love you and Miss you always ♡ My cousin, Emlen Tunnell, was a Coast Guard hero who saved 2 of his crew members in World War II and was the 1st African American to play for the NY Giants. pic.twitter.com/CpqovZZ1ct
— CouncilmemberKGR (@CouncilwomanKGR) November 11, 2022
During the ensuing chaos, Tunnell was on the deck of the ship when he saw a crewmate running near him who was covered in flames.
Tunnell recognized that the man was his friend, Fred Shaver, who was a machinist on the Etamin.
With no regard for his well-being, Tunnell sprang into action to save Shaver.
“I really don’t know how I knew the horrible figure running toward me in the darkness was Freddy,” Tunnell wrote in his autobiography, Footsteps of a Giant. “There was almost nothing recognizable about him. He was covered with fire.”
Tunnell didn’t have anything to put out the flames on Shaver, so he used his hands to smother the flames.
His quick thinking worked, and Shaver survived his wounds, but Tunnell’s hands suffered severe burns.
“It was an amazingly brave thing for Emlen to do,” Shaver said years later. “Emlen ran after me across that deck like he was chasing a halfback,” he said. “Then beat the flames out with his bare hands. He was burned, too. Emlen didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But he is the one who helped me when I needed it.”
Hero for a Second Time
Only a few months after the incident in New Guinea, Tunnell found himself playing football and basketball for the Coast Guard.
In November of 1944, Tunnell and his Coast Guard teammates played against legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and his team from the University of the Pacific.
Playing from his halfback position, Tunnell passed for a touchdown and returned an interception for a score on defense.
One month later, Tunnell played basketball against the Cal Golden Bears and scored a baker’s dozen.
In the spring of 1946, Tunnell was stationed in Newfoundland when a crew member aboard the USS Tampa fell into the ocean.
US Coast Guard steward’s mate Emlen Tunnell is one of the greatest Americans you’ve never heard of. He earned the Silver Lifesaving Medal by saving shipmates on two separate occasions, and THEN he became a NFL pioneer & Hall of Famer. Learn more here: https://t.co/H4vDtIsK7W pic.twitter.com/JAgjpNE5Mu
— Michael Eaves (@michaeleaves) November 11, 2021
This time, the enemy was the freezing water of the Labrador Sea. Tunnell didn’t waste time.
He dove into the water and saved the man before he drowned.
“I said to him one time, ‘You could have drowned; you’re not that much of a swimmer,’” Robinson said. “He looked at me and said: ‘I had to take the chance. My buddy needed me.’”
Tunnell’s commanding officer nominated him for the Silver Lifesaving Medal, but African Americans were not typically recognized for such awards at the time.
It wasn’t until 2011 that Tunnell was posthumously awarded the medal along with a Combat Action Ribbon for his act of courage.
Tunnell Plays for Iowa
While serving in the Coast Guard, Tunnell met a serviceman named Jim Walker who had played for the University of Iowa football team before enlisting.
Walker, who was black, told Tunnell that he should try out for the Hawkeyes after he left the service.
He further explained the Iowa coaches gave players of color an opportunity to play ball.
“So I knew blacks got a fair share there,” said Tunnell.
After leaving the service in the spring of 1946, Tunnell made his way to Iowa City and asked coach Eddie Anderson for an opportunity.
He tried out alongside more than 300 prospects, and Tunnell became a member of the Hawkeyes playing on both sides of the ball along with returning punts and kicks.
He was well-liked by his teammates who nicknamed Tunnell “The Gremlin.”
During the 1946 season, Tunnell led Iowa in total yardage and also became known for his unorthodox style of catching footballs on special teams.
Emlen Tunnell days until Iowa football. pic.twitter.com/HHpfihHUFV
— HawkeyesChronicles (@HawksChronicles) August 2, 2022
As the ball arrived, Tunnell waited until the pigskin was near his waist before he caught it.
The technique was so unusual that Robinson once stopped practice so his teammates could watch Tunnell.
“That kind of embarrassed me,” insisted Tunnell. “But Dr. Eddie was different. He’d let you do something your way if you didn’t make mistakes.”
In 1947, Tunnell set a program single-game record against Indiana when he caught six passes, (three for touchdowns), for 155 yards in a 27-14 win.
Weeks later, Tunnell got into an argument with a coach and briefly left the team.
He would return for the remainder of the season but then leave Iowa City soon after to find work.
Tunnell had planned to make enough money to pay tuition for the 1948 season.
However, Iowa officials informed him that he needed to enroll in summer school that year to remain eligible.
Since he did not yet have the money to return, Tunnell was not able to play his senior year.
The Giants Sign Tunnell
A few months after returning home, Tunnell noticed a letter from the New York Giants.
The team was aware that Tunnell’s college eligibility had expired, and he was permitted to be contacted by pro teams.
Tunnell was skeptical at first, but a longtime friend, Vince McNally, encouraged Tunnell to give the NFL a chance.
McNally told him, “Emlen, if I were you, I’d at least go over to New York and talk to the Giants. Tim Mara (Giants’ owner) 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.”
Encouraged, Tunnell knew he had nothing to lose and began making his way to New York.
He had only $1.50 in his pocket, but he hitched a ride toward his destination.
“I just started out and a guy with a truck load of bananas came along and took me all the way into the city,” Tunnell recalled.
When he arrived in New York City, Tunnell spoke with Giants owner Tim Mara about trying out for the team.
— WBG84 (@WBG84) February 1, 2017
At that point in time, the G-Men had never employed a black player.
However, Mara was impressed by Tunnell’s trek and gave him an offer.
“The story is that my grandfather said, ‘Well, if you’re here, you might as well try out,’ ” John Mara, Wellington’s son, said.
After signing his one-year, $5,000 contract, Tunnell was given an opportunity to play on both sides of the ball.
During an exhibition game against Green Bay, he intercepted four passes, and the Giants’ coaching staff made their decision on where Tunnell should play permanently.
“I played the first few games going both ways, then intercepted four passes against Green Bay,” recalled Em (as he was called). “They said ‘You’ll only play defense from now on.’ I didn’t like it that way, but I lasted longer.”
Tunnell Is a Natural
When Tunnell joined the Giants in 1948, the franchise was going through a funk.
The season before, New York won just two games. In 1948, the team would win four games followed by six in 1949.
Despite the lack of wins, it’s safe to say that Tunnell wasn’t the issue.
Emlen Tunnell, Safety
Tunnell signed with the New York Giants in 1948. He was the 1st African-American to sign and play for the Giants. In 1967, Tunnell was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame becoming the 1st African-American to be inducted.#BlackHistoryMonth pic.twitter.com/QS0293uL7w
— CCSU FOOTBALL (@CCSUfootball) February 12, 2022
As a rookie, Tunnell picked off seven passes and returned one for a touchdown.
He also had 115 punt return yards.
In 1949, Tunnell grabbed an astounding 10 interceptions for 251 return yards and led the NFL by returning two of the picks for scores (the NFL did not keep track of tackles at the time).
On special teams, Tunnell had 315 punt return yards and one touchdown.
He was named a first-team All-Pro for the first of six times after the year.
One of the reasons Tunnell played so well was his ability to read offensive players.
He could pick off passes, but he rarely missed when he went to make a tackle.
“At first I thought he was just lucky. Then I realized he was just great,” said teammate Frank Gifford.
“The reason I did so well on interceptions is that I never dropped any balls,” Tunnell said at the time. “Other guys would start running before the catch. I always caught first.”
New York used what the coaches called an “umbrella” defense with Tunnell, Otto Schellenbacher, Harmon Rowe, and future Cowboys coach Tom Landry in the secondary.
Essentially, the defense is the same as what some college and NFL programs use today.
“In truth, it was the same 4-3-2-2 used today,” explained Tunnell years later. “We did go into other formations, but mostly we used this 4-3 arrangement.”
When Tunnell first arrived in New York City, the Giants fans would jeer at him, primarily based on the color of his skin.
By the end of his rookie year, those jeers had turned into cheers.
Tunnell quickly became a fan favorite and one of the best players on the Giants.
NFL in Ballparks
Polo Grounds, NYC, Oct 21, 1950 – Colorization by Don Stokes of Hall of Fame defensive back Emlen Tunnell being pursued by the Cleveland Browns during a NY Giants 17-10 win in front of 41,734. Polo Grounds was home to Giants from 1925 to 1955 pic.twitter.com/IcndtYPB5u
— Old-Time Baseball Photos (@OTBaseballPhoto) September 16, 2021
Having grown up seeing racism firsthand, Tunnell had the ability to push prejudice to the side and soldier on.
“I had plenty of black teammates in college,” said Gifford. “But it was different in the NFL. Most of the guys playing pro were from the South, and so were the coaches. It wasn’t easy being black at the time. But Emlen seemed to ease through it. He had a way of drawing people to him.”
Tunnell’s easygoing nature made him friends fast. There was also the fact that he was a very good football player.
“Emlen changed the theory of defensive safeties,” said Jim Lee Howell, Tunnell’s position coach. “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.”
In 1950, Tunnell began a string of nine Pro Bowl appearances.
Known for his knack of playing “offense on defense” Tunnell had seven interceptions during New York’s 10-2 season.
He also added 305 punt return yards, which was second in the league.
Then, in the 1950 Conference Playoff game, the G-Men lost to Cleveland, 8-3.
During the 1951 season, The Gremlin snagged nine interceptions and led the NFL in punt returns (34) and return yards (489), and scored three touchdowns.
In 1951, Emlen Tunnell picked off 9 passes and scored 3 touchdowns returning punts for the Giants. In 14 seasons, he was selected to the Pro Bowl 9 times. Tunnell's exceptional play culminated in his HOF induction in 1967–the first African American to be enshrined. pic.twitter.com/5ppFckkURD
— BMW Sportscards (@BMWSportscards1) January 7, 2023
He also had six kick returns for 227 yards and led the league with a 100-yard return for a score.
From 1952 through the 1955 season, Tunnell frustrated quarterbacks by picking off 28 total passes and leading the NFL in fumble recoveries with six in 1952.
He also led the league in punt return yards in ’52 (411) and punt returns in 1953 (38).
Tunnell posted a career-high 479 kick return yards during the ’53 season as well.
Although Tunnel was playing well, the Giants returned to their losing ways.
From 1951 to 1955, the team missed the postseason each year.
That would soon change.
New York Wins a Championship
In 1956, the Giants got back on track and went 8-3-1 for the year.
Tunnell’s use on special teams declined at the beginning of that year, but he kept picking off passes in the secondary.
— Pro Athlete Pic Page (@ProAthletePicPg) November 16, 2014
That season, he had six pick-offs for 87 return yards and was a tackling machine, many times with devastating results for the hitter and hittee.
“He would hit people so hard, he would knock himself out,” commented Gifford.
When the regular season ended, New York returned to the NFL Championship game for the first time since 1946.
The contest against the nine-win Chicago Bears wasn’t close. The Giants won the game easily, 47-7, for their first world title since 1938.
The Gremlin Goes to Green Bay
A year after their championship win, New York missed the playoffs.
Tunnell had six more interceptions, including a pick-six, and went to his eighth Pro Bowl.
In 1958, The Gremlin looked mortal, tallying just one pick, his lowest total at that point in his career.
“Old Days”The NY Giants Emlen Tunnell knocks away a pass intended for the Baltimore Colts Lenny Moore in the 1958 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium .#NFL #NYG #Colts #NYC #Baltimore #1950s #NYGiants pic.twitter.com/z4q9Ei5jmp
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) September 24, 2021
That same year, however, New York returned to the playoffs after a nine-win season and lost to the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship game.
After the 1958 season, the Packers hired Giants defensive coordinator Vince Lombardi as their head coach.
One of his first acts of business as Green Bay’s boss was to bring The Gremlin with him.
Coach Lombardi had many strong suits, but his best was the fact that he would not allow racial prejudice, at a time when many others certainly did. Shown here with Emlen Tunnell, he created a culture-if you could contribute, you were on the team, regardless of race. pic.twitter.com/tzdjEBFBeT
— Bill Curry (@coachbillcurry) June 12, 2021
Tunnell wasn’t happy at first, but Lombardi sold him on the idea.
“I wanted to be traded to Philadelphia but Lombardi said I would help him out,” recalled Em. “I was going on 36 and was with all kids, but I had two good years before a poor one.”
After arriving in Wisconsin, Tunnell was struck by the fact that he was a rarity in Green Bay.
“On arrival in his new home, Tunnell was told he had just doubled the black population in Green Bay,” wrote the New York Times. “The city’s other African-American, Tunnell heard, was the shoeshine man at the Hotel Northland. ‘Well, I’ll live there, then,’ Tunnell said.”
Tunnell helped Lombardi install a similar defense to the one used in New York. He also became a calming presence for Packers players not used to the gruff Lombardi.
“He (Tunnell) would tell us later: Don’t worry about how mean or mad he was because that doesn’t mean anything,” said Packers guard Jerry Kramer. “But you better make sure you run those two plays exactly like he was telling you to run them. Not sort of like he was saying; do it exactly like he was saying.”
Second Championship and Retirement
Lombardi’s first year in Green Bay brought a 7-5 record while Tunnell collected two interceptions and went to his ninth Pro Bowl.
The following year, The Gremlin had three picks as the Packers won eight games and lost in the NFL Championship to Philadelphia.
Tunnell returned for one last hurrah in 1961 and did not intercept a pass for the first time in his career.
He started only one game, and it was evident that his days were numbered.
Green Bay returned to the NFL Championship game and waxed the Giants, 37-0, for the city’s first title since 1944.
After the season, Tunnell hung up his cleats for good.
During his career, Tunnell had 79 interceptions for 1,282 return yards, four touchdowns, and 16 fumble recoveries.
Emlen Tunnell is one of the 6 safeties selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
🏈 4x All-Pro, 9x Pro Bowl selection
🏈 2x NFL Champion
🏈 Career: 79 INT, 1,282 INT return yards, 4 INT return TD
🏈 2nd-most career INT in NFL history pic.twitter.com/HNBq95TBGb
— NFL (@NFL) December 7, 2019
He also added 2,209 punt return yards and five touchdowns along with 1,215 kick return yards for another score.
At the time of his retirement, Tunnell’s interception total was the best in the NFL.
The mark was later surpassed by former Viking Paul Krause.
His other totals were NFL records that have also been surpassed.
Tunnell was a two-time world champion, a nine-time Pro Bowler, and a six-time first-team All-Pro.
He has been named a member of the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team, 50th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams, and has been placed in the Giants’ Ring of Honor.
Second Career and Death
Tunnell didn’t stray far from football after retiring as a player.
— NFL (@NFL) February 17, 2017
He became a scout for the Giants and Packers and then became an assistant coach for New York in 1963, becoming the first full-time black coach in the NFL in nearly 40 years.
“First black everything,” Tunnell said. “Player, scout, talent scout, assistant coach and first full-time black assistant in the whole league.”
In 1967, Tunnell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the first black athlete inducted into the Hall.
Tunnell’s Hall bio reads, “I could make tackles until I’m 50. Your body may go, but your heart doesn’t.”
Just eight years later, on July 23, 1975, Tunnell died of a heart attack.
He was just 51 years old.
The US #Coast Guard commissioned its 45th Fast Security #Cutter 15 Oct. at Philadelphia. The EMLEN TUNNELL WPC1145 will be based at Bahrain. Sponsor Yvonne Gilmore Jordan is seen with CO LT Patrick Kelly pic.twitter.com/pfuUkFlC6P
— Chris Cavas (@CavasShips) October 18, 2021
In 2021, the Coast Guard commissioned one of its cutter boats the “Emlen Tunnell” and opened the Emlen Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center at its academy.