Born in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1925, Emlen Tunnell played college ball before serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII, later receiving honors for two major feats of heroism. He then spent 10 years with the New York Giants and three more years with the Green Bay Packers before retiring in 1962. After leaving the field, Tunnell served as a coach and scout for the Giants. He became the first African American to be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1967. He died in New York in 1975.
Early Life and Coast Guard Service
Born on March 29, 1925, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Emlen Lewis Tunnell is widely known for becoming the first African American to be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1967.
Tunnell grew up in Philadelphia's multi-ethnic Garrett Hill neighborhood. He excelled at many sports during his youth, playing football, baseball and basketball. While playing football for the University of Toledo, his sports career and possibly his life almost ended when he broke his neck. Although he recovered, Tunnell was rejected by the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II due to the injury.
Undeterred, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard, with Tunnell twice noted for his remarkable bravery. During a 1944 attack in Papua New Guinea and the resulting torpedo explosion, Tunnell saved a fellow seaman aboard the USS Etamin who was lit ablaze. Around two years later, Tunnell suffered from shock and hypothermia after jumping into frigid waters to rescue a shipmate who'd fallen from the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa.
After the war, Tunnell began a football career at the University of Iowa. Leaving Iowa after the 1947 season, Tunnell made his way to New York and, showing up unannounced, asked for a tryout with the Giants. He eventually received a contract from the team, making him the first African American to play for the New York Giants. At more than 6 feet tall, Tunnell became a crucial part of the team's defensive lineup. Spending a decade as a part of the Giants, the stellar safety and defensive back helped his team win the 1956 National Football League Championship against the Chicago Bears. In addition to his outstanding skills on the field, Tunnell was also admired for his easygoing demeanor.
Tunnell joined the Green Bay Packers in 1959 under coach Vince Lombardi, and was soon recognized for playing an important role in his new team's defensive strategy. In 1961, he assisted the Packers in winning the NFL Championship against his old team, the Giants. Retiring after that season, Tunnell had an amazing 79 career interceptions—a record surpassed only by Paul Krause, who made 81. Tunnell set several other NFL records during his career, including most punt returns—262 for 2,217 yards—which has since been broken.
After leaving the field at the end of the 1961 season, Tunnell remained close to the action. He joined the New York Giants as a scout, later becoming the first African American to be a full-time NFL assistant coach. (He was specifically appointed defensive backs coach.) Recognized for his achievements as an athlete and competitor, Tunnell was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1967—the first black player to receive this honor. The previous year he had published his autobiography, Footsteps of a Giant.
Emlen Tunnell died of a heart attack on July 22, 1975, in Pleasantville, New York. He was survived by his wife Patricia Dawkins, whom he wed in 1962. Today, he continues to be remembered for his athletic achievements and helping to break the color barrier in professional football. Decades later, in 2011, Tunnell was awarded the Coast Guard's Silver Lifesaving Medal for his acts of heroism during the 1940s. His sister, Vivian Robinson, accepted the medal on his behalf.
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