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Football player Emlen Tunnell was the first African American to play for the New York Giants, and the first African American to be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
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Born in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1925, Emlen Tunnell played college ball before serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII. He then spent 10 years with the New York Giants, then 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.
Born on March 29, 1925, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Emlen Lewis Tunnell is best known for becoming the first African American to be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1967.
Tunnell 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, Tunell was rejected by the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II due to this injury. Undeterred in his quest to serve his country, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard. After the war, he began a football career at the University of Iowa.
Leaving Iowa after the 1947 season, Emlen Tunnell made his way to New York and 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 line-up. Spending a decade as a part of the New York Giants, this 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 admired for his easygoing demeanor.
Tunnell joined the Green Bay Packers in 1959, 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 New York 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 an assistant coach. Recognized for his achievements as an athlete and competitor, Tunnell was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1967—becoming the first African American to receive this honor.
Emlen Tunnell died of a heart attack on July 22, 1975, in Pleasantville, New York. Today, he continues to be remembered for helping to break the color barrier in professional football.
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