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The Gremlin

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Pioneer, War Hero, Hall-of-Famer, Trailblazer

Emlen Tunnell
Getty Images

Imagine if you will a football player who - among other things:

  • Suffered a broken back during a football game while at the University of Toledo.
  • Recovered from this injury, only to volunteer for military duty during a world war.
  • Survived a torpedo attack aboard a US Coast Guard cargo ship and saved the life of a fellow crewman.
  • Returned from military service post-war and continued his college football career at the University of Iowa.
  • Following college went on to a 14-year career in the NFL playing in 158 consecutive games.

You would probably think wow, these are rather remarkable achievements. Now consider that this player retired as the NFL leader in interceptions, interception return yardage, punt returns, and punt return yardage. And lastly, take into account that this player broke the color barrier with arguably the most visible team in the fledgling NFL in New York City. This would tell the story of Emlen Tunnell; aka "The Gremlin".

Tunnell grew in the Philadelphia suburbs in a multiracial neighborhood quite atypical for that era. There's a bit of confusion about when he was actually born: basically pick a year between 1921 and 1925. After graduating from high school (and as a star halfback on the football team), Tunnell attended the University of Toledo. During his first season he suffered a broken back in an October, 1942 game against Marshall. Tunnell’s injury was so serious that he was knocked unconscious from the collision, and awoke in a hospital as a priest administered Last Rights. However (as a sign of his toughness) Tunnell recovered sufficiently to play on Toledo's men's basketball team that advanced to the NIT Finals (in an era when only a very select few teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament).

When the United States entered World War II, Tunnell attempted to volunteer for both the Army and Navy. Being rejected by both services due to his broken back, Tunnell enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. While serving in the Coast Guard Tunnell on 2 occasions showed great heroism: in 1944 when his ship the Etamin was torpedoed Tunnell rescued a shipmate. Then in 1946 (after the war) Tunnell jumped into 32 degree water to rescue a shipmate who fell overboard from the Tampa. In recognition for both of these acts, Tunnell was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal.

Returning from military service, Tunnell enrolled at the University of Iowa to continue his college football career. He played the 1946 and 1947 seasons in Iowa City and had an impressive career. In 1947, Tunnell set the Iowa record with 155 receiving yards on 6 receptions. However, Tunnell's season was cut short by a confrontation with assistant coach Frank Carideo. Tunnell left the University of Iowa in January 1948 and tried to make some money. He was told that he could return and play for the Hawkeyes for the 1948 season if he would take summer classes; however, given the short notice and even shorter finances Tunnell ended his college career.

On a whim Tunnell hitchhiked to New York City to try out for the New York Giants; literally arriving at The Polo Grounds (the Giants' stadium) in a banana truck. Arriving on July 24, 1948 with $1.50 in his pocket, Tunnell asked Jack Mara (son of Giants' founder Tim Mara) for a tryout. Tunnell made the team and appeared in 10 games (against a 12-game schedule). But more importantly, Tunnell broke the color barrier becoming the first African-American player with the Giants (just a year after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in Brooklyn with the Dodgers).

Throughout the 1950s Tunnell made a name for himself as both an NFL defensive back and punt returner. (Note that from 1950-1955 Tunnell's Giants' defensive back teammate was a Texan named Tom Landry). He was a 6-time All-Pro and 8-time Pro Bowl member with the Giants from 1948-1958; with 74 interceptions (and 1,240 interception return yards) and 257 punt returns (for 2,206 yards). Additionally, Tunnell earned the first of 2 NFL Championships with the Giants in 1956 and played in arguably the greatest NFL game ever in the 1958 NFL Championship against the Baltimore Colts.

Emlen Tunnell (#45) in a 1950 New York Giants Game Against the Cleveland Browns
Associated Press

In 1959 Giants Offensive Coordinator Vince Lombardi took over as Green Bay Packers head coach. Wanting to immediately instill a winning attitude with the Packers, Lombardi signed Emlen Tunnell both as a defensive back and surrogate assistant coach. Upon his arrival in Green Bay Tunnell was told somewhat tongue-in-cheek that he had just doubled Green Bay's African-American population; with the other person of color being the man who ran the shoeshine stand at the Hotel Northland. Tunnell quipped back that he would then live at the Hotel Northland; which he did - with Vince Lombardi personally paying Emlen's rent.

Tunnell played 3 seasons for the Packers; including an appearance in the 1960 NFL Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles and his second NFL Championship as in a bit of irony the Packers defeated Tunnell's former team the New York Giants. But more importantly Tunnell also served (in addition to being a tutor for instilling Vince Lombardi's toughness) as an ambassador for the Packers, encouraging other African-American players to come to Green Bay such as Hall of Famers Willie Wood, Willie Davis, and fellow defensive back and Philadelphian Herb Adderley.

Emlen Tunnell (second from right) as a Giants Assistant Coach in 1971
Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times

Retiring as a player after the 1961 season Tunnell became the first African-American and first defensive back in the Professional Football Hall-of-Fame in 1967 (his first year of eligibility). Among his career records at his retirement were NFL records for interceptions at 79 (broken by fellow Iowa Hawkeye Paul Krause - and still #2 all-time in the NFL), interception return yards at 1,282 (only broken 4 decades later - and still #5 all-time in the NFL), and consecutive games played at 158 (also subsequently broken by others). And keep in mind that Tunnell set his records for interceptions and interception yardage in an era where NFL teams attempted 20 to 25 passes a game.

In 1963 Emlen Tunnell was hired as an assistant coach for the New York Giants, becoming the defensive backs coach in 1965. Tunnell remained as a Giants assistant coach until suffering a massive heart attack on the practice field and passing away in July 1975. Many titles and honors can be bestowed on Emlen Tunnell: Hall of Famer, war hero, pioneer, sports ambassador, Iowa Hawkeye, and Big Ten great. Unfortunately when asked who are the all-time New York Giants defensive greats the typical answers - Lawrence Taylor, Michael, Strahan, Sam Huff - fail to mention a player who in his era was arguably better than any of these greats. All of the honors and recognition from a long-ago era in the NFL, though, do not do this great man justice for what he achieved during his all-to-brief lifetime.