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Tunnell was a trailblazer and a true giant

Emlen Tunnell of the Giants in 1949.

Emlen Tunnell of the Giants in 1949. Credit: AP, 1949

By any measure, Emlen Tunnell covered a lot of ground, starting with his Hall of Fame career with the Giants. He not only was an All-Pro safety but was so productive in returning interceptions, punts and kickoffs that he gained more yards in 1952 than the NFL's leading rusher. In his day, people called Tunnell "Offense on Defense."

Of course, that wasn't the start. Not by a long shot. Tunnell had covered much ground on foot in 1948 when he hitchhiked from his Pennsylvania home to Manhattan, where he showed up at the Giants' office unannounced and asked for a tryout. Let the record show that Tunnell's route to football immortality began with a lift from the driver of a banana truck.

Even that doesn't begin to tell where Tunnell's forward progress should be marked. The life that was ended by a heart attack in 1975 at age 50 was more than ground-gaining. It was groundbreaking. Vivian Tunnell Robinson, his sister, said: "He had to have that sense of history. When he first started out, everybody wasn't nice to him. I'm glad we have come a long way. I hope it continues the way it's going."

That comes from someone who heard taunts of home fans at the Polo Grounds toward Tunnell, the first black player the Giants ever had. It also comes from someone who heard fans eventually approach her brother outside the locker room to apologize.

"Ignorance was the thing. They said, 'We didn't know any better,' " Robinson said. "Maybe they didn't know any better. Or maybe they knew they made jackasses of themselves when they realized he was a better player than most.

"He just did not let it bother him," Tunnell's sister said last week from her home in Haverford, not far from the house in which they grew up, in Garrett Hill, outside Philadelphia.


A true pioneer

In his humbly strong way, Tunnell covered hard-earned ground. He helped move American society forward. He once said in an interview with the Des Moines Register that he was "the first black everything" for the Giants, "player, scout, talent scout, assistant and first full-time black assistant [coach] in the whole league."

Plus, he was the first African-American elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

It was all part of the remarkable life of Emlen Tunnell, who had more to boast about than most people -- except boasting wasn't his game. He didn't brag about saving two men's lives while he was in the Coast Guard during and after World War II. It wasn't until last year that he was honored posthumously.

Even his sister never knew that Tunnell integrated minor-league baseball's Central Association during his week as an outfielder for the 1949 Cedar Rapids Rockets (the information was discovered accidentally, from an old newspaper photo and column, by the Iowa chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research).

"Emlen Tunnell was one of the greatest players in Giants history and was a true pioneer. As a player, coach and scout, he was revered by everyone who came into contact with him,'' said Giants president John Mara, whose grandfather, Tim, met the hitchhiker in 1948 and offered him the tryout.


A two-time NFL champ

Tunnell's legacy speaks for him. He was a granite block for everything the Giants have done since he was there. The players who last Sunday held the Vince Lombardi Trophy owe something to Tunnell, who twice left the field an NFL champion and who would appreciate the name on the trophy.

"He met Vince Lombardi and took a liking to him. Vince treated him like a brother," Tunnell's sister said, knowing full well that Lombardi had felt the sting of anti-Italian attitudes. When Lombardi left his job as Giants offensive coordinator to coach the Packers in 1958, he brought with him Tunnell, a stalwart in the Giants' punishing "Umbrella Defense."

"When Lombardi took the job at Green Bay, he told The New York Times, 'My best players are going on defense,' " said Ernie Palladino, author of the book, "Lombardi and Landry."

By any measure, Tunnell was among the best. He still is. A recent book by James Buckley Jr., "The NFL's Top 100," ranked Tunnell No. 1 on the all-time list of ballhawks. Palladino, a longtime Giants beat writer, said: "He was the prototype all-around guy. He could play defense, he was a physical guy, but he also had breakaway speed. He probably could have been a heck of a wide receiver."

But his life story showed he had the perfect instincts for a defensive back: He knew just when to hold back and just when to burst decisively into action.

And he always made things better, wherever he was. "I used to call him the Pied Piper," his sister said. "If you got to know him, you liked him."

People always saw something special in Tunnell, beginning when he was a three-sport star for Radnor Township High School (the township now has a park named after him, and a flagpole and flags will be dedicated to him next Sunday to mark Black History Month).

Early in his football career, he suffered a broken neck that was so serious that he woke up to see a Catholic priest giving him Last Rites, even though he was not Catholic. Tunnell recovered well enough to play basketball for the University of Toledo and was on the squad that reached the 1943 NIT final against St. John's (the boxscore has him listed as "Turnell").


The war hero

He tried to enlist in both the Army and Navy for World War II, but both branches rejected him because of his neck injury. Rather than resting comfortably with his deferment, he insisted on serving and was accepted into the Coast Guard -- the greatest news ever for shipmates Fred Shaver and Alfred Givens. Each would have died had Tunnell not been there to save him.

Shaver was consumed by flames April 27, 1944, when a Japanese plane bombed the USS Etamin, at anchor in Papua New Guinea. Tunnell did not realize it was Shaver, a buddy and fellow sports buff, when he saw the fire. He merely tackled a fellow Guardsman in need and put out the flames with his hands.

On March 17, 1946, according to Coast Guard records, Alfred Givens fell off the dock of the Coast Guard cutter Tampa. Tunnell jumped into the 32-degree water and saved him.

Each time, Tunnell was nominated for the Silver Lifesaving Medal. "All this time, it was just locked up in somebody's desk," Robinson said. She and her daughter represented Tunnell in California last March, finally accepting his medals.

It was worth the wait. The Robinsons became friends with Shaver's daughter, who flew from Washington, D.C., for the ceremony. Plus, it was an opportunity to review all the ground that Tunnell covered:

After the war, he played semipro baseball and met a fellow ballplayer who told him that the University of Iowa's football team was ahead of the curve in accepting African-Americans. He enrolled, worked his way into the lineup and in 1948 was intrigued by a questionnaire that the Giants sent to college seniors. Tunnell didn't wait to be drafted; he chose the Giants. With $1.50 in his pocket, he started hitching.

"He had confidence in himself," his sister said, adding that he never announced a Plan B in case team patriarch Tim Mara did not offer him a $5,000 contract. "He figured somebody in the family would come pick him up."

The thing is, Tunnell kept meeting different people and treating them like family. A year after retiring as a player after the Packers' 1961 championship, he married Patricia Dawkins (who died two years ago).

Among his closest friends on the Giants was quarterback Charlie Conerly, a white man from Mississippi. In his 1966 autobiography, "Footsteps of a Giant," Tunnell told about someone reminding him that if there were an all-African-American league, Tunnell surely would have been a head coach. But the former safety replied that he would have been immediately suspended because his first hire would have been Conerly.

In his Hall of Fame induction speech Aug. 5, 1967, Tunnell thanked all of the big-time decision-makers who helped him become enshrined. And he made sure to mention the driver of that banana truck.

Tunnell never forgot, and he never will be forgotten.

"I think it is fair to say that he was one of the most beloved individuals in the history of our franchise,'' John Mara said.

Before the Super Bowl, his sister was thinking about him even more than usual. "If he were here, he would be calling me every day, saying, 'Do you think they're going to do it? They're going to do it. They've got to do this, they've got to do that,' " she said. "I really miss him."


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