Emlen Tunnell, football pioneer


Emlen Tunnell
Date: 
Sun, 1925-03-29

*Emlen Tunnell was born on this date in 1925. He was an African American football player, the first Black man inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

From Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, he entered the University of Toledo in 1942 after his graduation from Radnor (PA) High School, but soon suffered the broken neck that seemed to end his football career. Although he was able to play basketball and help Toledo reach the finals of the National Invitational Tournament, he wore a neck brace for a year and was turned down in his attempts to enlist in the army and navy. Undaunted, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard where he served until early 1946.

As a football player, Tunnell was a master thief and destructive weapon rolled into that innocent looking 6-1, 187-pound body. An undrafted Iowa standout that paid his way to New York in 1948 and asked the Giants for a tryout, Tunnell became one of the first defense-only stars of the game. Tunnell was the first Black player in the Giants’ post-World War II era and went on to distinction as the NFL’s first Black assistant coach and pro football’s first Black Hall of Famer. He is credited with developing many of the pass-coverage techniques for the safety position. “Emlen the Gremlin” was an interception waiting to happen, lulling quarterbacks into a sense of security, and then turning their pass into his picks. Some of his 79 career interceptions (#2 all-time) were catlike reactions, but many were his ability to read plays.

Tunnell became the centerpiece for the Giants’ famed "Umbrella Defense" that revolutionized defensive play by dropping linebackers into pass coverage. But Tunnell was at his best when he received punts, as the NFL’s first great punt-return man. He was labeled "offense on defense," a moniker he justified with 4,706 combined career yards on interception runbacks, punt returns, and kickoff returns.

Tunnell, who played on one championship team in New York and another in his career-ending 1961 season in Green Bay, was selected to nine Pro Bowls. He died on July 22, 1975.

Reference:
Deleware County Sports Exhibit
PO Box 67
Woodland, PA 19094
610-497-2565

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Person / name: 

Tunnell, Emlen