Emlen Tunnell
Emlen Tunnell.jpg
No. 45
Personal information
Born:(1924-03-29)March 29, 1924[1]
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Died:July 23, 1975(1975-07-23) (aged 51)
Pleasantville, New York
Height:6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)
Weight:187 lb (85 kg)
Career information
College:Toledo (1942)
Iowa (19461947)
Career history
As a player:
As a coach:
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Int. return yards:1,282
Punt returns:258
Punt return yards:2,209
Player stats at NFL.com · PFR

Emlen Lewis Tunnell (March 29, 1924[1] – July 23, 1975), sometimes known by the nickname "The Gremlin",[2] was an American professional football player and coach. He was the first African American to play for the New York Giants and also the first to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Tunnell played college football at the University of Toledo in 1942 and University of Iowa in 1946 and 1947. He also served in the United States Coast Guard from 1943 to 1946. He received the Silver Lifesaving Medal for heroism in rescuing a shipmate from flames during a torpedo attack in 1944 and rescuing another shipmate who fell into the sea in 1946.

He next played 14 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) as a defensive halfback and safety for the New York Giants (19481958) and Green Bay Packers (19591961). He was selected as a first-team All-Pro six times and played in nine Pro Bowls. He was a member of NFL championship teams in 1956 and 1961. When he retired as a player, he held NFL career records for interceptions (79), interception return yards (1,282), punt returns (258), and punt return yards (2,209).

After retiring as a player, Tunnell served as a special assistant coach and defensive backs coach for the New York Giants from 1963 to 1974. In addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was named to the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team and the all-time All-Pro team, and was ranked number 70 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

Early years

Tunnell was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania,[2] though sources conflict as to his year of birth. His tombstone as well as the Social Security Death Index and Tunnell's Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File reflect a birth date of March 29, 1924.[3][4][5] Official NFL records and multiple sources in the early 1960s reported his date of birth as March 29, 1922.[6][7][8] Tunnell listed his birth date as March 29, 1923, on his 1942 draft card and on his 1950 application for World War II benefits.[9][10] Other sources record his birth year as 1925.[2][11] In 1961, Tunnell joked about his age: "I'm not really 41, as everyone says. I'm closer to 42."[7]

Tunnell grew up in the Garrett Hill neighborhood of Radnor Township, approximately eight miles northwest of Philadelphia.[12][13] His parents were divorced when Tunnell was young, and he and three siblings were raised by his mother, Catherine, who worked as a housekeeper in the homes of wealthy families in the Philadelphia Main Line area.[14] His sister, Vivian, recalled Garrett Hill as a multi-ethnic neighborhood where "everybody mingled", and her brother "learned from his environment – be yourself, but adapt to others who might be different in the group."[14]

Tunnell attended Radnor High School where he was a star halfback in 1940 and 1941.[15][16]

Tunnell was included in the inaugural class of inductees to the Radnor High School Hall of Fame in 2003.

College and military service


Tunnell enrolled at the University of Toledo in the fall of 1942 and played college football as a halfback for Toledo Rockets football team. He was described as the "main spring" of Toledo's offense in the first part of the 1942 season. However, on October 26, 1942, he sustained a broken neck in a game when he was blocked while attempting to make a tackle against Marshall.[17] He recuperated sufficiently to help lead the Toledo Rockets men's basketball team to the finals of the 1943 National Invitation Tournament.[18]

Coast Guard

Tunnell played basketball for the racially integrated District 12 team at Coast Guard Station Alameda in 1943.
Tunnell played basketball for the racially integrated District 12 team at Coast Guard Station Alameda in 1943.

Tunnell's neck injury in 1942 resulted in his being rejected in efforts to enlist in both the United States Army and Navy during World War II.[19] In May 1943, Tunnell enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. From August 1943 to July 1944, he served on the USS Etamin, a cargo ship that was manned by Coast Guard personnel and stationed in the South West Pacific Area.[9] In April 1944, while unloading explosives and gasoline at Aitape in Papua New Guinea, the Etamin was struck by a torpedo dropped from a Japanese airplane; Tunnell saved a fellow crew member who was set afire in the blast, beat out the flames with his hands, sustained burns to his own hands, and carried the shipmate to safety.[14][20] He was next stationed at San Francisco and Alameda from August 1944 to October 1945.[9]

In the fall of 1944, Tunnell played at the halfback position for the San Francisco Coast Guard Pilots football team.[21] On November 11, 1944, he led the Pilots to a 13–0 victory over Amos Alonzo Stagg's Pacific Tigers football team, throwing 22 yards for a touchdowns and returning an interception 75 yards for another touchdown.[22] At the end of the 1944 season, he was named to the All-Pacific Coast service football team.[23] He also played basketball for the San Francisco Coast Guard, scoring 13 points in a December 1944 game against the California Golden Bears.[24]

The Coast Guard named the Bernard C. Webber, and all its other Sentinel class cutters, after heroes, and chose to name the 45th vessel after Tunnell.
The Coast Guard named the Bernard C. Webber, and all its other Sentinel class cutters, after heroes, and chose to name the 45th vessel after Tunnell.

In March 1946, while stationed at Naval Station Argentia in Newfoundland, Tunnell rescued a shipmate who fell from the USS Tampa. Tunnell jumped into the 32-degree water and saved his drowning shipmate. In 2011, Tunnell was posthumously recognized by having the gymnasium on Coast Guard Island named in his honor and was awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal for his heroism in rescuing his shipmate on the Tampa.[20]

On December 12, 2017, the Coast Guard announced that it planned to name its 45th Sentinel class cutter the USCGC Emlen Tunnell.[25] In 2021, the Coast Guard announced plans to name an athletic building on the Coast Guard Academy campus the Emlen Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center.[26]


Tunnell was discharged from the Coast Guard in April 1946.[9] He enrolled at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1946. Playing for the 1946 Iowa football team, Tunnell led the team with 541 yards of total offense and 28 pass completions and ranked second on the team with 333 rushing yards.[27]

On October 11, 1947, he set an Iowa single-game record with 155 receiving yards and three touchdowns on six receptions.[28] Three weeks later, Tunnell quit the team after an argument with backfield coach Frank Carideo. He apologized and was reinstated two days later, but he played "sparingly" in the final two games of the 1947 season.[29][30]

Tunnell left Iowa in January 1948 in order to make some money to enable him to return and play football in the fall.[31] He was told by school officials that, in order to be eligible to play football again in the fall, he would need to return for summer school and make up for a class he failed in the fall. Tunnell later explained: "I got a telegram on Sunday saying I had to be back in school on Monday and didn't have any money or nothing."[32]

Professional football player

New York Giants

On July 24, 1948, Tunnell signed with the New York Giants.[33] He was the first African American signed by, and the first to play for, the Giants.[33] He later wrote that he hitchhiked from his family home in Garrett Hill to New York City to meet Jack Mara, son of Giants founder Tim Mara, and ask for a try out.[34][35] In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Tunnell thanked a West Indian banana-truck driver who dropped him off near this Polo Grounds "appointment".[14]

As a rookie in 1948, Tunnell appeared in 10 games and intercepted seven passes, including one returned 43 yards for a touchdown.[2] Between 1949 and 1952, he was known as one of the best pass defenders and punt returners in the NFL. He was a key element in the Giants' famed "umbrella defense" that shut down the passing game of opponents in the early 1950s, and he was referred to as the Giants' "offense on defense".[19] His accomplishments during those prime years include the following:

Tunnell remained with the Giants for a total of 11 years from 1948 to 1958. During that time, he was selected as a first-team All-Pro six times, played in eight Pro Bowls, and set franchise records that still stand with 74 intercepted passes for 1,240 interception return yards and four touchdowns (tied with Dick Lynch and Jason Sehorn). He also recovered 15 fumbles and still holds franchise records with 257 punt returns for 2,206 yards and five touchdowns, which was good for an average of 8.6 yards per return.[2] His total of 3,421 return yards is also a franchise record.[2]

Green Bay Packers

After the 1958 season, the Giants' offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi left New York to become head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers. In June 1959, the Packers, in one of their first major personnel moves under Lombardi, purchased Tunnell from the Giants.[37] In three years with the Packers, Tunnell saw reduced playing time, but helped to bolster the defense with his experience, worked to develop the team's young players, and became known as "an unofficial pastor" for the team.[38][39] He appeared in 13 games for the 1961 Packers team that won the NFL championship. He saw playing time in red zone defensive situations. Defensive backs coach Norb Hecker said of Tunnell: "He was still a vicious tackler. When the opposition got inside our 15, we put him in and he responded with the fury of a linebacker. He could fall back on experience and by watching an offensive player's move was seldom beat."[40]

Career accomplishments and honors

In March 1962, Tunnell announced his retirement as a player.[40] At that time, he held several NFL records, including the following:

During his 14-year NFL career, Tunnell also totaled 16 fumble recoveries, 8.6 yards per punt return, and 1,215 yards on 46 kickoff returns (26.4 yards per return).[2]

Tunnell has received numerous honors for his contributions to the sport, including the following:

On June 2, 2018, a statue of Tunnell was installed in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.[56]

Coaching and family

Tunnell was married in 1962 to Patricia Dawkins.[14] They had no children.[50]

In the fall of 1962, Tunnell worked as a scout for the Giants and Packers, observing college players on Saturdays and watching the Giants' upcoming opponents on Sundays. In May 1963, he was hired by the Giants as a special assistant coach under head coach Allie Sherman. In addition to his scouting duties, he was responsible for "special assignments" during the Giants' training camp.[57]

In February 1965, Tunnell was promoted to assistant coach responsible for the Giants' defensive backs.[58] While some sources credit Tunnell as the first African American to work as an assistant coach in the NFL,[59][46] and even as the first black coach in the NFL,[36] Fritz Pollard was a head coach in the NFL in the 1920s, and Lowell Perry was an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957.

Tunnell suffered a minor heart attack in October 1974 and thereafter assumed a new position as the Giants' assistant personnel director.[50] In July 1975, Tunnell died from a heart attack during a Giants practice session at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York.[2] He was buried at Gulph United Church of Christ Cemetery in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.[11]


  1. ^ a b As noted in the "Early years" section below, reliable sources are substantially in dispute as to w whether Tunnell was born in 1922, 1923, 1924, or 1925.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Emlen Tunnell". Pro-Football-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved October 17, 2017.
  3. ^ "Photograph of Tunnell's tombstone". Emlentunnell.com. Archived from the original on August 10, 2017. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  4. ^ Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935–2014 [database on-line].
  5. ^ Ancestry.com. U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850–2010 [database on-line].
  6. ^ "Emlen Tunnell". NFL.com. National Football League. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  7. ^ a b "Green Bay Packers Respect Defensive Back Em Tunnell". The Terre Haute Tribune (AP story). December 14, 1961. p. 46 – via Newspapers.com.("The Packer record book says that Tunnell was born March 29, 1922, making him 39 – the same age as Jack Benny.")
  8. ^ "Em Tunnell, NFL Vet, Calls It Quits". The Morning Call (AP story). March 29, 1962. p. 53 – via Newspapers.com.
  9. ^ a b c d Application for World War II Compensation completed by Emlen Lewis Tunnell and dated March 20, 1950. He listed his birth date as March 29, 1923, at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Veteran Compensation Application Files, WWII, 1950-1966 [database on-line].
  10. ^ The National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Draft Registration Cards for Pennsylvania, October 16, 1940 – March 31, 1947; Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147; Box: 2560. Source Information: Ancestry.com. U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947 [database on-line].
  11. ^ a b "Emlen Lewis Tunnell". Find a Grave. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  12. ^ "Emlen Tunnell". Portraits of Delaware County. Delaware County. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  13. ^ "Eyes and Ears of the New York Giants: Em Tunnell coaches, scouts for pro team". Ebony. December 1963. p. 60. Retrieved October 17, 2017.
  14. ^ a b c d e Pennington, Bill (January 14, 2012). "The Giants' Greatest Packer". The New York Times. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  15. ^ "Tunnell Stars In Radnor Win". Delaware County Daily Times. October 4, 1941. p. 14 – via Newspapers.com.
  16. ^ "Giants' Ace, Tunnell, Was Radnor Star". The Philadelphia Inquirer. October 6, 1948. p. 46 – via Newspapers.com.
  17. ^ "Broken Neck Sustained: By Toledo Freshman In Game With Marshall". The Cincinnati Enquirer. October 27, 1942. p. 14 – via Newspapers.com.
  18. ^ "Blocked Tunnel". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. March 19, 1943. p. 17 – via Newspapers.com.
  19. ^ a b c d "Emlen Tunnell". Pro Football Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  20. ^ a b "Emlen Tunnell, an unsung hero". Coast Guard Compass. United States Coast Guard. February 4, 2011.
  21. ^ "Coasting Along". Nevada State Journal. September 24, 1944. p. 12 – via Newspapers.com.
  22. ^ "Tunnell Stars as Guard Beats Pacific". Oakland Tribune. November 12, 1944. p. 19 – via Newspapers.com.
  23. ^ "Toledo Univ. Ace Leads Coast Guard". The Pittsburgh Courier. January 20, 1945. p. 12 – via Newspapers.com.
  24. ^ "Bears Beat Guard of S.F." Oakland Tribune. December 10, 1944. p. 18 – via Newspapers.com.
  25. ^ "Coast Guard Aligns Names with Hull Numbers for its Sentinel-class FRCs". Seapower magazine. Washington DC. December 12, 2017. Archived from the original on December 13, 2017. Retrieved December 9, 2017. The U.S. Coast Guard has announced the names and corresponding hull numbers for its next 20 Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters (FRCs), each vessel being named for a deceased leader, trailblazer or hero of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the U.S. Lighthouse Service, according to a Dec. 12 Coast Guard release.
  26. ^ Eaton-Robb, Pat (February 6, 2021). "Coast Guard honors Black veteran, NFL great Emlen Tunnel". The Associated Press. Retrieved February 6, 2021.
  27. ^ "Grid Marks Come Up". Iowa City Press-Citizen. November 19, 1946. p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.
  28. ^ "Iowa Passes Dazzle Indiana, 27–14". The Des Moines Register. October 12, 1947. pp. 5–1, 5–3 – via Newspapers.com.
  29. ^ "Tunnell Quits Iowa But Asks To Return". The Des Moines Register. November 5, 1947. p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.
  30. ^ Mike Finn, Chad Leistikow (2005). Hawkeye Legends, Lists, & Lore. Simon and Schuster. p. 86. ISBN 0-7432-4591-1.
  31. ^ "Em Tunnell Fails To Register at Iowa U." The Daily Times (Davenport, IA). February 26, 1948. p. 22 – via Newspapers.com.
  32. ^ "Tunnell Didn't Know He Needed Summer Classes". Council Bluffs Nonpareil. August 29, 1948. p. 23 – via Newspapers.com.
  33. ^ a b "Giant Eleven Signs Tunnell, Iowa's Back". Des Moines Tribune. July 24, 1948. p. 7 – via Newspapers.com.
  34. ^ "The Human Touch of Emlen Tunnell". The New York Times. July 26, 1975.
  35. ^ Tunnell, Emlen (1966). Footsteps of a Giant. New York, NY: Doubleday. ASIN B0007DZSNY.
  36. ^ a b c "Emlen Tunnell Is Dead". Hartford Courant (AP story). July 24, 1975. p. 99 – via Newspapers.com.
  37. ^ "Em Tunnell, 34, Older Than His Immediate Packer Coach". Green Bay Press-Gazette. June 27, 1959. p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.
  38. ^ Lea, Bud (November 2, 1960). "Packers Defense Now Solid Unit". The Milwaukee Journal. p. 34. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
  39. ^ "Em Tunnell Packers' Pastor". Green Bay Press-Gazette. December 14, 1961. p. 18 – via Newspapers.com.
  40. ^ a b "Em's Retirement Clears Way for New No. 1 Aide". Green Bay Press-Gazette. March 29, 1962. p. 4 – via Newspapers.com.
  41. ^ "NFL Interceptions Career Leaders". Pro-Football-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  42. ^ "NFL Interception Return Yards Career Leaders". Pro-Football-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  43. ^ a b "Emlen Tunnell: A Giant of Defense" (PDF). Coffin Corner. Pro Football Researchers. 1994.
  44. ^ "NFL Punt Returns Career Leaders". Pro-Football-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  45. ^ "NFL Punt Return Yards Career Leaders". Pro-Football-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  46. ^ a b Bob Broeg (November 6, 1966). "Em Tunnell Made Giant Footsteps as Punt Returner". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. p. 46 – via Newspapers.com.
  47. ^ "Hall of Fame Names Tunnell, Bednarik". Delaware County Daily Times. February 8, 1967. p. 26 – via Newspapers.com.
  48. ^ "Graham, Huff on All-1950s Pro Football Selections". Racine Sunday Bulletin. August 31, 1969. p. 6C – via Newspapers.com.
  49. ^ "Night Train Lane Picked On Pros' All-Time Team". Detroit Free Press. September 7, 1969. p. 3E – via Newspapers.com.
  50. ^ a b c "Iowa, pro star Tunnell joins Register 'Hall'". Des Moines Register. March 30, 1975. pp. D1, D3 – via Newspapers.com.
  51. ^ "untitled". Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY). August 15, 1999. p. 3D – via Newspapers.com.
  52. ^ "Honoring Giants". Philadelphia Daily News. October 4, 2010.
  53. ^ "Top 100 Players of All Time". The Hartford Courant. November 7, 2010. p. E7 – via Newspapers.com.
  54. ^ "#79: Emlen Tunnell". The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players. NFL Films. 2010. Retrieved October 18, 2017.[dead YouTube link]
  55. ^ Robert W. Cohen (2014). The 50 Greatest Players in New York Giants Football History. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 13. ISBN 978-1442236325.
  56. ^ Linda Stein (June 2, 2018). "New statue unveiled for Emlen Tunnell, football legend and World War II hero". Delaware County Daily Times. Archived from the original on June 5, 2018. Saturday, with a U.S. Coast Guard honor guard and all the pomp and circumstances that befits a local hero, Radnor Township officials and the Sports Legends of Delaware County Museum dedicated a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of Tunnell that now stands outside the township building. The statue, created by sculptor Jennifer Frudakis Petry, depicts Tunnell running with a football.
  57. ^ "Tunnell Takes Coaching Post". Nevada State Journal. May 2, 1963. p. 7 – via Newspapers.com.
  58. ^ "'Pop' Ivy, Emlen Tunnell To Join New York Giant Staff". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. February 4, 1965. p. 72 – via Newspapers.com.
  59. ^ Murray Olderman (October 19, 1965). "Emlen Tunnell Makes Professional Coaching History With His Gremlins". The Daily Home News (New Brunswick, NJ). p. 16 – via Newspapers.com.

Further reading