Emlen Tunnell: A Largely Unknown NFL Great
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Fifty years ago, Emlen Tunnell played his last pro-football game. He helped the Green Bay Packers defeat his former team, the New York Giants, 37-to-nothing.
Tunnell was the first black player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also the first defensive specialist to receive that honor and the first African-American to be on the permanent coaching staff of an NFL team.
But NPR's Mike Pesca found that many fans today have never heard of one of the game's greatest players.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: I'm outside the stadium for last Sunday's Giants' game, approaching fans wearing blue jerseys
Are you a big Giants' fan?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm a big Giants fans.
I ask the same trivia question.
NFL all time, what Giants' player is in top three in a major defensive statistical category?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Lawrence Taylor.
PESCA: That is incorrect.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's incorrect? Michael Strahan?
PESCA: Always the same the wrong answers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Lawrence Taylor and Strahan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah, Strahan and (unintelligible).
PESCA: Wrong. Second in interceptions is Emlen Tunnel.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Emlen Tunnell?
PESCA: You ever hear of Emlen Tunnell?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No, I've never heard of him.
PESCA: A couple fans I spoke with said the name does sound familiar. It should. Seventy-nine interceptions, two behind the all-time leader, Paul Krause, and Tunnell played in 59 fewer games. The interception numbers are especially impressive because he had far fewer opportunities. When he played, teams passed about only 25 times a game.
Michael MacCambridge, author of "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation," says Tunnell redefined his position, especially the subspecialty of safety known as the ball hawk.
MICHAEL MACCAMBRIDGE: His nickname at the time was Offense on Defense and, by that, he didn't just stop the other team. He made big plays that turned games around and brought himself into the game rather than waiting for the game to come to him.
PESCA: That was hardly an option for a black player in the 1940s. Tunnell, who grew up in an integrated neighborhood near Philadelphia, attended the University of Toledo and then Iowa, with a stint in the Coast Guard in between.
That he excelled on the field, not to mention saved shipmates' lives on two separate occasions, mattered little to the NFL, which had only a single integrated team, the L.A. Rams. But the New York Giants did show a bit of interest in Tunnell, not that they drafted him or even gave him train fare. Michael MacCambridge.
MACCAMBRIDGE: Em Tunnell in 1948 hitchhikes up to New York, waits for a couple hours before he gets a ride, but a West Indian gentleman driving a banana truck stops by and gives him a ride into New York City, where Tunnell, with $1.50 to his name, goes in and has a meeting with the Giants.
JOHN MARA: The story that I always heard was that he showed up unanounced. He walked into my grandfather's office in 1948 and asked for a tryout.
PESCA: And it's a good thing that he got one, says John K. Mara, Giants co-owner, because Tunnell went on to set interception records and helped the Giants win a championship in 1956 through his defense and kick returns.
Tunnell was soon lured away to the worst team in football, but the Green Bay Packers' new coach and Giants former coordinator, Vince Lombardi, knew that he needed Tunnell's leadership. Tunnell's final game was the Packers' first championship under Lombardi, which will be 50 years ago tomorrow.
Tunnell scouted, then joined the staff, of his original team, the first African-American assistant coach in the NFL. John Mara was only seven years old when Tunnell retired, but remembers him dearly.
MARA: He was, I think it's fair to say, the most beloved member of this organization, maybe in its history. He was just somebody that was loved by everybody that came into contact with him.
PESCA: I notice you have tons of Giants memorabilia back here in your offices, but - am I right? There's one big oil painting here and it's of Emlen.
MARA: It's of Emlen. It always hung outside my father's office and then, when we moved into this facility, I wanted to make sure it hung outside of my office because, you know, I have special memories of him.
PESCA: Mara was with Tunnell the night he died of a heart attack in 1975. He was only 50 years old. Tunnell's Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, delivered eight years earlier, lasted five sentences before he got choked up. He thanked his teammates, his family and the Maras. And his last bit of thanks were to that truck driver who gave him the ride into New York City.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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