Emlen Lewis Tunnell was the first African American named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. He was also the first pro football player to gain recognition as a defensive back, and set a record for career interceptions that would hold for two decades.
Tunnell was born to Elzie Tunnell and Catherine Adams Tunnell on March 29, 1925 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Tunnell’s mother was a domestic worker who principally raised him and his three siblings. Tunnell grew up in Radnor, Pennsylvania, where he attended high school and played varsity football. He subsequently played on the football team at Toledo University where, during an early season game, he landed awkwardly and fractured his neck. The doctors told Tunnell that his football playing days were over. Tunnell, however, went on to make the university’s basketball team.
In 1943 Tunnell volunteered to serve in World War II. Though his injuries disqualified him from enlistment in the Army, Tunnell was able to serve on active duty with the United States Coast Guard. During his shore leaves he ignored medical advice and played football for the Fleet City Bluejackets of the Connecticut Football League. His playing there earned him a scholarship from the University of Iowa. At the university Tunnell became a star running back and defensive back for the Hawkeyes, but missed his senior year due to an eye injury. Again, Tunnell’s football career seemed over when he was ignored in the National Football League (NFL) draft.
In the summer of 1948 Tunnell hitchhiked 150 miles to the training camp of the New York Giants. With his size and quickness, the 6-foot-1-inch tall, 200-pound Tunnell impressed the Giants’ coaches. The Giants offered him a contract, and Tunnell accepted the $5,000 one-year contract with $1000 in bonuses, becoming the first African American to play for the Giants two years after the color barrier was broken in the NFL.
Tunnell was a key player in coach Steve Owen’s signature “umbrella” defense, and was the NFL’s top kick returner. Despite multiple injuries, Tunnell played in 158 consecutive games for the Giants. Tunnell was nicknamed the Giants’ “offense on defense,” and he set records in return yards as well as interceptions. Tunnell helped the Giants win a National Championship in 1956 and an Eastern Division title in 1958. In 1959 Tunnell reunited with his former assistant coach, Vince Lombardi, who was now the head coach of the Green Bay (Wisconsin) Packers. Tunnell helped the Green Bay Packers win a Western Division Title in 1960, as well as a National Football League Championship in 1961.
Upon his retirement in 1961 Tunnell held the record for interceptions at 79, yards, gained on interceptions at 1,282, total punt returns with 258, and yards gained on punt returns with 2,209. Tunnell was selected to nine pro-bowls and, in 1951, when defensive players were allowed to be named All-NFL he was chosen for four consecutive seasons.
After his career as a player ended in 1961, Tunnell served as assistant coach and scout for the Giants from 1962 to 1973. He then held the position of assistant director of pro personnel until the time of his death on July 22, 1975.
Tunnell had been married Patricia Dawkins since 1962, and the marriage lasted until his death. Emlen Tunnell died from a fatal heart attack during training camp in Pleasantville, New York on July 22, 1975. He was 50 years old.