Editor's note: This is the second article recognizing two amazing people who contributed greatly to American history. Last week’s issue featured Ruby Bridges.
Before he made history in the National Football League, Emlen Tunnell served in the U.S. Coast Guard during and after World War II from 1943-1946.
Tunnell was the first Black player signed by the New York Giants, and he later played for the Green Bay Packers. However, not much was known about Tunnell’s Coast Guard service until about 12 years ago. That is when Cmdr. Bill McKinstry recognized Tunnell’s name on the back of photograph showing a Coast Guard basketball team from the late 1940’s.
McKinstry’s research uncovered a remarkable service career that Tunnell, who had been a steward’s mate, had not chosen to mention or boast about.
Tunnell enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1943 and during his service, he rescued two shipmates, one on the cargo ship Etamin in 1944 and one on the USS Tampa in 1946.
In April 1944, Tunnell was unloading fuel and explosives from the Etamin in Papua New Guinea when it was hit by a Japanese torpedo. Tunnell used his bare hands to beat out flames that had engulfed a shipmate and suffered burns on his hands and arms in the process.
Two years later Tunnell jumped into 32-degree Fahrenheit water to save a another shipmate who had fallen overboard from the Tampa while they were stationed in Newfoundland.
In those days what a Black steward’s mate was expected or even allowed to do was largely restricted to mundane duties like manning battle stations as loaders and ammunition passers, or keeping the dishes on the ship clean. “In that context Tunnell’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable,” McKinstry said.
“You have a teachable moment with young people when you talk about a guy like Emlen Tunnell,” said Coast Guard Academy football coach, C.C. Grant. “They need to understand what he did, what he went through, and what kind of a person he was.”
The Coast Guard posthumously awarded Tunnell the Silver Lifesaving Medal for his heroism in 2011. Impressive and rightly due, but the honors go further.
Tunnell played college football at Toledo before the war. He enlisted from 1943–1946, and he continued his collegiate career afterward at the University of Iowa. He suffered a serious neck injury in 1948, but after leaving college he hitchhiked from his home in Pennsylvania to New York City for a tryout with the Giants.
Tunnell ended up playing 14 seasons in the NFL. When he retired as a player, he held league records with 79 interceptions, 1,282 interception return yards , 258 punt returns and 2,209 punt return yards.
Tunnell was the first Black player and first defensive player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. He was the first Black player for the New York Giants and went on to become the first Black scout, talent scout, assistant coach, and first full-time assistant coach in the NFL. He helped to fully integrate both the Giants and the Packers, according to David Lyons, an author who is writing Tunnell’s biography. Tunnell died in 1975 of a heart attack at the age of somewhere between 50 and 53 — his birth records were not clear.
In a fitting tribute, the Guard hopes to highlight Tunnell’s little-known story, a Coast Guard cutter and a new athletic building on the Coast Guard Academy campus in New London, Connecticut are being named in honor of the former NFL defensive back.
The cutter is currently under construction in Louisiana, and it is tentatively scheduled to be commissioned in October 2021. The Coast Guard Academy plans to open the $3.5 million Emlen Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center in September. The new 8,000-square foot, two-level Cadet Strength & Conditioning Center will feature state-of-the-art equipment. It will also provide outstanding views of the Thames River and Coast Guard Academy waterfront, while delivering a training space for the entire Corps of Cadets to aid in their physical development.
Tunnell is one player in a sea of other people, and he had gone largely unnoticed throughout his life. He was a true trailblazer, a humble, dedicated serviceman in every meaningful sense of the word. He was also a mildly celebrated football player until he broke a previously impenetrable glass ceiling of NFL recognition. He laid the groundwork so millions of people could recognize personal value of individuals and millions of minorities could realize a better future. Forget the Brady, Mahomes, LeBron, Jordan, and Serina loyalists. Tunnell is a true American hero, and his contributions then and now are immeasurable.