Tracing Emlen Tunnell’s heroics on the NFL field and at sea

(NewsNation) — For the first time in history, two Black starting quarterbacks will face off in Super Bowl LVII — the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes.

The historic matchup comes 35 years after Washington’s Doug Williams became the first black starting quarterback to play and win in Super Bowl XXII.

However, before those historic games, one player’s defensive prowess made history on the field and at sea.

Emlen Tunnell was born on March 29, 1924, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Before he became the first Black player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tunnell served in the Coast Guard during and after World War II, during which he was credited with saving the lives of two shipmates in separate incidents.

In his freshman year at the University of Toledo, Tunnell suffered a neck injury that nearly ended his athletic career and his life. But he recuperated, and he went from toughing it out on the turf to balling out on the basketball court, leading the Toledo Rockets men’s basketball team to the National Invitation Tournament Championship game in 1943.

Instead of sailing into the sunset, Tunnell attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II but was rejected by both because of his neck injury. He was later accepted into the U.S. Coast Guard as a steward’s mate, where his defensive skills came in handy.

In 1944, he was unloading explosives and fuel from a cargo ship when it was hit by a Japanese torpedo in the South Pacific. Despite suffering burns, Tunnell used his bare hands to save a shipmate who had caught fire. Two years later, while stationed in Newfoundland, Tunnell jumped into 32-degree water to save another man who had fallen from the USS Tampa.

After graduating in 1948, a tenacious Tunnell hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to New York City on a banana truck to make some history of his own. He showed up unannounced, tried out for the New York Giants, and became the first black athlete to play for the team. He played with the Giants until 1958.

Tunnell ended up playing 14 seasons in the NFL, and 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. The dynamic safety was named to the NFL’s 100 All-Time Team.

Tunnell retired on top — his final game was with the Green Bay Packers’ first championship team under Vince Lombardi in 1961. Tunnell helped beat his former team, the New York Giants 37 to 0.

He then became a scout and one of the league’s first Black assistant coaches, helping fully integrate both the Giants and the Packers, said David Lyons, an author who is writing a biography of Tunnell.

Tunnell died in 1975. He became the first African American enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1967.

The Coast Guard awarded him the Silver Star posthumously in 2011.

In 2021, a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter was named in Tunnell’s honor. The U.S. Coast Guard’s 45th Fast Response Cutter is the first military ship to carry the name of a professional athlete. No. 45 was Tunnell’s number with both the Giants and Packers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


© 1998 - 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. | All Rights Reserved.

Trending on NewsNation