This should be an exciting weekend for all the inductees going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday night (ESPN, 7 p.m.). This year’s inductees include Morten Andersen, Terrell Davis, Kenny Easley, Jerry Jones, Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson and Kurt Warner.
However, this is a special year for one of the real trailblazers of the game. In 1967, Emlen Tunnell was the first African American to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This year is the 50th anniversary of his induction. Tunnell should never be forgotten. He was an outstanding safety for the New York Giants.
Tunnell was a man who has a great story on and off the field. He was born in Bryn Mawr in 1925 and grew up in Radnor. Tunnell was an all-state selection in basketball and football during his scholastic years at Radnor High School.
He received a scholarship to attend the University of Toledo. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious neck injury during his first year of college football. Tunnell awoke to a priest giving last rites over his hospital bed. At 17 years old, doctors told Tunnell his playing days were over.
He didn’t give up. He would late complete his college football career at the University of Iowa. Prior to that, he enlisted with the United States Coast Guard during World War II. On two separate occasions, he saved the lives of shipmates. Once from an explosion caused by a Japanese torpedo. The other occurred when he rescued someone from freezing waters. He was nominated for the Silver Lifesaving Medal, a display of public recognition not customarily given to African Americans during his time of service.
In 1948, Tunnell signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent. He was a brilliant player in the Giants “Umbrella Defense.” Tunnell, a 6-foot-1, 187-pounder, had an incredible 79 career interceptions for 1,282 return yards. He was a tremendous punt returner, too. He had 258 punt returns for 2,209 yards. He had nine Pro Bowl selections in his 14 seasons in the NFL. He played for the Giants from 1948 to 1958. After that, he played for the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1961.
Once his playing days concluded, he became the first African-American assistant coach in the NFL, when he joined the Giants staff. In 1975, he died at the age of 50 while coaching the team.
Tunnell opened the doors for many Black players not only in the Hall of Fame, but in the NFL as well. There aren’t many individuals like him. That’s why his enshrinement five decades ago is worth noting. His autobiography “Footsteps of a Giant,” was published in 1966. Tunnell’s book should be made into a movie or a 30 for 30 documentary on ESPN.
City Council paid tribute to him in City Hall in June. City Councilwoman At-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a resolution that was presented to his family. The Sports Legends of Delaware County Museum in Wayne has started a fund to help build a statue of Tunnell.
That’s how important his legacy is to a lot of people. On a weekend where a new group of enshrinees will be heading into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s time to recognize the man whose pioneering efforts are certainly worth remembering on this special occasion.