EMLEN TUNNELL – MAN OF MANY FIRSTS

 

By Hugh Wyatt – www.coachwyatt.com

 

Next time you run into a guy who claims to be a hard-core football fan,  ask him to answer four questions.

 

Ask him to name the first black man to play for the New York Giants...  The first black man to become an NFL assistant coach... The first black man to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame… The first defensive specialist to  enter the Hall of Fame.

 

He probably won't know that it was all the same  person -  that he could have answered all four  questions by simply saying, “Emlen Tunnell.”

 

Not only was former Iowa Hawkeye Emlen Tunnell one of the first black players of the NFL's modern era and the first black man to play for the New York Giants, but in his  career as an outstanding defensive back,  he played a key role  in making the Giants' revolutionary "umbrella" defense a pro standard.  It was the Giants' Umbrella (now  known generically as a pro 4-3 with "four-deep" coverage) that finally stopped  the seemingly unstoppable passing game  with which the Cleveland Browns, in their first year in the NFL, had been riding roughshod over the rest of the league.

 

A native of Garrett Hill, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, Tunnell was a multi-sport star at Radnor High School, then moved on to the University of Toledo, where he played football until a neck injury cut his career short. Turning to basketball,  he was good enough to help get the Rockets to the 1943 NIT finals, but with a war going on, he decided to join the service. Turned down by both the Army and the Navy for medical reasons, he enlisted instead in the Coast Guard, where he served until his discharge in early 1946.

 

While in the service he had resumed playing football,  and he played it with such distinction that he was named to the United Press Pacific Coast All-Service team,  in the company of several others who would go on to storied pro careers.

 

Following the war, while playing semi-pro baseball on the West Coast, he became friends with a former Iowa football player named Jim Walker, a black man who had starred for the Hawkeyes before the war. Tunnell said he peppered Walker with questions about his famous teammate, the great Nile Kinnick,  the Heisman Trophy winner who had died in the war,  and in the process he became interested in attending Iowa.

 

So rather than return to Toledo to resume his college career, Tunnell decided instead to enroll at Iowa - and play football. Having grown up in a largely-white community in Pennsylvania,  having attended  a largely-white college, and then having served in the Coast Guard on board a ship whose crew of 200 consisted of just  "five negro boys and a couple of Filipinos," as he put it,  his first practice at Iowa was an eye-opener.

 

"I had never seen so many negro guys in one place in my life," he said.  Of the  325 players out for football, he recalled,  fifty-eight of them were black.

 

Apparently,  Iowa had a reputation among black athletes as a place where they would be treated fairly. "Most of those negro boys had come to Iowa for the same reason I had," he said. "They knew they would be given a chance to play.  Great negro players were a part of the tradition at Iowa, going back to the days around World War I."

 

Tunnell specifically mentioned Fred (Duke) Slater, who had been an All-American tackle at Iowa, and later became a judge in Chicago.

 

"I wasn't afraid of prejudice," Tunnell said,"but I didn't intend to go looking for it. I wanted to go to a school where I could get an education and where I would be allowed to play football. I didn't want to have to fight my way onto the practice field every afternoon."

 

One of his best friends at Iowa was a lineman from Chicago named Earl Banks, who would go on to coach historically-black Morgan State in Baltimore, where he would coach such NFL standouts as Raymond Chester,  Frenchy Fuqua, Leroy Kelly and Willie Lanier.

 

Unfortunately for Tunnell, of the 58 blacks contending for positions on the Iowa team, most were running backs, and at the  start of the first practice he found himself  listed number 21 at left halfback.  (Left halfback, it should be noted, was tailback in Iowa's single-wing offense.)

 

But it wasn't long before he worked his way up the roster to starter status, and became an impact player on offense and defense and as a punt returner. 

 

In 1946, the Hawkeyes finished 5-4, losing to Michigan, Notre Dame, Illinois and Minnesota. The 1947 team won only three games, but one of Tunnell's best games was in loss to a Notre Dame team now considered one of the best college teams of all time. A writer from a Cedar Rapids newspaper,  in words that today would likely be considered racist, claimed that Tunnell outdid famed Irish quarterback Johnny Lujack: "Lujack was put in the shade by a dusky Hawkeye, Emlen Tunnell.  The shifty left halfback provided the day's top thrill with a 65-yard sprint through the entire Notre Dame team to set up what should have been an Iowa score in the third quarter."

 

In the spring of 1948, although he didn’t know it at the time, Tunnell’s days at Iowa came to an end. An eye infection required an operation, followed by lengthy rest, and the recovery meant missing at least two weeks' worth of classes. In Tunnell’s own words, "I was something less than a Rhodes scholar even when I went to classes," so he left Iowa and returned home to Pennsylvania, fully intending to return to Iowa for the 1948 season.

 

Back home in Garrett Hill,  though, he came across a questionnaire he'd been sent by the New York Giants.  The Giants apparently were one of the few teams that knew that his original class had graduated from college, making him eligible under the rules at the time to sign a professional contract. But Tunnell,  knowing that there were few black players in pro football, was ready to discard the questionnaire when he happened to run into an old friend named Vince McNally. McNally had been a coach at nearby Villanova, and he remembered Tunnell from the days when he was a little kid and he and his buddies used to watch the Wildcats practice.  McNally had just been let go as general manager of the Los Angeles Dons in the All-American Football Conference, and he knew how pro football worked.

 

McNally told him, "Emlen, if I were you I'd at least go over to New York and talk to the Giants. Tim Mara (Giants' owner) is a square shooter and he'll level with you. The Rams have Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, and the New York Yanks (then an NFL team) have Buddy Young, so a colored player won't be anything new. Maybe the Giants are ready for a colored player. If so, it might as well be you."

 

"When he said that," Tunnell recalled, "Vince made me see that my dream could have substance."

 

With $1.50 in his pocket, Tunnell hitchhiked to New York,  unannounced,  and asked for a tryout.  Although he was known to the Giants from his year at Iowa,  later stories, spun by sportswriters after he’d made the team, made it sound otherwise. One of them had Mara saying to an unknown young black man standing in his office, "Well, since you had the nerve to come in and ask for a tryout, we might as well give you one."

 

However it happened, he made the team.  And then some. He played 14 years in the NFL, 11 with the Giants  as a key member of a defense that introduced what became today's 4-3.

 

"In 1950," he recalled later,  "we developed a defense against the Browns that came to be known as

the Umbrella. Our ends, Jim Duncan and Ray Poole, would drift back and cover the flats while tackles

Arnie Weinmeister and Al DeRogatis and guards Jon Baker and John Mastrangelo were charged with

rushing the passer and containing the run. The lone linebacker, John Canady, was told to follow the

Brown fullback wherever he went.

 

"Tom Landry played the left corner,  Harmon Rowe the right,  I was the strong safety and Otto

Schnellbacher the weak.  If you would look at this alignment from high in the stands it looked like an

opened umbrella.  In truth, it was the same 4-3-2-2 used today.  We did go into other formations,

but mostly we used this 4-3 arrangement.  It was so successful against the Browns that we beat them

twice.  The first time we played them we shut them out, the first time that had ever happened to them."

 

He played on one New York NFL title team, and he played in the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played," in which the Giants lost to the Baltimore Colts in the first use of sudden-death overtime in NFL history.

 

Following that season, when it became clear to him that he was no longer in the Giants' plans, he asked for - and got - his outright release.  Not longer after, he was contacted by Vince Lombardi, who had been the offensive coach of the Giants and had then been named head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers.  (Tunnell denied any prior arrangement between him and Lombardi.)  Lombardi wanted Tunnell to join him in Green Bay.

 

It took some persuading by Lombardi to get Tunnell, who loved the city and loved city life, to leave New York for Green Bay. Tunnell remembered when he was a young player and Giants' coach Steve Owen would holler,  "All right, Tunnell. If you don't start working, I'm going to send you to Siberia.”  Anyone who had ever spent any time in the NFL knew “Siberia” meant Green Bay.

 

Right from the start, as an 11-year veteran familiar with Lombardi's ways, Tunnell played a major role in Lombardi's  turnaround efforts.

 

Wrote David Maraniss, in "When Pride Still Mattered," his great biography of Lombardi,  Tunnell brought with him  "an intimate knowledge of the defensive system Lombardi wanted to implement with his new team.  Tunnell became an informal coach on the field, and as the first black star to play for the Packers, and a player who greatly respected the new coach, he also made it easier for Lombardi to bring in many more skilled black players over the next few years."

 

As one example of Tunnell's many uses to Lombardi, Maraniss  told how the coach once ran  Tunnell  off the practice field for his lack of hustle. From that example, the rest of the Packers that if Lombardi would run off an all-time great, a trusted fellow ex-Giant, he would run off anybody. Only years later was it disclosed that it was an all an act.

 

So highly did Lombardi value Tunnell's experience that he covertly paid Tunnell's rent.

 

As Lombardi added more black players, part of Tunnell's role was to help them adjust to life in 99 per cent-white Green Bay, and to serve as liaison between them and the coach." At Tunnell’s suggestion, " Maraniss wrote, "he allowed the black players to leave  the St. Norbert training camp twice during the preseason for quick trips down to Milwaukee, the closest city where they could find barbers who knew how to cut their hair."

 

In his three years at Green Bay,  Tunnell would play on  Lombardi's first  NFL championship team.  When he left, his legacy lived on in his replacement, Willie Wood, who would himself become a Hall-of-Famer. Wood attributed much of what he knew to Tunnell's mentoring of him: "I used to sit around and quiz Em all the time," Wood told David Maraniss.  "'What do you do in this situation? How do you know when your man's coming inside?'  He taught me how to anticipate what would happen. Em was a very bright guy who helped me tremendously. He had been around so long, one of the first black stars in the league, and for me just to have the opportunity to hang around him, I was awed by that. Em was so cool.'"

 

At the time of his retirement following the 1961 season, Emlen Tunnell was the NFL's all-time leader in interceptions and punt returns. For 14 years he was one of the best safeties in the game. He was named All-Pro six times, and played in nine Pro Bowls.

 

His 79 career interceptions and 262 punt returns (for 2217 yards) were NFL records at the time

of his retirement.    The career interceptions mark still ranks second all-time, behind Paul Krause's

81, and he’s third  in career interception return yardage, behind modern players Rod Woodson and

Deion Sanders.

 

Tunnell was named by Pro Football Chronicle to its 1950s All-Decade team.

 

When he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, Emlen Tunnell was the first black man to

be inducted. And since Eagles' linebacker Chuck Bednarik, who entered with him, was considered

to be the last of the NFL's two-way players, Tunnell was also the Hall of Fame's first purely-defensive

player.

 

Years later,  Hall-of-Fame coach Tom Landry, who played beside Tunnell in the Giants' secondary for several years and then served as Giants' defensive coach, remembered Tunnell as  "one of the great players of all time."

 

Besides his great football play,  something else stands out about Emlen Tunnell: his absolute refusal to let race stand in the way of anything he did,  including picking his friends.

 

In his memoirs,  "Footsteps of a Giant," Tunnell wrote that of all his teammates, he and quarterback Charlie Conerly were especially close. That would have seemed a strange friendship at the time – Tunnell, a black man,  and Conerly,  a white man from a small town in Mississippi, then one of the most segregated of southern states.

 

In doing research for a story on Charlie Conerly,  I'd come to know his widow, Mrs. Perian Conerly,  a wonderful person with a marvelous recall of those days.  She verified Tunnell's claim.   "He and Em were great friends, " Mrs. Conerly told me.  "Em would take him night clubbing up in Harlem."

 

At the time he wrote his book, in 1966, Tunnell had finished his first season as an assistant coach with the Giants,  the first black man to serve as an assistant coach in the NFL.

 

He ended his book by relating a conversation he had had  with a friend who asked him, "Don't you realize that if your people (must have been a white guy, to be using that phrase) organized their own pro league, you'd be a mortal cinch to be a head coach?"

 

"Sure," Tunnell said he told the guy, "but I'd be suspended right off the bat."

 

"Suspended?" the guy asked.

 

"Sure," Tunnell said. "Because the first thing I'd do would be to hire Charlie Conerly as my offensive backfield coach."

 

Copyright 2009 Hugh Wyatt – all rights reserved