No. 78: Emlen Tunnell

When I started this crazy project, you could have given me 500 guesses at the first African-American player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I doubt I would have come up with Emlen Tunnell.

Then, Emlen Tunnell was not only the first African-American player to be elected to the Hall — he’s also the first predominantly defensive player elected. Wild, right? Tunnell was elected to the Hall in 1967 — there had already been 28 players inducted.

Those 28 included:

— Four quarterbacks (Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Otto Graham and Bob Waterfield).

— Thirteen running backs (Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Dutch Clark, Johnny Blood, Clark Hinkle, Steve Van Buren, Paddy Driscoll, George McAfee, Arnie Herber, Joe Guyon and Bill Dudley).

— One receiver (Don Hutson).

— Ten offensive linemen (Cal Hubbard, Pete Henry, Mel Hein, George Trafton, Mike Michalske, Link Lyman, Ed Healey, Danny Fortmann, Bulldog Turner and Walt Kiesling).

Of course, many of these players played offense AND defense — Sammy Baugh, for example, was not only the best quarterback in the NFL in his day, he was probably the best defensive back too. Bronko Nagurski played everywhere.

Still, it’s quite wild that there wasn’t a player elected specifically for his defense until Emlen the Gremlin.

Tunnell was a war hero before he became a football legend. This from the Navy Times:

“In April 1944, Tunnell was unloading fuel and explosives from a cargo ship 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, suffering burns in the process. Two years later, while stationed in Newfoundland, Tunnell jumped into 32-degree Fahrenheit water to save another man who had fallen from the USS Tampa.”

The Times points out that this heroism was particularly incredible in a time when a black steward’s mate was “largely restricted to duties like keeping the dishes on the ship clean.”

When he came out of the University of Iowa in 1948 — one year after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier — there had not been a single black player drafted by an NFL team. Tunnell did not get drafted either, but he decided to try out for the New York Giants, who had never signed a black player before.

They signed him. Tunnell had been a so-called triple-threat halfback in college (he could run, he could pass, he could catch — triple threat!) but the Giants put him in the secondary as a safety. In his first season, Tunnell picked off seven passes, returning one for a touchdown. A year later, he intercepted 10 balls, returning two for touchdowns.

And a career was launched.

The Giants called their famous defense of the 1950s “the umbrella defense.” It is actually the precursor to the 4-3 defense — Giants coach Steve Owens, who designed it, would have his players line up in a 6-1-4 setup, but then, in passing situations, he would have two of the defensive linemen drop back. Owens invented the umbrella defense specifically to deal with the high-powered passing attack (or what passed for a high-powered passing attack in 1950) of the Cleveland Browns.

It worked — the Giants beat Cleveland twice in 1950, the only two losses the Browns suffered all season. The umbrella defense went to another level in 1950, when the Giants hired a defensive coordinator named Tom Landry.

And all the while, Tunnell was the key. He was a different kind of defensive player, one who was constantly looking to turn defense into offense. Over his career, he intercepted 79 passes, which even now is second all-time behind only Paul Krause. He’s also fifth all-time in interception return yards. And this was at a time when quarterbacks threw the ball a whole lot less often.

“That idea that you could have a game-breaker on the defensive side of the ball,” pro football historian, author, and Football 101 consultant Michael MacCambridge says, “more or less originated with Emlen Tunnell.”

In all, Tunnell was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a four-time first-team All-Pro, and the first African-American football star in New York. Later in Tunnell’s career, Vince Lombardi brought him to Green Bay, where he worked with a couple of young defensive backs, Willie Wood and Herb Adderley.

“Great player,” Lenny Moore would say. “But he was so much better a person. Everybody loved him. Everybody followed him. If you asked any defensive back of the 1960s who they emulated, it was Em Tunnell.”

After he finished his career as a player, Tunnell scouted and was an assistant coach. Paul Zimmerman, in his classic The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, captures two Tunnell stories that probably tell his story best.

The first comes from his coaching days — “Tunnell used to have a special place in his heart for low-draft rookies, especially the ones from the poorer homes,” Zimmerman wrote. And then he said that Tunnell once went up to a writer (probably Zimmerman himself) and asked him to interview one of those low draft picks.

“Pretend you’re interviewing them,” Tunnell said, “even though you don’t really intend to write anything. It’ll mean a lot to them.”

How can you not love that?

The second story comes from Tunnell’s playing days — Zimmerman asked the old Giants quarterback Paul Governali what was the first touchdown celebration he ever saw.

“In 1948, Emlen Tunnell’s rookie year,” Governali said. “He ran back a punt all the way, and as he crossed the goal line he twirled the ball on his finger and then tapped it back over his shoulder to the ref.”

Seriously. The guy could do anything.