Hawkeye standout, NFL great, WWII hero set many milestones for Black athletes, veterans

Posted by Pat Kinney on Friday, February 2, 2024

Let's kick off Black History Month remembering an unsung American hero, a great Iowa Hawkeye, important Green Bay Packer and maybe the only NFL player to have a ship in our nation's armed forces named for him.

A native of Bryn Mawr, Pa., Emlen Tunnell's college career at Toledo was interrupted by World War II. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard in the Pacific. He was twice decorated for saving shipmates' lives. Once he saved a shipmate from burning to death in a Japanese air raid in the Philippines and was severely burned himself. On another occasion he dove into freezing water to save a shipmate from drowning.

After the war he came to the University of Iowa where he was among the leaders of the Hawkeye offense for two seasons.

Emlen Tunnell, Iowa Hawkeyes, 1947 (Little Village photo)

In 1948 he tried out for and was signed by the New York Giants -- their first Black player. A defensive back and return specialist, he played in the NFL 14 seasons was a multi-time All-Pro and a member of the Giants 1956 NFL championship team. He earned the nickname "The Gremlin."

Emlen Tunnell is shown here playing in a game for the New York Giants versus the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s. The Iowa Hawkeye was the Giants' first Black player

When Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi became head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1959, Tunnell was one of the first players he brought over with him from the Giants to Green Bay. Em mentored a Packer defense that included Hall of Famers Herb Adderley, Willie Wood and Dave Robinson. Lombardi and Tunnell also sent a message the Black players would be welcome in Green Bay, racisim or prejudice of any kind would not be tolerated and the goal was to put the best team possible on the field and to win, period. Herb Adderley wrote extensively about Em in his book, "Lombardi's Left Side." In just three years the Packers were NFL champions. 

Iowa Hawkeye Emlen Tunnell played for the Green Bay Packers from 1959-61?

Tunnel retired as a player after the Packers' 1961 championship season and became a scout. He returned to the Giants and became the NFL's first Black assistant coach. In 1967 he became the first Black athlete elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Emlen Tunnell died of a heart attack in 1975 at age 50. At the time of his retirement as a player he held several NFL records and, more than 60 years after his retirement, is still No. 2 in career interceptions behind fellow Hawkeye Paul Krause.

He is ranked among the NFL's top 100 players of all time. 

In October 2022 the Coast Guard cutter Emlen Tunnell was commissioned into service. 

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Emlen Tunnell was commissioned into service in October 2022. A strength and conditioning center at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy also is named for the Iowa Hawkeye and NFL great.

In 2012, before a Giants-Packers playoff game The New York Times published an article about Tunnell, called,"The Giants' Greatest Packer." He wrote an autobiogrtaphy in the 1960s, "Footsteps of a Giant."

The Emlen Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut also is named for him.

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.