The Littlest Giant

By Tony McClean
Updated: December 18, 2005
Em Tunnel
Emlen Tunnel was the first African-American football player inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Today, we take a look back at another great African-American football pioneer that was the first Black to be inshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

Born on March 29, 1925 in Bryn Mawr, Pa., Emlen Tunnell was the first African-American player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After his graduation from Radnor (Pa.) High School, he entered the University of Toledo in 1942 but soon suffered the broken neck that nearly ended his football career. Tunnell was able to play basketball and helped lead Toledo to the finals of the NIT.

Tunnell wore a neck brace for a year and was turned down in his attempts to enlist in the Army and Navy. Undaunted, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard where he served until early 1946.

As a defensive football player, Tunnell was a master thief and destructive weapon rolled into a 6-foot-1, 187-pound body. An undrafted standout for the University of Iowa, Tunnell paid his way to New York in 1948 and asked the football Giants for a tryout.

Tunnell became one of the first defense-only stars of the game. He was the first Black player in the Giants’ post-World War II era and went on to fame as the NFL’s first Black assistant coach.

He’s also credited with developing many of the similar pass-coverage techniques used by NFL safeties today. He was the original “shut down” defensive back long before the likes of Darrell Green, Ronnie Lott, and Deion Sanders.

“Emlen the Gremlin” was an interception waiting to happen, lulling quarterbacks into a sense of security and then turning their pass into his picks.

Some of his 79 career interceptions (No. 2 all-time) were catlike reactions, but many were due to his ability to read plays. Tunnell became the centerpiece for the Giants’ famed “Umbrella Defense” that revolutionized defensive play by dropping linebackers into pass coverage.

But Tunnell was at his best when he received punts, as the NFL’s first great punt-return man. He was labeled “offense on defense,” a moniker he justified with 4,706 combined career yards on interception runbacks, punt returns and kickoff returns.

Tunnell, who played on one championship team in New York and another in his career-ending 1961 season in Green Bay, was selected to nine Pro Bowls. He died on July 22, 1975.

NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this story.