Many don’t know that the first African American and defensive player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was also a Coast Guard hero. Emlen Tunnell served during and after World War II, saving the lives of two shipmates. Throughout his career as both an NFL player and a Coast Guardsmen, Tunnell consistently showed honor, respect, and a commitment to serve others.
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Emlen Tunnell’s Career As a Coast Guardsmen
Before Emlen Tunnell joined the Coast Guard, he attended the University of Toledo where he played football. In 1942, he suffered a broken neck from a collision and was told he would never play football again. He then turned to basketball before deciding to join the military.
Tunnell first sought to be recruited by the Army and the Navy, but both branches turned him away because of his neck injury. Determined to serve the country, Tunnel then turned to the Coast Guard. He enlisted, (though he had never been on a boat and could barely swim) and became a steward’s mate assigned to USS Etamin.
In 1944, Tunnell was unloading cargo from the USS Etamin in Papua New Guinea when it was hit by a Japanese torpedo. As one of his shipmates became engulfed in flames, Tunnell ran to beat the flames off of him using his bare hands. He suffered burns in the process, but was ultimately able to save his shipmate.
Two years later, in 1946, Tunnell was stationed in Newfoundland when he saved a drowning shipmate. Emlen Tunnell (who still was not a great swimmer) jumped into the 32-degree Fahrenheit water. He was able to rescue a shipmate who had fallen overboard from the USS Tampa.
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Making History and Breaking Records in the NFL
After enlisting in the Coast Guard from 1943-1946, Tunnell continued his collegiate career at the University of Iowa. After leaving college in 1948, Tunnell hitchhiked his way from Pennsylvania to New York. It is here where he tried out for the Giants.
Making the team, the new Emlen Tunnell jersey, number 45, became the symbol of a star on the New York Giants. He was known as “Mr. Defense.” Despite facing racial tensions, Tunnell was an easy going teammate behind the scenes and force to be reckoned with on the field.
When Tunnell’s coach Vince Lombardi moved to the Green Bay Packers, Tunnell joined him, continuing his excellence on the field. When he retired as a player, he had played 14 seasons in the NFL. He finished with career records for interceptions, interception return yards, punt returns, and punt return yards.
Tunnell also joined the NFL 1950’s All-Decade Team and the NFL’s 100 All-Time Team where he ranked 70. He went on to become the first African American talent scout, assistant coach, and full-time assistant coach in the NFL.
The Legacy of Emlen Tunnell Lives On
Emlen Tunnell died of a heart attack somewhere between the ages of 50 and 53. His exact age was unknown due to his birth records not being clear. In 2011, Tunnell was posthumously honored with the Silver Star Award for his lifesaving heroism.
The Coast Guard also created a Coast Guard cutter and athletic building in honor of Tunnell. USCGC Emlen Tunnell commissioned in the fall of 2021. The Emlen Tunnell Strength & Conditioning Center was opened this same year on the Coast Guard Academy campus. This $3.5 million building was made possible by the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association.
The honoring of Emlen Tunnell not only shows the importance of his legacy, but also exemplifies how the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Academy have a commitment to celebrating diversity.