New York Giants: 15 G-Men who changed the game forever

Odell Beckham, New York Giants. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Odell Beckham, New York Giants. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /
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3 – Emlen Tunnell

There is no way to accurately emphasize Emlen Tunnell‘s value to the New York Giants or the National Football League. He was the first African-American player on the NFL’s premier team. Additionally, it wasn’t easy for him to get there either.

His arrival marked the end of a very bleak era in team history. For all the good Tim Mara did when it came to the Giants, he wasn’t known for his racial relations. In fact, Tunnell got his tryout by writing to Mara’s other son Jack. The fact he made it that far is a minor miracle in the first place.

Tunnell was a player for the University of Toledo in 1942 when he broke his neck in a game. Like many young men at the time, he wanted to join the military. His neck injury disqualified him from the armed services so he joined the Coast Guard.

His ship was off the coast of New Guinea in 1944 and was hit by a Japanese Torpedo. Tunnell saved a shipmate who was on fire by beating out the flames with his hands. He saved another shipmate in 1946 who fell overboard from the U.S.S. Tampa near New Foundland, Canada. Tunnell dove into the frigid waters and pulled him out. For his heroic efforts, Tunnell was posthumously awarded the USCG Silver Lifesaving Award. The Coast Guard also launched a new cutter, the USCGC Emlen Tunnell, in 2017.

When his tour of duty ended Tunnell, went back to college, this time at Iowa. He led the Hawkeyes in total offense for the 1947 season. Tunnell couldn’t afford to go back to Iowa in 1948 and decided to turn pro. For his initial meeting with Mara, he hitchhiked to New York. Then for his tryout, Tunnell got a lift to Yankee Stadium on a West Indian banana truck. During his 1967 Hall of Fame acceptance speech, he remembered to thank the truck driver.

Tunnell played 11 years for the Giants (1948-58), earning six first-team All-Pro honors and made eight Pro Bowls. He is still the franchise leader in interceptions with 74. Additionally, Tunnell is the Giants career leader with 3,241 total return yards.

Upon his retirement, Tunnell worked as a scout and then assistant coach. As a matter of fact, he was the only African-American assistant coach in the NFL. He worked for the organization in one capacity or another until he passed away from a heart attack during a team practice in 1975.