When safety Emlen Tunnell played his final game in 1961, he ranked No. 1 in NFL history with 79 career interceptions. But he was first in so much more.
Ignored in the NFL draft, Tunnell walked into the Giants' office in 1948 and asked founder Tim Mara for a tryout. Thus he became the first African American to play and eventually coach for the Giants. He was also the first black player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That is only part of the incredible story that is Tunnell, who suffered a broken neck at the University of Toledo, an injury so severe that both the Army and Navy rejected his efforts to enlist during World War II. The Coast Guard finally accepted him and he became a war hero, saving the lives of two fellow shipmates. Following his service, he enrolled at the University of Iowa. He left the Hawkeyes after the 1947 season and recorded seven interceptions in his debut campaign in the NFL, returning one for a touchdown to help him earn the nickname "offense on defense."
Tunnell played 11 seasons for the Giants and still holds franchise records with 74 interceptions and 257 punt returns. In 1952, Tunnell gained more yards on interceptions and kickoff returns than the NFL rushing leader did running the ball.
He was named All-NFL four times and played in nine Pro Bowls. After finishing his career with the Packers, Tunnell had a record 79 interceptions. A key component in the Giants' famed "Umbrella Defense" of the 1950s, Tunnell was a member of the 1956 championship team with Big Blue and won another title with Green Bay in 1961.
A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tunnell was named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team, the marquee series within the celebration of the league's centennial.
Along with the NFL, the Giants celebrate Tunnell during Black History Month. Throughout February, the league is highlighting black pioneers in football. The contribution of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) has changed the NFL – and the Giants – forever.
The player with the most sacks in a single season (Michael Strahan, Texas Southern); the all-time leader in career receptions, receiving yards and most career touchdowns (Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State); the only man ever to win both a Super Bowl ring and an Olympic gold medal (Bob Hayes, Florida A&M); and the namesake for the NFL's most prestigious honor (Walter Payton, Jackson State) are just a few of the accomplishments made by HBCU players in the NFL.
HBCU players represent only a small portion of the total football population, yet nearly 10 percent of all players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame attended HBCUs, including three Giants. They are:
Roosevelt Brown, Morgan State
Regarded as one of the best steals in draft history, Brown played for the Giants from 1953 through 1965 after joining the team as a 27th-round choice. Brown held the starting tackle spot for 13 straight seasons. During that period, he was named to the Pro Bowl nine times and was selected All-NFL eight consecutive seasons. In 1956, when the Giants won the league title, Brown was named Lineman of the Year by the Associated Press.
Brown was powerful but had the speed to make a block downfield. He was also used along the defensive front on goal-line stands. Brown helped the Giants advance to the NFL Championship Game in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1963. After his playing career, Brown continued his Giants affiliation as a coach before being appointed as a scout. Along with Tunnell, Lawrence Taylor and Mel Hein, Brown was named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Harry Carson, South Carolina State
Carson played his entire 13-year NFL career with the Giants. An inside linebacker, he was selected to play in nine Pro Bowls, including seven in a row from 1982-88. Carson led the Giants in tackles six times, was a two-time All-NFL first team selection and was a leader throughout his career and the sole captain of the 1986 Super Bowl champions. Carson joined the Giants as a fourth-round draft choice in 1976 from South Carolina State, where he never missed a game in four seasons, was a two-year captain and a Little All-America selection by the Associated Press.
A defensive end in college, Carson successfully moved to linebacker with the Giants so quickly and so successfully that he was voted to the NFL All-Rookie team. Carson played 173 games in a Giants uniform – tying him with Keith Hamilton for seventh all-time – and he was a punishing run defender who also intercepted 11 passes. Carson had 17 sacks, 14 fumble recoveries and seven forced fumbles. He had 25 tackles (20 solo) in a Monday night game against Green Bay in 1982 and seven tackles in the Giants' 39-20 victory over Denver in Super Bowl XXI.
In his prime, Carson was the best run-stopping linebacker in the NFL. In the seven seasons from 1981 to 1987, Giants' opponents averaged only 3.59 yards per rushing attempt, a remarkable achievement for so long a period. During that time, Carson was credited with 856 tackles, including 627 unassisted tackles.
Michael Strahan, Texas Southern
Strahan played his entire career with the Giants from 1993-2007. A standout as both a run stopper and pass rusher, he was a four-time first-team All-Pro (1997, 1998, 2001 and 2003), a seven-time Pro Bowler and the 2001 NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year. Strahan had 141.5 career regular season sacks, which is the Giants' franchise record and the fifth-highest total in NFL history. Strahan holds the NFL single-season record with 22.5 sacks in 2001. He also led the NFL in 2003 with 18.5 sacks and is the only Giants player to twice lead the league in sacks. Strahan was a captain of the 2007 Giants team that won Super Bowl XLII.
View photos of Hall of Famer Michael Strahan through the years ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony Sunday.