Nearly a half-century after he passed away, Emlen Tunnell's legacy continues to grow.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned a fast response cutter in honor of the late Pro Football Hall of Famer, who was named one of the top 100 players in NFL history. This week, as the country celebrates Veterans Day, the league announced Tunnell as the Giants' nominee for the annual Salute to Service Award.
The Salute to Service Award recognizes NFL players, coaches, staff and alumni with demonstrable commitment to honoring and supporting military and veteran communities, as nominated by NFL clubs. Finalists are scheduled to be announced in January, and the recipient will be recognized at NFL Honors, a primetime awards special to air the week of Super Bowl LVI.
Each year, the NFL and its 32 teams come together to honor, empower and connect with members of the military as part of the NFL's Salute to Service initiative. The league's military appreciation efforts culminate in November with NFL Salute to Service games and other special events honoring and thanking veterans, active-duty service members and their families.
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 for the Giants and eventually the first to be 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.
This did not stop his desire to serve his country.
The Coast Guard accepted him as a steward's mate, a role in which he served from 1943-1946 and was credited with saving the lives of two shipmates on different occasions.
The Coast Guard detailed his heroics:
On April 27, 1944, the Coast Guard-manned cargo ship USS Etamin was unloading 6000 tons of explosives and gasoline while at anchor at Aitape Harbor, Papua New Guinea. Without warning, Etamin was attacked by Japanese aircraft and a torpedo blew a hole 27 feet by 27 feet in the ship's starboard side.
With the shell plating and shaft alley of Etamin ruptured, gasoline sprayed all over the ship and caused an explosion in the engine room.
Machinist's Mate First Class Fred Shaver stayed below deck with two other machinists, shutting down many of the ship's functions to prevent a larger explosion. He was quickly engulfed by flames, and climbed a ladder to the deck for help.
Tunnell beat out the flames with his hands, and carried his shipmate to safety. Shaver was the only machinist to survive that day.
Tunnell, who was known to speak in football metaphors, later recalled the sinking ship as "a small, tough fullback, without much speed, pounding forward every minute of the game."
Two years later, Tunnell – who was still not a great swimmer - jumped from the USS Tampa into frigid water to save a drowning shipmate, Alfred Givens. He was treated for hypothermia and shock.
Tunnell posthumously received the Combat Action Ribbon and Silver Lifesaving Medal. In July, the Coast Guard commissioned the USCGC Emlen Tunnell, the fourth of six fast response cutters to be stationed in Manama, Bahrain. Stationing FRCs in Bahrain supports Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA), the Coast Guard's largest unit outside of the U.S., and its mission to train, organize, equip, support and deploy combat-ready Coast Guard forces in support of U.S. Central Command and national security objectives.
The Coast Guard Academy also opened the Emlen Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center, a $3.5M project made possible by the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association. The center will "continue to honor his legacy by inspiring cadets to reach their potential on the field, in the fleet, and in their daily lives."
Photos from the life of Pro Football Hall of Fame safety and World War II hero Emlen Tunnell