Tunnell (1925-1975) got his tryout, made the team, and quickly came to be regarded as New York's best defensive back and a superior kick returner.
The NFL's merger with the AAFC in 1950 brought the Giants three more outstanding defensive backs in Tom Landry, Otto Schnellbacher, and Harmon Rowe. Those three and Tunnell formed the pass-protecting "ribs" of the Giants' famed "Umbrella Defense," which revolutionized defensive thinking in the early 1950s.
"Emlen the Gremlin" was the most honored of the quartet. He was named All-NFL four times and played in nine Pro Bowls. Not only was he a pass-snatching ballhawk, but he paralyzed opponents with his brilliant returns of interceptions, kickoffs, and punts.
He was called "The Giants' Offense on Defense" for good reason. In 1952, his return yardage was greater than that achieved by any New York ball carrier or pass receiver. In fact, it was more than the yardage gained by NFL rushing leader Dan Towler.
While the other ribs of the umbrella retired or, like Landry, became more deeply involved in coaching, Tunnell continued to excel at safety as the Giants won the NFL championship in 1956 and a division title in 1958.
In 1959, he went to Green Bay and helped Vince Lombardi turn that teetering franchise into a dynasty. When he retired after the 1961 season, Tunnell held the NFL career records for interceptions (79), interception yardage (1,282), punt returns (258), and punt return yardage (2,209).
When he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, he was both the first African American to be enshrined and the first player to be named for strictly his defensive contributions.
To learn more about football greats, see:
- Great Football Players
- Great Offensive Football Players
- Great Defensive Football Players
- Great Football Coaches