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Emlen Tunnell of the Giants rushing against the Cleveland Browns at the Polo Grounds in 1950. Emlen Tunnell, a star defender for the glittering, magnetic Giants, had been summoned to Green Bay. It was 1959, and the new Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, traded for Tunnell, ending his run of 11 record setting seasons in New York.

A longtime Giants assistant, Lombardi was plotting a thorny overhaul of the bumbling Packers and needed allies from his roots. Tunnell, a dynamic safety and a Manhattan fixture in the golden era of New York sports, gamely made the trip halfway across the country to northeastern Wisconsin.

On arrival in his new home, Tunnell was told he had just doubled the black population in Green Bay. The city’s other African American, Tunnell heard, was the shoeshine man at the Hotel Northland.

“Well, I’ll live there, then,” Tunnell said.

And so he did. Lombardi paid the rent, which seemed well worth it to ensure Tunnell’s contentment.

And how did Lombardi know Tunnell could handle all that? Because Tunnell had performed many of the same duties for the Giants, beginning in 1948, when he was the first black player to suit up for them and then, in a game against the Packers, intercepted three passes. As the Giants and the Packers prepare for their divisional playoff game here Sunday, the remarkable life of Emlen Tunnell is a rarely recalled tale of a landmark player for each franchise.

Raised in the 1930s in an atypical multiracial neighborhood outside Philadelphia, Tunnell, who died of a heart attack in 1975 at age 50, sprinted through life with an uncommon daring, a sense of duty and an acquired conciliatory style. That personality mix allowed him to survive a broken neck that nearly killed him in a college game, to become a decorated war hero and, in a pivotal moment, to find the fortitude to hitchhike from Philadelphia to New York, where he showed up at the Giants’ offices unannounced to ask for a tryout. He remains second in career interceptions even though he played when the running game was dominant. championship, widely known as the greatest game ever played. His final game was Green Bay’s victory for the 1961 league title, the first of five for Lombardi, whose teams had several black stars in the mid 1960s.

Tunnell’s last job was in the Giants’ scouting department. Last week, the team’s co owner John Mara, who was with Tunnell the night of his death, said, “It’s fair to say that Emlen was the most beloved member of our organization, perhaps in its history.”

A Different Upbringing

Tunnell’s mother, Catherine, was a housekeeper for the wealthy who lived along Philadelphia’s suburban Main Line in the 1920s and 1930s, and like many domestic workers in the area, she settled in the Garrett Hill neighborhood.

Tunnell’s sister, Vivian Robinson, now 89, recalled: “It was a different kind of upbringing, with Italians, Polish and blacks living together right near all the big homes and three blocks from Villanova University. We went to the local,
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mostly white schools, and everybody mingled. I think that had a significant effect on Emlen. He learned from his environment be yourself, but adapt to others who might be different in the group.”

Robinson, who still lives a few miles from her childhood home, said her parents divorced when she and her three brothers, all now deceased, were young.

A multisport star at Radnor Township High School, Tunnell, who stood 6 feet 1 inch and weighed 190 pounds, chose to attend the University of Toledo because it offered the largest athletic scholarship. As a freshman football player in 1942, Tunnell was knocked unconscious by a collision that broke a neck vertebra and left in him critical condition. When he awoke in the hospital, a priest was administering Last Rites.

“We weren’t even Catholic,” Robinson said. “But they weren’t waiting to ask.”

Tunnell returned to Garrett Hill in a neck brace that he wore for several months. Told he would never play football again, Tunnell played basketball at Toledo instead, but the next year, like many American men, he wanted to enlist. The Army and the Navy rejected him because of his neck injury. With persistence, he was accepted into the Coast Guard. Before that, Tunnell had never been on a boat, and he could barely swim. Etamin as it unloaded 6,000 tons of explosives and gasoline while at anchor after an invasion at Aitape Harbor, New Guinea, in the South Pacific. The Etamin was attacked by Japanese aircraft, and a torpedo opened a gaping 27 square foot hole on its starboard side. Gasoline sprayed over the ship and eventually caused an explosion in the engine room.

Fred Shaver, a machinist who had remained in the lower deck shutting many of the ship’s functions to prevent a larger explosion, was soon engulfed in flames. He hurried up a ladder and ran onto the ship’s deck. Tunnell, one of five African Americans in the crew of about 200, had befriended Shaver, a white man with whom he had spent hours at sea talking sports.

“I really don’t know how I knew the horrible figure running toward me in the darkness was Freddy,” Tunnell wrote in his autobiography, “Footsteps of a Giant,” published in 1966. “There was almost nothing recognizable about him. He was covered with fire.”

Tunnell chased Shaver, picked him up and carried him to shelter, beating out the flames with his hands. Shaver sustained burns over nearly 80 percent of his body, but he survived, unlike two other machinists in the engine room. where he worked as an auditor for nearly 40 years.

“It was an amazingly brave thing for Emlen to do,” Shaver, now 88 and living in Panama, said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Tunnell wrote in his book that he did what any other crew member would have. All these years later, Shaver chuckled at that thought.

“Emlen ran after me across that deck like he was chasing a halfback,” he said. “Then beat the flames out with his bare hands. He was burned, too. Emlen didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But he is the one who helped me when I needed it.”

Two years later, another Tunnell shipmate, Alfred Givens, fell off the dock of the Coast Guard cutter Tampa near Newfoundland. Tunnell jumped into the 32 degree water to rescue Givens. Tunnell was treated for hypothermia and shock.

“I said to him one time, ‘You could have drowned; you’re not that much of a swimmer,'” Robinson said. “He looked at me and said: ‘I had to take the chance. My buddy needed me.'”
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