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Posted on: February 20, 2017

Emlen Tunnell

Emlen

Emlen Tunnell


As sculptor Jennifer Frudakis tries to craft a bronze likeness of Emlen Tunnell, it's the eyes that haunt and challenge her.


"His eyes," Frudakis said Friday, "they look right through you."


The Delaware County Sports Foundation commissioned her to create a statue of the Radnor Township native, who in 1967 became the first African American in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


"You can see in his eyes that this was a courageous man, a confident man," Frudakis said. "There's nothing pained about them, nothing strained."


There was pain and strain, of course, in Tunnell's short but memorable life.


Born in 1925, he was a poor black kid surrounded by the Main Line's white privilege. He suffered a neck injury in college so severe that a priest gave him last rites. In World War II, the Japanese torpedoed his ship. Later, he saved a crewmate from drowning even though he himself could barely swim. And in 1948, Tunnell hitchhiked to New York just to beg for a shot at the NFL.


In each instance, he persevered. Just how well and successfully is indicated on the plaque that honors him at the Garrett Hill field where he played as a boy:


"When you walk on this field," it reads, "know that you are walking in the footsteps of a giant."


The son of a Main Line domestic and an absent father, Tunnell was a multi-sport star at Radnor High, a football all-stater in 1941-42.


"He played offense and defense, passed, ran, tackled," said Rich Pagano, a Delco sports historian. "He was the whole team."


The 6-1, 190-pounder accepted a scholarship to Toledo but suffered a broken neck in 1944. The injury was life-threatening. Doctors said he'd never play again and the Army and Navy said he wasn't healthy enough to enlist. But, determined to do both, he joined the Coast Guard.


Though he would retire as the NFL's all-time leader in interceptions and punt returns, Tunnell's greatest run isn't included in any highlight film or record book.


It came, in fact, four years before his first NFL game, in the flame-lit chaos of a South Pacific night.


In April 1944, a Japanese attack gored a hole in the USS Etamin. Minutes later, the ship's engine exploded.


Tunnell, one of five blacks in the crew of 200, spotted a moving ball of flame on deck. It was his crewmate and friend, Fred Shaver.


"I really don't know how I knew the horrible figure running toward me in the darkness was Freddy," Tunnell wrote in his 1966 autobiography. "There was almost nothing recognizable about him."


This man who grew up in a multiracial Garrett Hill neighborhood raced toward his white friend, lifted him into his arms, carried him to safety, and extinguished the flames with his bare hands.


Shaver was badly burned but, unlike two of his engine-room colleagues, survived.


"It was an amazingly brave thing," Shaver told the New York Times in 2012. "Emlen ran after me across that deck like he was chasing a halfback. He was burned, too, [but] didn't want to make a big deal out of it."


Tunnell was still in the Coast Guard two years later when another shipmate, Alfred Givens, fell overboard near Newfoundland. This time, the future Hall of Famer, a poor swimmer, leapt into the icy water and rescued Givens. Pulled from the 32-degree waters, Tunnell had to be treated for hypothermia and shock.


"My buddy needed me," was how he explained his action to a sister.


He transferred to Iowa after the war. In 1946, he led the Hawkeyes in passing. A year later, he was their leading receiver. He played defense both seasons.


With college eligibility remaining, but eager to test himself in the white-dominated NFL, he quit school in 1948 and hitchhiked from Iowa City to New York.


At his Hall acceptance speech in Canton 19 years later, he tearfully thanked the banana-truck driver who had taken him on the last leg of that life-altering journey.


The Giants management gave him a shot. They were not sorry.


For most of the next 14 years, Tunnell was the league's best defensive back and one of its top return men. A nine-time all-pro who won titles in New York and Green Bay, he revolutionized the safety position.


He was 34 in 1959, when his old Giants offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, imported him to Green Bay - to play and set an example for his young Packers.


Tunnell retired after Green Bay's 1961 title with 79 interceptions. The Giants then made him the league's first full-time black assistant. He was a Giants scout when, during training camp in 1975, he suffered a fatal heart attack.


Police in Ardmore had to cordon off four blocks around Minus Funeral Home when Tunnell was laid out there. More than 500 people lined up to pay their respects.


"It's fair to say that Emlen was the most beloved member of our organization, perhaps in its history," owner John Mara said.


Radnor has renamed the Garrett Hill park in Tunnell's honor. A flagpole there is a memorial to his World War II heroism.


The Delco sports organization is raising money for the statue - Tunnell in a Heisman Trophy-like pose. It hopes to display it at its Wayne headquarters.


Meanwhile, Frudakis continues her work on the 7-foot sculpture, continues to try to translate into bronze the character she sees reflected in Tunnell's eyes.


"It's been inspiring," she said, "to do a piece on such a man. It's not just an object. This was a real person of courage and character."


Written by Frank Fitzpatrick for the Philadelphia Inquirer

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

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