NFL Salute to Service |


Salute to Service Award

Emlen Tunnell
Emlen Tunnell of the New York Giants poses for a photo at the Polo Grounds in New York on Oct. 14, 1952. (AP Photo)

Emlen Tunnell (NFL Legend)

Emlen Tunnell was the first African American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What some might not know about Tunnell is that he also served several years in the US Coast Guard. Following his time in the Coast Guard, he joined the Giants in 1948, becoming the first African American player to be signed and play for the Giants. The Hall of Fame defensive back went on to play 11 seasons with the Giants. The Associated Press' Pat Eaton-Robb wrote about Tunnell's time with the Coast Guard: [Not much was known about his Coast Guard service until 2008, when Cmdr. Bill McKinstry recognized Tunnell's name on the back of a photograph showing a Coast Guard basketball team from the late 1940s. His research uncovered a remarkable service career that Tunnell, who had been a steward's mate, had downplayed. In April 1944, Tunnell was unloading fuel and explosives from a cargo ship in Papua New Guinea when it was hit by a Japanese torpedo. Tunnell used his bare hands to beat out flames that had engulfed a shipmate, suffering burns in the process. Two years later, while stationed in Newfoundland, Tunnell jumped into 32-degree Fahrenheit water to save another man who had fallen from the USS Tampa. Given the context of what a Black steward's mate was expected or even allowed to do during that time in American history — largely restricted to duties like keeping the dishes on the ship clean — his accomplishments are all the more remarkable, McKinstry said. "If you look at the pictures of him in uniform, he is the one African American in a sea of other people," McKinstry said. "It is so important that we take a look at these trailblazers, just like Mr. Tunnell and we honor them, because of all things they faced in laying the groundwork for where we are today in making a better future."] In addition to his 14-year playing career, Tunnell also served as an assistant coach and scout with the Giants and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.