Coast Guard honors Black veteran, NFL great Emlen Tunnell

Before he became the first Black player inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Emlen Tunnell served in the Coast Guard during and following World War II, where he had been credited with saving the lives of two shipmates in separate events.

Coast Guard honors Black veteran, NFL great Emlen Tunnell

Currently, a Coast Guard cutter and an athletic construction on the Coast Guard Academy campus have been named in honour of the former NFL defensive back, who died in 1975, as the ceremony aims to highlight his famous story and its efforts to do better when it comes to race and celebrating diversity.

"I think it's important, since you've got a teachable moment with young people when you speak about a man such as Emlen Tunnell," Coast Guard Academy soccer coach C.C. Grant stated. "They will need to understand everything he did, what he went through and what type of a person he was."

Tunnell was the first Black player signed by the New York Giants and played for the Green Bay Packers. But not much was known about his Coast Guard service before 2008, when Cmdr. Bill McKinstry recognized Tunnell's name on the rear of photograph showing a Coast Guard basketball team in the late 1940s.

His research uncovered a remarkable service livelihood 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 conquer flames that had engulfed a shipmate, suffering burns in the process. 2 years later, while stationed in Newfoundland, Tunnell jumped into 32-degree Fahrenheit water to save another guy who had fallen out of the USS Tampa.

Given the context of what a Black steward's spouse was expected or even allowed to do during that time in Western history -- largely restricted to duties like keeping the dishes around the ship clean -- his achievements are even more remarkable, McKinstry said.

"If you look at the pictures of him in uniform, he's the sole African American in a sea of different people," McKinstry said. "It is so important that we have a peek at these trailblazers, like Mr. Tunnell and we honor them, because of everything they faced in laying the groundwork for where we are today in making a better future"

The cutter, currently under construction in Louisiana, is tentatively scheduled to be commissioned in October. The Coast Guard Academy plans to start the 3.5 million Emlen Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center in September.

Tunnell played college soccer at Toledo before the war and after the war -- he enlisted from 1943 to 1946 -- continued his collegiate career at the University of Iowa, suffering a serious neck injury. But after leaving college in 1948, he hitchhiked out of his house on Pennsylvania to New York for a tryout with the Giants.

He ended up playing 14 seasons in the NFL and if he retired as a player, he held league documents with 79 interceptions, 1,282 interception return yards, 258 punt returns and 2,209 punt return yards. He then became a scout and one of the league's first Black assistant trainers, helping fully incorporate the Giants and the Packers, said David Lyons, an author who's writing a biography of Tunnell.

He died of a heart attack at the age of somewhere between 50 and 53 -- his birth records weren't clear.

He was the first Black man and the first defensive specialist to be enshrined in Canton. But he gained the fame of contemporaries in different sports, such as Jackie Robinson, because he played at a time before soccer was widely televised or popular -- and because of his humility, Lyons said.

"Emlen was a great Giant as a player, coach and scout," Giants co-owner John Mara said. "Above all, he was a fantastic human being, which explains why he was the most beloved man in our organization throughout his time with us. Vince Lombardi traded for Emlen in Green Bay because he knew Emlen will be vital in establishing a championship civilization "

Mara called Tunnell"an outstanding leader, teammate and competitor."

"He brought those attributes to the Coast Guard, the Giants and the Packers, so this recognition is the most fitting," he explained.

Tunnell's cousin, Yvonne Gilmore Jordan, stated Tunnell endured racism, for example not being welcomed at resorts and restaurants with his teammates. He had been forced to sit out a Giants exhibition game in 1951 in Alabama, because the organizers would not allow Black players, Lyons said.

But Gilmore Jordan, 82, said that her uncle suffered those indignities by being kind to everyone and making jokes about his situation.

"You would not think he had been humble, because he seemed really flashy and he was handsome, but he was actually a very humble person," she said. "He did not ever let it get him down, he actually didn't."

The Coast Guard mentor Grant, who is Black, said naming a cutter and a building on campus after Tunnell not just respects his memory, but also is another step in demonstrating that the Coast Guard and its academy are committed to celebrating diversity.

Last June, the academy was criticized in a report from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general for failing to properly address complaints of racial harassment on campus. The complaints investigated included episodes in which cadets employed racial epithets, posed with a Confederate flag and watched and laughed in a blackface video at a common place.

"We just have to keep taking steps to ensure every participant, every cadet, every coach, every individual of colour here feels like they belong and they feel like they are being included and their voice has been heard here on campus," Grant said.

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