Forget the smile and ever-cheerful demeanor Emlen Tunnell brought to his job. There really was a scheming con man, master thief and destructive weapon rolled into that innocent-looking 6-1, 187-pound
body. The zest and abandon that made him the most popular player in the locker room for 14 NFL seasons also fueled his rise to Hall of Fame recognition as one of the greatest defensive backs and kick returners.
An undrafted Iowa standout who paid his way to New York in 1948 and asked the Giants for a tryout, Tunnell became one of the first defense-only stars of the game. Tunnell was the first black player in the Giants' post-World War II era and went on to distinction as the NFL's first black assistant coach and pro football's first black Hall of Famer. He is credited with developing many of the pass-coverage techniques for the safety position.
Emlen the Gremlin was an interception waiting to happen. He would lull quarterbacks into a sense of security and then zip into the path of the ball. Some of his 79 career interceptions (No. 2 all-time) could be attributed to catlike reactions, but many were the result of his free-lancing instincts and ability to read plays. Tunnell became the centerpiece for the Giants' famed "Umbrella Defense" that revolutionized defensive play by dropping linebackers into pass coverage.
But Tunnell was at his dangerous best when he dropped back to receive punts, a job he fearlessly performed 258 times as the NFL's first great punt-return man. He was labeled "offense on defense," a monicker he justified with 4,706 combined career yards on interception runbacks, punt returns and kickoff returns. Tunnell, who played on one championship team in New York and another in his career-ending 1961 season in Green Bay, was selected to nine Pro Bowls.
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