During the decade of the 1950s, when the New York Giants were a perennial contender in the National Football League, Emlen Tunnell served as the key “strut” in the Giants’ famed “Umbrella Defense,” and in so doing, put fear into the hearts of the opposition.
He was known as that team's "offense on defense." Tunnell entered pro football as a free agent in 1948 after having spent time at the University of Toledo and Iowa as well as time in the Coast Guard.
At Toledo he suffered a broken neck. His injury was severe enough that both the Army and Navy rejected his enlistment efforts during World War II. The Coast Guard finally accepted Em for duty. Following his Coast Guard service, Tunnell returned to college at the University of Iowa. He left Iowa after the 1947 season.
Most pro teams thought Tunnell would play a third year at Iowa so he was not drafted in 1948. Deciding to seek a pro job on his own, he approached the New York Giants, who eventually offered him a contract.
Tunnell became the first African American to play for the Giants. He was also the first African American to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even though Em proved to be an exceptional special teams player, it was on defense that he made his lasting mark.
The umbrella defense that made the Giants so successful in the 1950s was basically a 4-1-6 alignment with two defensive ends dropping back to team with four defensive backs on passing situations. As the safety, Tunnell played at the top, or back of the alignment.
Always a major contributor to his teams' defensive successes, Emlen intercepted a then-record 79 passes in his 14 seasons with the Giants and the Green Bay Packers.