Emlen Tunnell, who followed a storied Coast Guard career with an equally impressive NFL career and was, by all accounts, a remarkable human being, once popped in to visit my dad, Ron Kostelnik. Having just finished his second season with the Packers, my 22-year old dad was both shocked and flattered to find the NFL great standing at his door during the 1962 offseason.
Making the visit even more remarkable was that my parents’ offseason home, a little red brick house on Robers Avenue, was in Cincinnati, roughly 500 miles from Lambeau Field.
“He was in town for something else so he stopped by,” my mom, Peggy Kostelnik, said. “He was just the nicest guy.”
He was also a lot of fun, according to his former teammate Jerry Kramer. In 1959, when Tunnell joined the Packers, he quickly demonstrated both his sense of humor and his disarming ability to recognize his role as a racial trailblazer while building relationships with people who’d never encountered someone who looked like him before. Early on, he played a little joke on his new teammate.
“One of my first encounters with Emlen I got a little glimpse into his personality,” Kramer said. “We’re down at Speeds Bar and Lounge and I’m driving my car home. I’m halfway through town heading back to DePere and I hear this siren and for all the world it sounded exactly like a police siren, so I pull over. And it’s Emlen Tunnell driving the car. I roll the window down and he comes over and says, ‘What’s the matter with you Kramer? You know there aren’t any black cops in DePere!’ And we laugh! Now I know Emlen. Now I can talk to him. Now he’s talked to me so I can talk to him. He’s kind of given me permission to talk to him. We did things together. Emlen, Fuzzy and I and a couple of other guys started hanging out together every once and a while.”
At that time in his NFL career, Tunnell already had impressive football credentials. He set 16 records with the New York Giants, for whom he played from 1948 to 1958, and four National Football League records. He was named to the All‐Pro Team seven times and became the first black player to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame 1967.
As he said in an interview with the Des Moines Register, he was the NFL’s “first black everything — player, scout, talent scout, assistant coach, and first full-time black assistant in the whole league.”
His had equally impressive social credentials.
“We were in Milwaukee for an exhibition game and we’re hanging around the lobby waiting for someone,” Kramer said. “Emlen comes down and he says, ‘Hey guys do you want to go hear Ray Charles play tonight? He’s in the restaurant. I think I can get us in.” Hell yeah! That’d be great. So, four or five of us head on up with him to a restaurant that was on about the fourth or fifth floor of the building we were in. We go into the restaurant and Ray is at the piano. We go one by one past the piano to get out of the way. We hurry on back past there. But, Emlen stops to visit with him. Em takes a couple of minutes to visit with him and then he says to us, ‘Come on with me!’ We didn’t really want to move because we were really interested in hearing Ray play. But Em went up to Ray’s piano and had the MC bring chairs for us. We put the chairs adjacent to Ray’s piano and he’s doing Born to Lose, one of my favorite songs. And I am impressed that Em has got this kind of connection. We stayed there until Ray finished his whole set.”
On another occasion, with the team in San Francisco for a game, Emlen invited Jerry and a few other teammates to go see Ella Fitzgerald perform.
“He gets us into Ella Fitzgerald, front row seats and drinks, and she comes over to say hi,” Kramer said. “I’m just a country boy from Idaho and fairly easy to impress but everything Emlen did impressed me. He was really special. He knew everyone and everyone knew Emlen.”
But, first, he had to introduce himself.
The player who eventually earned a first team slot on the NFL’s 50th anniversary team, wasn’t even drafted. Instead, Tunnel “hitched a ride with a banana truck driver,” according to this biography, and just showed up outside the Giants’ facility.
“Never heard of you,” then coach Steve Owen said, according to this New York Times article.
Tunnell ended up impressing the entire staff, including Coach Lombardi, who brought Tunnell with him when he came to Green Bay and used him as a player/coach/scout for the next three years.
Kramer recalled a specific play that let everyone who might have wondered if the 10-year veteran still had the chops for the game when he followed Coach Lombardi to Green Bay know where he stood.
“He’s a safety. He’s playing in the preseason and Stan Jones, a big offensive guard for the Chicago Bears, pulls out of the line and he’s kind of out in the open spaces by himself getting ready to turn the corner. Em gives him a forearm and knocks him colder than a cucumber. I mean, Wow! He knocked him cold. I don’t think I’d ever seen that before,” Kramer said.
“Em was a spectacular human being. A nice man. A really decent human being but you didn’t want to mess with him. He could bring it.”
Note: I was going to write about Emlen Tunnell being honored by the Coast Guard, but then I called Jerry Kramer and he got to talking and I realized Emlen’s impact on the NFL was a story all by itself. But, I encourage you to read about Emlen Tunnell, the genuine American war hero here.)