On August 4th, 2018, I had the honor of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, over 50 years since I last played for the legendary Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers. If it were not for my daughter Alicia, I probably would not have made it into the HOF. I was selected as a finalist, ten times, yet each time until now, and I wasn’t chosen. Alicia’s commitment to helping me be inducted is quite a remarkable story in itself. As a member of this exclusive HOF community, I am thrilled to share this great accolade and milestone with my late friend Emlen Tunnell, whom I had the opportunity to play with when he came to resurrect our losing team with his friend Vince Lombardi. “Em” was inducted into the HOF in 1967, his first year of eligibility and the first solely defensive player to win the honor. Em was a phenomenal player, a pioneer and the first African-American to be inducted into the HOF. Sadly, my friend Em, has long been a forgotten legend since the night he died in 1975 at the New York Giants summer camp. David Lyons’s biography helps frame Em’s life in a critical historical context that highlights his exceptional courage for the times he lived. Tunnell’s amazing life story is a gift for future generations to appreciate his hard-fought life lessons, like how spirit and attitude can overcome anything.
You don’t need to be a sports enthusiast to enjoy this book, definitive biography of a forgotten legend, an American pioneer, a war hero, and a dear friend. It is a beautiful story about a kid who followed his dreams and eventually achieved his dream despite the cards being stacked against him. However, Em shared the fruits of his success with those he met, regardless of their background or their socio-economic class. He shared his heart and his passion for life with people. Then for the rest of Em’s career, he assisted many more dreamers in reaching their dreams to play in the NFL. Most people would have given up on many of the obstacles that Em was confronted with; however, Em just looked at hindrances as challenges, and he would put his problem-solving skills to work. Tunnell proved that talent and decency could overcome prejudice and ignorance. He was instrumental in helping integrate the New York Giants, only one year after Jackie Robinson integrated the Brooklyn Dodgers. Em helped to assimilate the team, first by himself, and then by mentoring the black players who eventually joined the Giants.
After Em came to the Green Bay Packers in 1959 with Lombardi, he was influential in integrating our team, too. Willie Wood, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, and several others, all learned how to succeed in the NFL, due in no small part to Em’s valuable and incredibly insightful guidance. Willie Wood took Lombardi’s advice and followed Em around consistently and learned everything he could from him. It paid off, as Wood’s eventually became one of the best safety’s in the NFL, and followed Tunnell into the Pro Football HOF. Vince Lombardi wanted to build a football dynasty, and Em was a critical part of rebuilding the Green Bay Packers. He was mainly a player-coach who was there to help rebuild and integrate our team. The players respected him because Emlen was the guy who had walked the walk and was still doing it. He radiated a winning attitude, and he always carried himself with a touch of class, a level of professionalism that we all needed to learn at that time. During his first year with the Green Bay Packers, Em was once again nominated for the NFL Pro Bowl for the 9th time. However, Em modeled how a united team was more important than any handful of outstanding players. Team unity was critical to having a championship team. If one of us had a problem or concern, we would speak with Em first. Most of the players were intimidated by Mr. Lombardi, rightfully so, and I was too. This is what Lombardi wanted. It was like a good cop/bad cop scenario. Em was the only one I knew who called him Vinny. Mr. Lombardi would often consult with Em in front of the players, and it was clear that Lombardi respected his decision-making skills, his gifted communication skills, his positive attitude, as well as his style of play. He would tell the defensive backs to learn everything they could from Em. His sense of commitment to being the best player on the field is precisely what Lombardi attempted to do with each of his players. He wanted each player to have as high an expectation as he did. Lombardi believed in knowing and understanding every step you needed take to make a play work. It was hard work, with loads of repetitive practice. While Lombardi preached his principles of preparation, commitment, consistency, discipline, character, pride, tenacity and perseverance; Tunnell practiced these principles byregularly putting them into action. He was the perfect role-model.
This intimate book accurately describes the chemistry between Lombardi and Tunnell. Furthermore, Lyons shows us how these two champions shared many common traits and characteristics. These two great men possessed utterly contrasting personalities, yet both were filled with an equal passion for winning. In addition, Lombardi and Em were brothers-in-arms as soldiers on the playing field by fighting against prejudice by helping integrate the Packers and rebuilding our team into an NFL dynasty. Lombardi told his players if he heard any disparaging racial remark, that player would be instantly kicked off the team. No discussion. With Tunnell’s help, Lombardi acted out his plan and recruited the best players available, regardless of their skin color, to build an NFL dynasty. They both were committed to being the best at what they did on and off the field, and they both were the most passionate people I was fortunate to have met in my life. As I shared in my HOF induction speech, “Success in life is not much a matter of chance as it is a matter of choice. We choose to do the right thing, or we choose not to do the right thing.” Em’s life exemplifies how making the right choice consistently over time can lead to amazing results.
David Lyons examines Em’s upbringing in Garrett Hill, his time in the Coast Guard, and playing football at Iowa. After reading his life story, I am amazed at the incredible journey he traveled, because it certainly highlights his perseverance. Future generations will revere Em’s legacy. Em was humble; he enjoyed making others, like me, feel special on many occasions. It was the human touch of Emlen that was just beautiful. He connected with you on a one-to-one level, and he made you feel special because he would not judge you. Em accepted you for who you were and as long as you were respectful to him and everyone else, you were “golden.” If there were an award for being a terrific human being, I would nominate Em. Whenever I was invited to go out with him, it was an instant thrill, filled with excitement, knowing that I was going to have a night of adventure. Em, had a magnetic personality. He had this unique quiet self-confidence that created a refreshing warmth. He was a genuine, authentic guy that you could relate with instantly and laugh with constantly.
Em knew so many people wherever we went, and it did not matter what city. We were playing a night game in Milwaukee, and Ray Charles was in town at one of the hotels. We walked in for a late show, and there are 4 or 5 of us. We were looking for a table, and we were headed to the back of the room looking for a spot. We didn’t notice that Em goes right up on to the stage and talks to Ray. He comes back and says: “Come follow me, guys.” We followed him, and we didn’t know where he was going. It was a common thing when you went out with Em; you would trust him and follow him along to see what was the next exciting surprise. He takes us up to the stage with Ray Charles and his piano. Em spoke to a maitre’d to put some stools around the piano. So, we set our drinks on the piano, right across from Ray Charles and listened to the show. Yeah. Unbelievable! Ray Charles does a wide variety of songs, but “Born to lose one of my favorites,” and he did that song for us. It was just a magical, magical night.
I remember another time I was chatting with Em at some restaurant and this hard-ass guy wanted to rile up Em for no apparent reason. He yelled out a demeaning racial remark at Em. However, Em just continued with his conversation with me and softly told me: “Don’t listen to that fool; just leave him alone.” Em just totally ignored the guy, as if he did not exist. He handled it so gracefully that I still remember this fifty years later because it made a lasting impression. Em had such terrific restraint that I sure did not have. I thought to myself, ‘damn, I need to be able to compose myself like Em,’ because at that moment I was ready to respond to this jerk by belittling him and by physically putting him in his place. Seriously, it was painful to hear someone insult my close friend and not react. I was stunned by Em’s, Zen-like demeanor, to a guy who mainly tried to pick a fight with him for no other reason than his skin color. Not with Em. He kept his composure, stayed serene and poised.In contrast to that incident, I remember another time we went out one night in Oakland to a Black bar. My teammate Fuzzy Thurston and I went with Em, and we were the only two white guys in the joint. There were a couple of African-American guys who were annoyed with our presence, and they started saying some things were creating tension in the air. This was in the 1960s when the Black Power movement was emerging. Em got up and went over and talked to these guys and whatever he said, did the trick.Em straightened things out, and the tension left the room, and we were magic. This was after a game, so we stayed until the wee hours and damn we had a great time. Eddie Machen, a terrific heavyweight boxer at that time was sitting and talking to Em. Eddie got up in a playful mood and shadow boxed us, and we had a lot oflaughs. Machen was playing around, and we were enjoying ourselves. We did these kinds of things with Em all the time. I mean each time you went with Em you had no idea whom you would meet, what you were going to do or where you were going to go, but you did know that we were going to have a fun, exciting time. I have to say that Em was an unusual guy. He loved to show others a way to love life, too. Em was the kind of guy who wanted his friends to enjoy life’s magical moments as much as he did. We also went out to Hank Aaron’s house one night. Hank wasn’t home, but his wife was home, and she knew Emlen. So, she invited us in, and we had some drinks. We enjoyed ourselves and had a pleasant visit.
He was very, very, special and Em created magical moments. He had that perennial smile on his face, and he had the confidence to know where he was, who he was, and he was very comfortable in his shoes and very comfortable being Emlen. Reading this biography was a real treat. The most important thing to know about Em was how he made the people he was with feel even more special than himself. He had a gift. By patiently researching and uncovering so many gold nuggets of Emlen’s life, and writing this insightful biography, David Lyons is giving you a gift to learn about how Em created his magic!