ALAMEDA -- Emlen Tunnell played football in college and in the United States Coast Guard during World War II, eventually becoming a trailblazer in professional football. But his heroics were not isolated to the football field. He also distinguished himself in the line of duty.
A hero on and off the field, the Pro Football Hall of Famer was posthumously honored by the Coast Guard on Tuesday morning at Coast Guard Island Gymnasium, which was dedicated to him.
"Perhaps more important than all of his athletic accomplishments was his heroic actions as a Coast Guardsman," said Rear Admiral Joseph Castillo of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Castillo said Tunnell was twice cited for exceptional acts of heroism during his service. In 1944, while aboard the USS Etamin, a Japanese torpedo blew a hole in the side of the ship, and Tunnell came to the aid of shipmate Eddie Shaver, who was on fire. Tunnel carried him to safety and sustained burns of his own. The second life he saved was in 1946 when shipmate Alfred Givens fell overboard into 32-degree waters and nearly drowned. Tunnell jumped into the water to his rescue.
Nancy Shaver, daughter of Eddie Shaver, flew from Washington, D.C., to attend the ceremony.
"All my life he talked about Emlen Tunnell," Shaver said of her father. "One day I had hoped to thank family members personally."
Tunnell was honored with the Silver Life Saving Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, American Campaign Medal,
In 1943, Tunnell was assigned to duty within the 12th Coast Guard District in San Francisco and led the 12th District Basketball Team to the West Coast Championship in 1944. Tuesday's ceremony honored Tunnell by dedicating the gym on Coast Guard Island to him; the same gym where his team won the championship.
Two years after Tunnell was discharged in 1946, he became the first African-American to play for the New York Giants and eventually become the first African-American elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tunnell was also the first African-American assistant coach in the NFL. He died at age 50 in 1975.
Shaver recalled once when she was with her father, who lives in Panama, they waited near the locker rooms after a game when the Giants played the Washington Redskins.
"My father saw Emlen and called out to him," Shaver said. "He (Tunnell) recognized him immediately and they spoke and embraced."
Vivian Tunnell Robinson, 89, traveled from Pennsylvania with her daughter Catherine Robinson, to attend the ceremony.
She said her brother was a down-to-earth person.
"He was nice to everybody and would even let cabdrivers stay over (at his home) after a late-night drive," she said. "I was there when he was inducted to the Hall of Fame. ... But this has surpassed that."