Gridiron and Battlefield Hero Emlen Tunnell Memorialized with New Statue
A World War II veteran and the first African American to play for the New York Giants, an effigy of the Garrett Hill native will now stand proudly in Radnor.
It all began “as a quiet whisper,” says Phil Damiani, vice president of the Sports Legends of Delaware County Museum. “[But] a miracle is happening.”
(Pictured left: Sculptor Jennifer Frudakis Petry with her finished work. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Frudakis Petry.)
On June 2, Damiani will join Radnor Township and other supporters in solidifying the memory of unheralded football great and World War II hero Emlen Tunnell with the installation of a seven-foot bronze statue outside the township building. It’s a tribute befitting a hidden hero with Main Line roots—a Garrett Hill native who, almost 43 years after his death, is finally getting the sort of recognition he deserves.
“We’ll be erasing blank looks—even on sports fans’ faces—when you raise questions about Emlen Tunnell,” Damiani says.
Still, questions remain: “How does a man who was the first African American to play for the New York Giants (11 seasons, including two championships), the first African American NFL scout and assistant coach (also with the Giants) still not have his No. 45 retired by that team?” poses Damiani. “How does a man who overcame a broken neck while playing collegiate football, after being rejected by both the Army and Navy, enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard, save two shipmates’ lives in separate incidents, and not be recognized as a national hero?”
The museum, which recognizes Delaware County’s sports greats, commissioned sculptor Jennifer Frudakis Petry to create the bronze statue in early 2017. And the statue committee’s foresight to celebrate Tunnell in his home county has since been validated by additional honors. In July 2017, NFL analyst Gil Brandt selected Tunnell as the top NFL safety of all time—just prior to a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his selection as the first black player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. By year’s end, the U.S. Coast Guard had named a new Fast Response Cutter after Tunnell. It’s scheduled for christening in 2021.
Tunnell was just 50 when he died of a heart attack in the summer of 1975 following a practice with the New York Giants, where he was working as the team’s assistant personnel director. This most certainly stunted his legacy. Regardless, he remains the only Delco athlete in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. According to museum president and curator Jim Vankoski, 68 others have played in the NFL.
A Radnor High School graduate, Tunnell will be the county’s second sports figure with a statue. Baseball’s Mickey Vernon has a monument in his native Marcus Hook, where he also has a park named after him. Fittingly, Radnor is also upgrading Emlen Tunnell Park across from his boyhood home.
The new sculpture depicts Tunnell in his 1948 Giants uniform. The bronze was finished at Laran Bronze in Chester after exhausting work by Petry, whose father, 96-year-old Evangelos Frudakis, is an internationally recognized sculptor and teacher. “Emlen was so incredibly accomplished and under-appreciated—he was like Jackie Robinson,” Petry says. “I did a lot of research, and got ahold of every picture I could; I read Footsteps of a Giant, his autobiography. I didn’t want just a visible representation. I also wanted to capture his integrity, vitality and strength. Integrity—Emlen became synonymous with that word. It was who he was, and so many from that era were that way.”
For the physical form, the artist had help from recent Radnor High football alum Brice Sydnor, who modeled for photos at the Wayne Arts Center, where Petry teaches. Now a rising senior safety at Bucknell University, Sydnor happens to be the same height and size as Tunnell. He grew up in Rosemont, and his grandfather, George Sydnor, who played football at Haverford High School and ran track at Villanova, knew Tunnell well.
“My whole family looked up to him,” says Sydnor, whose father, also George, played football at Syracuse University and with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Two uncles—Chris Sydnor (Oakland Raiders) and Chad Sydnor (Chicago Bears)—made it an NFL threesome. “It’s cool for my family, and for the people of Garrett Hill. I’ve talked [about Tunnell] my whole life, but when I talk about him at [Bucknell], no one knows him.”
Lt. Bill McKinstry, operations officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Incident Management Assist Team, provided the military background that sustained the local project. As a junior lieutenant stationed in Center City from 2005 to 2008, McKinstry was the resident historian. A WWII shipmate’s scrapbook fell into his hands, and Tunnell’s name was on photos.
“I didn’t really know of his service until I started researching him,” says McKinstry. “I was looking at newspaper articles, and one mentioned he survived an attack by a Japanese torpedo.”
Tunnell saved Fred Shaver during the attack, burned his hands and should’ve received a Purple Heart for his injuries. Coast Guard records have turned up only a lost citation for a Silver Life Saving Medal—but that was for saving another shipmate, who almost drowned off Newfoundland. “I never personally knew Tunnell, but feel like I did at this point,” says McKinstry, who advocated for the namesake cutter, crafting a memorandum that two admirals signed.
The Tunnell project came together despite some early skeptics. “We went to a professional [fundraising] company in Devon, and they said we’d never raise the funds,” recalls Vankoski.
In six months, there was $75,000 for the statue and $25,000 for incidentals like communications and an unveiling ceremony. A $10,000 check arrived from the Giants. The Green Bay Packers sent one, too—for $5,000. When Chester native and former University of Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan contributed $10,000, museum board member Steve Burman matched it. “Bo had come to a [museum luncheon], and he was so impressed with the diversity of those we’re honoring,” says Vankoski.
Philadelphia’s Katherine Gilmore is Tunnell’s cousin. “What makes Emlen truly special is that he was a trailblazer during a time when segregation was still prominent in our county,” she says. “He was a college-educated war hero, veteran, football player, coach and author. Our family is honored to know that our cousin lived such an extraordinary life that impacted so many, while leaving an example for others to follow.”
As for Damiani, he’s honored to know that “Team Tunnell” pulled through despite the “fundraising expert” naysayers. “I remember when it was suggested, ‘Why not do a little statue that you can afford?’” he says. “A little statue to pay tribute to a national hero? I think not.”