On April 9th, 2018, I published a Horse Tracks article that detailed how Steve Atwater stacked up against other safeties/defensive backs already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. With just days to go before official selection takes place, I present you with that article once again.
Could you tell the story of the NFL without mentioning the player’s impact on the game?
This seems to be the rule-of-thumb that everybody who debates Pro Football Hall of Fame eligibility turns to when it comes to players. Has it always been this way?
If you look at the history of the Hall of Fame, you’ll notice a bunch of names among the shining stars that you’ve most likely never heard of.
In 1963, the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class consisted of 17 enshrinees. From Jim Thorpe to Sammy Baugh, there are plenty of recognizable names. But as the years go forward, there are names I’ve never heard of and I began to wonder... Could the NFL’s story be told without some of these people?
Surely, there had to be someone not nearly as qualified as the Broncos’ own Steve Atwater and his candidacy for enshrinement. After these past frustrating years of Atwater not breaking through, there has to be someone fans could point out and say, “See?! If this guy got in, then why the heck isn’t Steve in?”
It turns out that at the safety/defensive back positions there were only three names I didn’t recognize - Emlen Tunnell, Willie Wood and Yale Lary. Just who are these guys that got the nod while Atwater waits?
Who is Emlen Tunnell?
I was more than a little embarrassed that I didn’t know about Emlen Tunnell. He is without a doubt someone who left a mark on the game we all love. To quote his wikipedia page:
Emlen Lewis Tunnell (March 29, 1924 – July 23, 1975), sometimes known by the nickname “The Gremlin”, was an American football player and coach. He was the first African American to play for the New York Giants and also the first to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
...He next played 14 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) as a defensive halfback and safety for the New York Giants (1948–1958) and Green Bay Packers (1959–1961). He was selected as a first-team All-Pro six times and played in nine Pro Bowls. He was a member of NFL championship teams in 1956 and 1961. When he retired as a player, he held NFL career records for interceptions (79), interception return yards (1,282), punt returns (258), and punt return yards (2,209).
Although he was by no means the first African American to play in the NFL, to break a color barrier at the time he did, was no small feat. Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson had only made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers the year before Tunnell’s career with the Giants began. The amount of racial prejudice and bigotry he must have endured just to suit up had to be immense...and to put up record-breaking stats like he did is nothing short of Hall of Fame-worthy.
How does Atwater stack up? Atwater’s 24 interceptions, 408 return yards, and complete disinterest in the punting game doesn’t speak to a lack of qualifications on Steve’s part. It speaks to how incredible Emlen Tunnell’s career really was. It’s a travesty he’s not better known today.
Who is Willie Wood?
Wood was not selected in the 1960 NFL draft, and wrote a letter to head coach Vince Lombardi to request a tryout; the Packers signed him as a rookie free agent in 1960. After a few days with the quarterbacks, he requested a switch to defense and was recast as a free safety, and was a starter in the season. He started until his retirement in 1971.
Wood won All-NFL honors nine times in a nine-year stretch from 1962 through the 1971 season, participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, and played in six NFL championship games, winning all except the first in 1960.
...Wood finished his 12 NFL seasons with 48 interceptions, which he returned for 699 yards and two touchdowns. He also gained 1,391 yards and scored two touchdowns on 187 punt returns. He holds the record for the most consecutive starts by a safety in NFL history.
How does Woods look compared to Steve Atwater?
Atwater was voted First-team All-Pro in 1991 and 1992, was a Second-Team All-Pro in 1996, and was UPI First Team All-AFC in 1993 and 1995. While Wood’s honors are indeed impressive, most were from a pre-AFL/NFL merger NFL. At most there were just 16 teams to draw these accolades from until 1970 when the merger was officially complete. After the merger, there were no All-Pro considerations for Wood. It’s needs to be said that Steve Atwater had to garner his recognition with at most 31 teams competing in the pool.
Atwater went to eight Pro Bowls and was a member of the 1990s all decade team. Like Wood, Atwater won two Super Bowls. I know it drives our old school NFC friends a little crazy when we don’t weigh their pre-merger NFL Championships as heavily as we do Super Bowls, but let’s be honest... With only 13 teams in the NFL during Wood’s rookie year, how could a team not win championships more often?
When it comes to league recognition and championships (that matter), Steve Atwater is right there with Willie Wood.
Who is Yale Lary?
Now for the last name I didn’t recognize on the Hall of Fame enshrinement rosters at safety - Yale Lary. Via his wikipedia page.
Lary played 11 seasons in the National Football League (NFL), all with the Detroit Lions, from 1952 to 1953 and from 1956 to 1964, missing the 1954 and 1955 seasons due to military service as an Army second lieutenant in Korea. He played at the safety, punter, and return specialist positions, appeared in nine Pro Bowl games, and was a first-team All-NFL player five times. He led the NFL in punting three times, and at the time of his retirement in 1964, his 44.3 yard punting average ranked second in NFL history, trailing only Sammy Baugh. He also totaled 50 NFL interceptions for 787 return yards, both of which ranked fifth in NFL history at the time of his retirement.
Like with Wood, Lary played in an era of markedly fewer NFL franchises. In fact, when Lary came into the league his rookie year, there were just 12 NFL teams and one of them was the Dallas Texans in their first failed iteration. That’s not to take away from his accomplishments on the field. His stats are no joke and he is indeed worthy of his place of honor in Canton.
Also like with Wood, Atwater’s Pro Bowl appearances and league recognition are on par with what Lary did. It’s tough to compare championships between the two since winning the AFC during Atwater’s career was much more difficult than winning all of the NFL in Lary’s time. I’m going to swing out and say that the stones in Atwater’s Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII rings out number the stones in the Lions 1952, 1953, and 1957 combined championship rings for a reason.
So what did we learn?
We learned that even though I had never heard of these three men, they were in no way not deserving of their enduring recognition at the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
What’s more, I learned that Steve Atwater checks all the same boxes when it comes to qualifying for enshrinement. Not only that, you can’t tell the story of the NFL without Atwater knocking Nigerian Nightmare square on his fanny.