Mario “Motts” Tonelli


Perhaps you have never heard of a football hero named Motts Tonelli.  While he played only one full season for the Chicago Cardinals in 1940, we still consider him the “Greatest Cardinal of All.” He wasn’t the most famous football player, or the most recognized, but he was certainly the most memorable…

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Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.


Born in Lemont, Illinois in 1916, Mario “Motts” Tonelli was a sturdy fullback at DePaul Academy in Chicago. His recruitment to Notre Dame was sealed when an Italian speaking priest paid a visit to Tonelli’s parents on the north side of Chicago.

As a steady 200-pound fullback for the Irish, Tonelli was most remembered for his inspirational run against Southern Cal in 1937 that helped secure a season-ending 13-6 victory for the Irish. With the score knotted 6-6 in the second half, Tonelli took a handoff from his own 17, burst through the left side of the line and raced 70 yards before being hauled down from behind at the USC 13. After an offsides penalty against Southern Cal, Tonelli cut inside the left tackle and picked up the winning touchdown on an eight yard dash. As the Daily Times in Davenport, Iowa wrote: “It was a swell climax for a swell season for the Irish.”


Following his senior campaign, Tonelli was drafted by the New York Giants in 1939, but elected to play for the Providence Steamers and serve as the backfield coach at Providence College. The following year, Tonelli signed a three-year contract with his hometown Cardinals and enjoyed extensive playing time in 1940 as both a rusher and a receiver.


However, with war clouds looming, he decided to enlist in March of 1941 (and that was just five days after his marriage to his wife Mary) and eventually was stationed at Fort Clark in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese invaded the Philippines and Tonelli participated in the Battle of Bataan beginning on January 7, 1942. Eventually, he was captured along with the 200th Coast Artillery on April 9, 1942. The US and allied prisoners were then forced on the horrific Bataan death march. In later years, Tonelli told me: “They marched us 60 or 70 miles in seven days. That might not seem like a lot, but we did it without food or water under a very hot sun.” In order to survive, the prisoners would set their shirts out at night and then squeeze moisture out of the material in the morning. Stragglers were shot, others were beaten, and the injured were executed.

Meanwhile, Tonelli clutched onto the one piece of personal property that he had retained during his imprisonment: his Notre Dame class ring. Until one day, he was forced to hand it over to one of his captors.

It was not long after, that a smartly dressed Japanese officer appeared at Tonelli’s shelter. In perfect English, he asked, “Are you Motts Tonelli?” Fearing for his life., Tonelli responded, “Yes. I’m Motts Tonelli.”

It was then that the officer asked a second question: “Did one of my men take something from you?” Knowing that personal possessions were prohibited, Tonelli was reluctant to answer, again in fear of immediate reprisal. But the officer then showed Tonelli his Notre Dame ring and asked, “Is this yours?” With no recourse, Tonelli admitted that the ring was his, but was surprised when the office gave him back the ring and strongly suggested that he hide it all costs. Motts Tonelli accepted the unexpected “gift” and thanked the officer who stood proudly before the ragged prisoner. As he turned to leave, the officer said one more thing: “By the way, I was educated at the University of Southern California. I was at the Notre Dame game in 1937 and remember when your long run and touchdown beat us!” Tonelli never saw the officer again, but it was the one kind gesture he experienced in a never-ending universe of horror during World War II. He kept the ring close to him, not only for the remainder of the war, but for the rest of his life.

Tonelli remained imprisoned for the entire conflict (until the summer of 1945) and by then, the bruising fullback’s weight had dropped from 200 to less than 100 lbs. It was truly a miracle that this American hero survived those interminable hardships…

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Of course, during his long imprisonment, Tonelli had no way of communicating with his loved ones. On August 30, 1945, the South Bend Tribune speculated that “Tonelli, who was captured on Corregidor and who endured the infamous death march of Bataan, may have been one of the many victims of the Japanese inhumanity and will never be heard of again.”

Little did we know that three days earlier, on August 27, 1945, American troops liberated a Japanese prison camp and discovered what was described as a “living skeleton” by the name of Motts Tonelli. He had survived and shared how he lived on carrot tops and rice for over three years. Oddly enough, the prisoner was assigned the number “58” –the same number he wore at Notre Dame.

Upon his return to Chicago in the late summer of 1945, Tonelli was hospitalized as he recovered from his ordeal and soon received a most welcome visitor: Cardinals’ owner Charles Bidwill. As Tonelli shared with us: “When he came up, he said, ‘Motts, before you left the Cardinals, you still had a three-year contract with the team. We expect you to honor that contract.'” Tonelli was in no shape to play professional football, but the Cardinals arranged for that to happen to take advantage of a unique situation that many teams might have ignored. Tonelli told reporters that “I got so many beatings in the war that I lost count. After what I went through football roughhouse is going to seem tame!”

Somehow, Motts suited up for a brief appearance late in the 1945 season against Green Bay. “I didn’t play much,” said Tonelli, but that appearance against the Packers allowed Tonelli “credit” for his war time service. “Back in those days,” said Tonelli, “you had to play both before and after the war in order to get credit for your pension for the seasons you missed during the war. I will always be grateful to the Bidwills. I owe them a lot.”

So as we celebrate Memorial Day, we remember a true hero, his miracle of survival, and a generous NFL owner who made life just a little bit easier for a deserving soldier. Let’s not forget them–and all service personnel–on Memorial Day 2020!

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