An athlete known as much for his actions in WWII as for his heroics on the football field.
Mario “Motts” Tonelli was a highly regarded football player when he entered Notre Dame in 1936. After sitting out his freshman season, he joined the varsity team from 1937-39, and the Fighting Irish went 20-5-2 during that span.
After graduation, Tonelli entered the National Football League, earning a three-year contract with the Chicago Cardinals. He caught nine passes with the team in 1940, then entered the military as an artillery sergeant.
Tonelli served in the Pacific Theater and was captured by Japanese troops. During his 42 months as a prisoner of war, he survived the infamous Bataan Death March, which claimed the lives of 10,000 Allied servicemen. He suffered considerably during those years, his weight falling from a chiseled 212 pounds to a skeletal 92 pounds.
Upon the conclusion of the war, Tonelli returned to the States and made an unlikely return to the game. Knowing that Tonelli needed to play in at least one game to qualify for an NFL pension, Cardinals owner Charles Bidwill had Tonelli practice with the team in October, 1945. After a few sessions with the team, he appeared briefly in one game, a move that earned him his well-deserved pension.
Tonelli was elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.