Mario G. `Motts' Tonelli, 1916-2003: Ex-Irish star survived Bataan

by Bill Jauss

The life of Mario G. “Motts” Tonelli reads as though it was scripted in Hollywood.p. But Tonelli, who died Tuesday at 86, wasn’t a Hollywood-type hero. He was a blue-collar, Chicago-type hero.p. Tonelli grew up the son of Italian immigrants on the North Side and became a star fullback at Notre Dame in the late 1930s before playing for the Chicago Cardinals in the National Football League in 1940.p. After one season, Tonelli entered the U.S. Army and eventually survived the infamous Bataan Death March in World War II and 42 months of brutal treatment in three Japanese prison camps. His weight dropped from 188 pounds to under 100. He suffered from malaria, dysentery, scurvy and beriberi.p. At the end of the war, while still a hospital outpatient, Tonelli dressed at about 140 pounds for the Cardinals’ final games in 1945. In 1946, he played for the Chicago Rockets of the new American Football League. Ray Meyer, DePaul’s Hall of Fame basketball coach and Tonelli’s longtime friend, described him as “a real hero, not just a guy running with a football or dunking a basketball.”p. Tony Golden, one of Tonelli’s closest friends, described how Tonelli strove to avoid being portrayed as a war hero or capitalize on his celebrity status.p. “A TV crew interviewed him for hours at this year’s Michigan- Notre Dame game,” Golden said. “It was suggested Motts could make some money from the show. He said, `I don’t want any money out of this. I’m just doing it for these people. I’m nobody special.’ And he took the crew to lunch and picked up the tab.”p. Meyer, 89, played sports against Tonelli in Chicago before both of them enrolled at Notre Dame in the mid-1930s.p. “He was a `young guy,’” Meyer said. “One year behind me in school. I graduated in 1938, Motts in 1939. He was a good fullback. A tough kid. He didn’t talk much. A class act. I liked him very much.”p. After World War II, Meyer said, he and Tonelli met off and on at sports events, Notre Dame functions and at former Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett’s annual birthday parties at Maryville Academy.p. “He never, ever spoke about the war,” Meyer said. “And that story about his Notre Dame ring is true.”p. Meyer referred to the gold graduation ring Tonelli had made. It held a diamond, and the words “Notre Dame” were inscribed on its sides. Tonelli carried it off to war.p. On the first day of the seven-day 70-mile death march in April 1942, Japanese soldiers swept up and down the ranks, confiscating pens, jewelry or other personal possessions from the lines of struggling U.S. prisoners. One captor pointed with his bayonet at the ring on Tonelli’s finger.p. “Give it to him, Motts. Or he’ll kill you,” whispered one of Tonelli’s friends.p. Tonelli handed over the ring.p. Moments later, a Japanese officer confronted Tonelli. In perfect English, he asked, “Did one of my soldiers take this from you?” The officer pulled the ring from his pocket.p. “I went to the University of Southern California,” the officer said. “I graduated the same year you did. In fact, I saw the game when you made that long run that beat us. You were a hell of a player.”p. “He gave me my ring back and wished me good luck,” Tonelli recalled many years later.p. It would be a nice story if the captors’ respect or sportsmanship provided humane treatment for the prisoner. But that didn’t happen.p. Tonelli endured subhuman treatment for nearly four years as a prisoner of war. He was not freed until after the Japanese surrendered. One-third of the 1,875 men forced on the death march without food or water died. Of 10,000 Americans taken prisoner in the Philippines, only 4,000 returned to the United States.p. Tonelli grew up on the North Side near Chase Park in the days before the Depression. Sports became his passion. He played almost all of them and played them well.p. Tonelli’s parents, Celi and Lavania, were Italian immigrants. They realized their son earned his peers’ respect for his performance in sport at Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school and at DePaul Academy. At one high school track meet, he won the pole vault, shot put, high jump and 440-yard dash.p. Other colleges recruited him, but when Irish football coach Elmer Layden visited the Tonelli home with an Italian-speaking priest, his mother helped Motts make his decision.p. Tonelli broke several long runs, including one of 45 yards for the winning touchdown against Georgia Tech and the 77-yard run against USC that the Japanese officer recalled three years later on the Bataan peninsula.p. Tonelli enlisted in the army in April 1941, five days after he was married.p. Assigned to serve on Luzon Island in the Philippines, Tonelli had four more months left on his hitch when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Severely outnumbered, the Americans retreated down the Bataan peninsula toward Corregidor Island. They held out until April. Then, wracked by illness and running out of food and medicine, they surrendered.p. After his football career ended, Tonelli entered politics and was elected a Cook County commissioner as a Republican.p. Tonelli is survived by a daughter, Nancy Reynolds. Visitation is from 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Drake and Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave. Funeral mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, 4640 N. Ashland Ave.p. p. p.

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