Former Notre Dame star Tonelli dead at 86

Thursday, January 9, 2003

CHICAGO -- Mario "Motts" Tonelli, a former Notre Dame star fullback who survived the infamous Bataan Death March, has died. He was 86.

A resident of suburban Skokie, Tonelli died Tuesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He was born in suburban Lemont and later moved to the city's North Side, where he excelled in football, basketball and track.

Tonelli was recruited by Notre Dame in the mid-1930s and was best-known for a 77-yard run against University of Southern California that helped win a tight game.

In 1940, Tonelli joined the then-Chicago Cardinals and played for one season before he entered the U.S. Army and eventually became a Japanese prisoner during World War II. He was among the Allied soldiers who had surrendered on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines and were forced to march while suffering from dehydration and hunger. Some 24,000 soldiers died while others were gunned down.

At the beginning of the march, a Japanese guard ordered Tonelli to remove his Notre Dame graduation ring. But moments later, a Japanese officer gave him back the ring, saying in perfect English that he had attended USC and had watched Tonelli's famous run.

Tonelli spent a total of 42 months in three Japanese prison camps. His weight dropped from 188 pounds to under 100 and he suffered from malaria, dysentery, scurvy and beriberi.

At the end of the war, while still a hospital outpatient, Tonelli was allowed to dress for the Cardinals' final games in 1945, though he only weighed about 140 pounds. Owner Charles Bidwill made the gesture to make Tonelli eligible for an NFL pension.

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