Motts & Me: The Story of Mario “Motts” Tonelli
By John Pandolfino, MD
Thanksgiving 2002 was a typical cold, dark evening in Chicago. I was just about home after a long day at the hospital when I received a page that one of my favorite patients wasn’t doing well. I immediately turned the car around and headed back to the hospital, my heart racing—anxious to find out just how bad things were.
The patient was Mario “Motts” Tonelli, and to say he was a special person is a considerable understatement. Motts lacked a pretentious bone in his body. I remember clearly the unassuming look in his eyes when he would describe himself as “just a regular guy.” I met Motts a few years earlier after a friend’s father, a doctor at one of the VA hospitals in Chicago, needed a favor for one of his patients. His patient was due for a colonoscopy, and because the particular VA facility didn’t preform the procedure, he would require an outside referral. I was happy to help, but made it clear I was still a trainee and if he wanted it done by an attending physician, he should travel to a different Chicago-area VA. Motts was unaffected by the news and quickly made an appointment to see me in clinic. I’m sure we discussed the procedure at his visit, but distinct in my memory is the way our conversation flowed with unwonted ease. We bonded over our shared Italian heritage and love of sports. I would soon learn of his incredible accomplishments and yet he would never exhibit an air of self-importance.
He was modest, but not at all self-deprecating, a beautiful and rarely realized combination. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that day marked the beginning of a relationship that would significantly impact me even today, more than ten years later.
Motts never showed any hesitation or apprehension allowing me, a trainee, to be his physician, and scheduled his colonoscopy at my next available appointment – a mere two months later. He didn’t complain about the long wait and like many other Veteran patients, he was gracious and appreciative despite the wait and imperfect system. I always looked forward to our visits and still reflect on them today. I may have gotten him in earlier for follow-ups, devising strategies to “coerce” him into telling me one of the seemingly mythical stories from his past. Sadly, it wasn’t until he was on his deathbed that I truly came to know what an exceptional human being he was. His final days ostensively define the courage and dignity characteristic of Motts throughout his life. His story and legacy have undoubtedly shaped mine.
The story of Mario “Motts” Tonelli could easily have come to an end in 1915, when a young Motts was rough- housing in the streets of Chicago with his neighborhood friends. Zigzagging through streets and alleyways, the familiar hiss and crackle from barrels filled with burning garbage swept through the air when a friend careened into one, knocking the burning barrel directly into Motts. With his pants bursting into flames, Motts fell to the ground rolling around desperately trying to extinguish the fire. He quickly fell unconscious only to awake and find himself in bed suffering from torturous 3rd degree burns. To live through this type of injury is not easy, but it’s the long journey through pain and disability that comes afterwards that proves the greatest struggle. The flesh and muscles react to the burns, creating an excruciating scarring reaction, the body becoming stiff and painful. At the time, the medical options for rehabilitation were non-existent and the doctors proclaimed he would most likely never walk again. Luckily, Motts had the support of a strong and determined family. Instead of conceding to the sentence bestowed upon his son of a life crippled, immobile, and dependent on others, Celi, Motts’ father, built a makeshift wheelchair out of an old door, and thus, Motts’ physical rehabilitation began. Celi wheeled Motts around the neighborhood and eventually decided it was time to remove the training wheels. He would bring Motts to the park and leave him there alone, forcing him to fend for himself. Although this may seem cruel, Celi knew this was the best way to help his son. A stark contrast to the coddling so commonplace in today’s society, it was exactly what Motts needed to overcome the devastating trauma that could have easily broken a weaker man.
Eventually, Motts started to support his own weigh,t and with that he began to walk. He utilized the streets of Chicago and the various playgrounds as his personal rehabilitation hospital. Slowly, he graduated from walking, and started to climb the fences and monkey bars at nearby Chase Park. In the end, Motts beat the odds and was able to run and play as if nothing had just happened to test the outermost limits of his resolve. Although physically rehabilitated, Motts never forgot the horrible accident. Instead of soliciting pity from others or wallowing in self-sorrow, however, he looked at the horrible event as a valuable lesson that would ultimately prove crucial in both his success and survival.
Motts had an undeniable work ethic and exemplified the expression, “actions speak louder than words.” He trained furiously, and although he was gifted physically, he practiced and worked with determination to excel at everything he tried. He was a football, basketball, and track star at the prestigious DePaul Academy, and leveraged his success to obtain something unimaginable for immigrant parents barely able to speak English. Motts was going to college and his choices were abundant. He visited many schools and narrowed his choices to the Universities of Southern California and Notre Dame. Although the idea of moving to Hollywood and the brief encounters with celebrities staged by the USC recruiters would have been enough to sway most young men, Motts was still a Midwestern boy who listened to his mom. That being so, when the famed coach from Notre Dame, Elmer Leyden, appeared at the Tonelli home with an Italian priest, Motts knew that he had lost any chance of seeing sunny California.
Motts put the glamour of Hollywood behind him and went to the University of Notre Dame to play for their storied college football program. The first two years weren’t easy for Motts; he was homesick and not finding success at the level he had grown accustomed to back home. As a freshman, he was placed on the “hamburger squad.” These players were essentially served up like raw meat to be battered and bruised in order to prepare the starters. Motts didn’t quit; instead, he worked hard and it was enough to be named a starter in his junior year. Soon, number 58 would be smashing through the lines of various opponents and, even if he was never considered a superstar, he had many memorable games that would solidify him as a true Notre Dame legend. The highlight of his college career came at the expense of the other team that sought to recruit him out of high school. Motts dealt the decisive blow in leading the Fighting Irish to victory over USC as he managed to break a 70-yard run for the touchdown that sealed the game. This ending could not have been better scripted and was something that people would not soon forget. Although his team never won a national championship, his career was successful with the Irish going 20-5-2 during 1937-39. He wore his Notre Dame graduation ring with pride for all his accomplishments and as a symbol of true success. I can remember clearly the day he brought his ring to clinic. I must admit that at first I was not all that impressed; I had seen nice, shiny college class rings before and this one was pretty badly beat up. Later, I would eat my words when I finally learned the story behind the Tonelli ring.
Coming from Chicago and obtaining almost legendary status as a football star at Notre Dame naturally brought Motts many opportunities after graduation. He was offered a professional football contract with the Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League (NFL) and began what might have been a long and successful career. The only thing that was standing in the way was the fact that a war was being waged around the world and it appeared that the United States would eventually need its best young men. As many of his friends started to enlist, Motts eventually felt it his duty to serve our country and followed suit, leaving behind the Chicago Cardinals and his professional football career. However, this was not the biggest sacrifice Motts made by leaving for war, as Motts had just recently gotten married to his wife, Mary, and saying goodbye to his newlywed bride proved much tougher than to his football career. In leaving professional football and his family behind, Motts Tonelli was the Pat Tillman of his day, and he served in a war that changed the world.
Of course, Motts reported for duty with a positive frame of mind, looking forward to fulfilling his responsibility and returning to his beloved wife and career in Chicago. The United States was still not officially part of the war, and Motts hoped he would be back home within the year. Naturally, he was excited to see parts of the world he had never experienced, and as an artillery sergeant, his tour brought him to a strange and exotic location off the coast of China known as Bataan. Through seemingly endless drills, each day blended into the next until it was almost December, when the anticipation and excitement of finally going home crept up his spine. With the end in sight, he gave in to reveries of happily playing football and holding his wife. Tragically, his musings were premature and these hopes would soon be shattered. An event on December 7th, 1941 had come to pass, and the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor swept though the base. Motts’ dreams were placed on hold; for now he was in for the fight of his life.
Bataan was a vulnerable position early in the war and the Japanese made a push for the small strategic area. It was April 1942, one month after Motts was expected to return home, and the Japanese had advanced south into Bataan. The American troops that were stationed became trapped and under siege with little food, ammunition, or medicine. They were isolated and eventually forced to surrender to an enemy that showed no mercy. Ten thousand American soldiers were taken prisoner, and Motts was one of them. Although the conditions during the fighting were horrific, no one could have imagined the brutality they were in for. Once captured, the soldiers were forced to march away from Bataan because the Japanese needed the area cleared for further assaults. There may have been some optimism that surrender would at least bring food and water, though the hope quickly dissipated as Motts experienced something he could never forget. The Japanese beheaded one of the soldiers and placed his head on a pole, a warning to the prisoners of the price they would pay for any disobedience. The Japanese forced the soldiers to march over 100 miles without any food or water. Those who could not keep up were shot or stabbed with a bayonet and left to die on the road. And as if this wasn’t enough for the men to endure, the Japanese soldiers tortured and tormented the US troops, beating and humiliating them for the duration of their march.
At their first stop, the Japanese soldiers lined up the prisoners and began to seize any possessions they had managed to save. They took everything from family photos to jewelry. Motts clutched his precious ring and knew it was only a matter of time before they came to him. Eventually, a soldier saw the ring and motioned to Motts with his bayonet. He knew that losing his ring was inevitable and that he would be killed if he didn’t surrender his prized possession. Motts took the ring off his finger, placed it into the soldier’s hand, and watched him walk away. Impossible to imagine that anything could make things worse, Motts had now lost the last tangible thing of meaning to him—a symbol of strength and hope quite literally ripped from his hands. Moments later, a Japanese officer approached Motts, speaking to him in English. The officer asked if one of his soldiers had taken anything from him and Motts told him of his Notre Dame ring. To his surprise, the officer confessed that he knew Notre Dame football, and that he had watched their team beat USC in 1937. In fact, the officer was educated at USC and remembered the legendary play that cost USC the game. He told Motts that he knew how much the ring meant to him and returned the ring, advising him to hide it, warning that he would likely not get it back next time.
For a brief moment, Motts felt that things were going to be all right, and this gesture revealed a glimmer of humanity in his captors. Unfortunately, this was not the case. He would never see that officer again and the brutality only escalated. He was, however, left with his ring, which he protected at all costs. It became the focus of his spirit–this small round piece of metal, a symbol of his achievement and the last enduring shred of his former life–and it helped Motts survive each remaining cruel day.
Unfortunately, surviving the Bataan Death March would not be the worst part of Motts’ time as a prisoner of war. As the war continued, each side made gains and suffered losses. The prisoners were intermittently jammed into small freighters called “hell ships,” and transported from place to place. They were packed into the galleys and given only small rations of food and water. The floors were filled with diarrhea and vomit; the stench of death was everywhere. These conditions created an environment where men forgot they were men and fought like animals for food and survival. It was something most men will never discuss and could remember praying for death. All these years since that fateful time, I learned that I was one of the few people in whom Motts confided regarding what happened in the hell ships. I will admit that even as his physician, Motts’ stories and descriptive imagery impacted me psychologically.
This constant torture continued for the next three years until early 1945, when Motts was to be moved again. This time, the journey would be longer, and as he approached to board the ship, he questioned how he would survive. The last trip took every ounce of his being, and he had withered from a strapping 200-pound fullback to a 130-pound, parasite-infested shell of his former self. Not even his ring, which he managed to keep hidden, could get him through this next trip, and he resigned himself to his fate. He could hear the bombs dropping alongside the prison ship and he felt it was only a matter of time before he would be dead. Alas, he managed to cheat death on the ship, only to reach yet another prison camp. He was barely alive when he was given his prison cap and uniform. When he turned the cap around he could not believe what he saw; the number he was assigned was 58—his jersey number at Notre Dame. Thinking this was an omen, he managed to muster the strength to continue on and thankfully, this was the final comeback he would need. He could hear that the US bombers were getting closer, and by July 1945, the war came to an end. Motts and his fellow haggard bastards of Bataan were finally free.
Motts returned home by steamer to San Francisco and made his way back to Chicago by train. When his family laid eyes on his gaunt 130-pound frame, not recognizing the man who had left to serve, he was immediately taken to a hospital to recover. Nonetheless, Motts was finally home and ready to tackle his next challenge: a return to the NFL.
No one expected to see Motts come home from the war, and his safe return was a feat in and of itself. When he surprised his family and friends with the news that he intended to return to football, most thought he was at best, in denial, but possibly delusional. Motts had undergone two surgeries to repair his stomach and intestines, secondary to the trauma and parasites that ravaged his body. He had lost almost half his body weight and could never again channel the pounding runner who was drafted by the Cardinals prior to the war. That didn’t matter to Motts, and he resolved to triumph in the face of adversity like he did as that six-year-old boy running through the streets of Chicago. This was merely another challenge he had to overcome. So, when Mr. Bidwell, owner and chairman of the Chicago Cardinals, paid him a personal visit and asked him to come back, Motts jumped at the chance. He was still suffering from malaria and schistosomaiasis, and had been home less than two months—it was crazy to think that he would be able to walk, let alone play professional football. Deep down, Motts knew that there was no way he could compete at the highest level, he just wanted a chance to prove he was back to his real self. Motts’ return took place on October 28th, 1945, against the Green Bay Packers. It was a special moment for him; he took in every minute, realizing the dreams he had held onto each day while suffering through torturous prison camps and the galleys of hell ships. Just being there was enough, when Motts finally got his opportunity to get back out on the field. He managed to play through two downs, and although the plays weren’t as dramatic as his famous 70-yard run against USC to win the game, they had the inspirational quality akin to the single play of another Notre Dame football star named Rudy.
Motts had accomplished one more astounding feat, and restored some of what was stolen from him during the war. Motts never played football again, but next he enjoyed success as a politician and family man. He and Mary had a daughter, and in 1946, he was elected the youngest commissioner in Cook County history. Motts led a distinguished 42-year career in politics and public service until he retired in 1988. He never complained or was bitter about the lost years of his life, and I never heard him say anything derogatory about anyone. He passed away in early 2003 from a distal esophageal/cardia cancer that was likely a manifestation of the parasitic infections and surgeries he endured as a result of the war.
I enjoyed my visits with Motts in the clinic, and it was my privilege to be his friend and physician. Motts showed me first-hand what it means to be a true role model, and even as he lay in bed suffering internal bleeding from his cancer, he passed away with dignity. After discussing potential treatment options and the possibility of doing something to stop his bleeding, Motts looked to me and said something that summed it all up. He said, “I have had a good hard life; no one should feel bad for me. All I need to do is say goodbye to my daughter and granddaughter and let me go.”
I left the hospital late that night and came in early the next morning. Motts spent some time with his family and then quietly passed away without a complaint or fuss—he simply hugged his family goodbye and drifted to his final sleep. Although he’s gone, I will never forget one of the greatest people I have ever known. My experience with him was extremely personal, and to this day I cannot think about him without becoming emotional. As a physician, I occasionally tell his story on teaching rounds to inspire my students, and I often wonder why the legend of Motts Tonelli never received as much attention as other, less inspiring stories. But once again, I am reminded that this was a man who believed he was just another regular guy living his life each day like the rest of us. Motts did receive offers for his story, but turned them down because he wanted to tell the story himself. He didn’t care about fame or notoriety; he just wanted to teach younger generations about courage, perseverance, and dignity.
Motts never had the chance to fully tell his story. Outside of the few articles written about him late in his life and shortly after his death, his legend has seemingly faded. This is truly a travesty. Perhaps it is time for others to tell his story and remind people that although Motts considered himself a regular guy, he was an extraordinary man. His life was the definition of overcoming adversity through hard work, courage, and determination. The story of Motts Tonelli needs to be told now more than ever, as our society appears to have lost focus on what truly matters most—those attributes that make someone truly remarkable.