Mario 'Motts' Tonelli's story resonates from Notre Dame to Southeast Asia, where he spent 2-1/2 years as a prisoner of war

TAMPA

The Village Inn near the corner of Dale Mabry and Kennedy is bearing down on its 50th birthday. A pancake-eating contest is planned, so is a fundraiser for the families of slain police officers. All-American-type stuff.

Uncle Motts would have loved that. His relatives can see him now, dapper as ever, that pin of the U.S. flag glistening on the lapel of his blazer. In the winter, while waiting for Chicago to thaw, Uncle Motts would come down for several weeks and volunteer as the restaurant's greeter.

More than four decades in politics had taught Mario "Motts" Tonelli how to schmooze.

"Oh, trust me, the dinner reservations were coming through the door," said his niece Mary Kay Walker, whose dad — Motts' brother-in-law — opened the Village Inn on Nov. 4, 1961. "(The senior women) all wanted my Uncle Mario. He was a charmer."

Not to mention one of the most unheralded American heroes of the 20th century.

Most who stopped by for pie or pancakes likely saw only an octogenarian with a gravelly voice and aquiline nose, a guy who never left a crumb on his plate and referred to most males as "commissioner" or "general." If they only knew.

"You almost got teary-eyed that you didn't spend more time with him than you did," great-nephew Matt Walker said.

Seems fitting to rechronicle Tonelli's improbable life, what with the restaurant's looming milestone and today's next chapter in the USC-Notre Dame football rivalry. Motts' story resonates from South Bend, Ind., to southeast Asia, with a 2½-year stopover in hell.

At its inconceivable crux are one ring — and one number.

A run for the ages

The son of northern Italy immigrants, Mario George Tonelli (his own daughter doesn't know the origin of the "Motts" nickname) was born in Lemont, Ill., in 1916. At age 6, his legs were severely burned when a heaping bonfire in an alley near his home partially collapsed on him.

He missed a full year of school as his father, in defiance of doctors who projected the third of his four surviving kids (two others died before age 7) would never walk again, personally rehabbed Motts. In months, he was back on his feet, evolving into an eventual three-sport star at Chicago's DePaul Academy.

"Other schools were recruiting Motts for football," recalled nephew Tommy Tonelli, a former USF basketball player and current Wharton High boys coach.

"Notre Dame came to visit with a Catholic priest, and his mother and father right then and there were like, 'That's where you're going. You don't have any choice.' "

A 200-pound Fighting Irish fullback, Motts became the Lindsay Scott of his era, which is to say he achieved immortality for one play. Tied with USC at 6-all late in the fourth quarter of the 1937 game, Motts and the Irish were pinned deep in their own territory.

On a Movietone newsreel preserved on YouTube, you see No. 58 take a handoff on a reverse play, head off left tackle, cut back to the right and run 70 yards down the middle of the field before being tackled from behind.

A few plays later from the Trojans 7, Motts barrels off left tackle and scores a touchdown standing up, clinching a 13-6 Irish triumph.

Throughout his life, Motts would insist he was so intoxicated with adrenaline he didn't remember the play. Three years later, he signed with the NFL's Chicago Cardinals, who assigned him the same number he wore in college. At the time, it must have seemed Motts had reached a pinnacle. It turned out to be a prelude.

Two years later, he found himself in a harrowing procession of gaunt prisoners of war, marching along the southern tip of Bataan. Stragglers often were disemboweled by their Japanese captors.

Motts had enlisted in the Army at the end of the 1940 season, as the United States was bracing for war against Nazi Germany. In late 1941, he and his artillery regiment had been assigned to the Philippines.

After landing their deadly sucker-punch on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese swarmed Manila, prompting Gen. Douglas MacArthur to order the combined American-Filipino force to retreat into the Bataan peninsula. For months, the Allies held off the enemy despite limited munitions and food.

When they finally surrendered, their force of roughly 78,000 had been ravaged by disease and malnutrition. Eager to launch an assault on a U.S.-occupied position to the south, Japan Gen. Masaharu Homma ordered the men marched northward, 60 miles, in suffocating tropical heat.

First, he ordered that all the captives' valuables be seized. When a soldier ordered Motts to surrender his cherished Notre Dame ring, he initially balked before finally giving it up at the point of a sword.

Minutes later, according to several published accounts, Motts was approached by a Japanese officer. The conversation went something like this:

Did one of my men take something from you?

Yes, my school ring.

Here, hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time.

The Japanese officer, a former USC student, had seen the 1937 game and realized who Motts was. It was Motts' first flicker of hope. It wouldn't be his last.

A sign from above

Of the approximately 12,000 Americans who began the march, it is believed around 700 died. The mortality rate was far greater for the 66,000 or so Filipinos.

Upon its completion, the survivors were shoehorned into railroad cars for a journey of another several miles.

"Soldiers would die in the boxcar and they wouldn't fall down," Motts told NFL Films years later for a documentary. "That's how jammed we were in these boxcars."

From there, Motts languished in three prison camps. He endured beatings and contracted a parasite in his digestive system. At one stop, he worked in rice paddies from dawn to dark.

When the war's momentum turned in favor of the United States, now mounting a push north toward the Philippines, Motts and hundreds of others were shipped out to the Japan mainland. For more than two months, they were confined to the dark hull of a Canadian vessel. The same bucket used to send water down to them served as their commode.

"He said that at night, it was hot, there was no air, it was dark," said Motts' only child, Nancy, who still resides just outside of Chicago. "Part of the bottom of the boat was filled with salt, and they put tarps on top of the salt. He said people would die and they had no place to crawl over because they were so packed in."

At the completion of the journey, Motts, by this time a walking skeleton, was assigned to a slave labor camp. Each prisoner was issued a uniform and hat. Attached to each hat was a number written on a piece of paper.

Motts was given No. 58.

"To him," Paul Walker said, "that was a sign from God."

Later that summer, after more than 1,200 days in captivity and following the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Motts was freed. He weighed around 100 pounds.

A half-century later, his eating habits were conspicuous. Matt Walker, a Jesuit High graduate, former Gator football walk-on and current assistant football coach at Plant, remembers Motts shoveling hot soup into his mouth, oblivious to the temperature.

"He ate like he was going to the chair," Mary Kay Walker said. "And he never turned a meal down."

Renourished and rejuvenated, Motts signed with the Cardinals and played one game in October 1945, but the atrocities of war had left him too ravaged for the NFL. A year later, he was sworn in as the youngest commissioner in Cook County history, spawning a 42-year political career.

In 1988, four years after his wife, Mary, died, Motts retired. So began an annual migration to Tampa, where he stayed with his sister (also named Mary), hobnobbed with the Village Inn customers, spoke at a banquet or two and recounted his experiences when asked.

"I was his goddaughter," Mary Kay said. "Early on, I don't think he spoke to anybody much. But as life got further away from the war and his life became less stressful, he was more willing to get into it and talk about it."

Motts died on an early January day in 2003 at age 86. Nancy said the cause was stomach cancer, no doubt related to schistosomiasis — the parasite-related disease contracted a world away. She still has the ring Motts concealed throughout his imprisonment. Bagpipes blared at his funeral. So did Notre Dame's fight song.

"It was like a parade," Matt Walker recalled.

Several years later, the New Tampa Sharks of the Pop Warner association were issuing jerseys to their players. Among those in line were Matthew Tonelli, Tommy's second-oldest boy and Motts' great-nephew. When he arrived home with his jersey, Tommy's knees buckled.

It was No. 58.

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com.

Mario 'Motts' Tonelli's story resonates from Notre Dame to Southeast Asia, where he spent 2-1/2 years as a prisoner of war 10/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:23pm]

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