Mario "Motts" Tonelli was born on March 28, 1916 to Celi and Lavinea Tonelli. He received third-degree burns over 80% of his body when, at age 6, a trash incinerator fell on top of him. His father built him a wheelchair of sorts by attaching four wheels to a door and teaching Mario to ambulate with his arms. In months, Mario was up and walking again.
In fact, he went on to become a football star. In 1935 he was well-known for his athletics at DePaul Academy in Chicago, and he went on to Notre Dame at his mother's request. In November 1937 he scored the winning touchdown against Southern California. He received his gold class ring in 1939 after the College All-Star Game, then served as an assistant coach to the Providence Steamrollers at Providence College before signing to play for the Chicago Cardinals in 1940. However, he decided to enlist in the Army to avoid the draft, and he reported to Camp Wallace, Texas. He then went to Fort Bliss, where he was assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery, an anti-aircraft unit established from the New Mexico National Guard.
He married his wife, Mary, in Las Cruces before being deployed to the Philippines in October 1941 and was stationed at Clark Field. After lunch on December 8, Japanese Zeros began appearing on the horizon and Tonelli, devoid of his 3-inch gun, shot a Springfield rifle at the planes, to no avail. With most of the air forces destroyed, MacArthur ordered the men to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula, and for five months, despite insufficient food and a variety of diseases--Tonelli himself suffered from malaria--the men fought off the Japanese. Eventually, however, they could no longer hold out, and Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942.
The Death March ensued, and Tonelli left his uniform spread out overnight so as to collect some dew to parch his thirst since the Japanese did not provide them with water. The prisoners were divested of their valuables, and one soldier confiscated Tonelli's gold ring. However, in a twist of fate, a Japanese lieutenant, who had attended Southern California and remembered Tonelli from the 1937 game, returned the ring to him with instructions to keep it hidden.
Tonelli's march from Mariveles to San Fernando, Pampanga took a week, after which the men were loaded onto railroad cars and transported to Capas. From there they marched the remaining distance to Camp O'Donnell, where Tonelli endured scurvy and beriberi along with malaria. Seven weeks later, the men were transferred to Cabanatuan, where the Japanese regarded them in terms of ten-man "blood brother" groups, meaning that for every one person who escaped, nine more would be executed. The prisoners themselves thus formed their own guards to prevent escape.
Tonelli was among the thousand men sent to Mindanao to grow food for the Imperial Army. Although conditions were somewhat better, he still suffered from schistosomiasis, caused by an intestinal parasite. Then, on July 1, 1944, Tonelli and a thousand others were placed aboard the Canadian Inventor, which idled in port at Manila for two weeks before pulling out and then battled a typhoon for nearly a week. It finally reached Moji, Japan, after sixty-two days, and Tonelli was put to work near Yokkaichi until, in June, he was transferred to a plant near Toyama, where scrap metal was made into ingots. On August 15, 1945, work ceased; the war had ended. Within days, B-17s began parachuting food and other necessities to the men.
When Tonelli returned home, he underwent two surgeries on his intestines. Despite his continuing struggle with malaria, Charley Bidwill, owner of the Cardinals, recruited Tonelli to rejoin the team. He consented, but after carrying twice against the Packers with no gain, his football career came to an end. Tonelli was elected Cook County commissioner in 1946, the youngest ever elected, and he continued serving in county government for another 34 years. He also established a contracting business, retiring in 1988. He passed away on January 7, 2003.