Wally Triplett, a pioneering African-American football player who helped integrate the college and professional game, died Wednesday. He was 92.
Triplett, from La Mott, Montgomery County, became the first African-American football player at Penn State in 1945. In 1948, Triplett and teammate Dennie Hoggard became the first African-Americans to play in the Cotton Bowl, when Penn State played SMU to a 13-13 tie.
Penn State went 23-3-2 during Triplett’s three years as a letterman.
The Detroit Lions drafted Triplett in 1949, making him the first African-American player drafted to play in the NFL. Triplett still holds the team record for most return yards (294) in a game, which he accomplished in 1950.
After two seasons with the Lions, Triplett served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He later played with the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL.
“This is a tremendous loss for not only our football program, but the Penn State community as a whole,” Penn State coach James Franklin said in a statement. “Wally was a trailblazer as the first African-American to be drafted and play in the NFL and his influence continues to live on. He had a profound effect on me and the team when he visited in 2015 and shared valuable lessons from his life story and ability to overcome. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Wally’s family.”
“As the first African-American to be drafted and to play in the National Football League, Wally is one of the true trailblazers in American sports history,” the Detroit Lions said in a statement. “He resides among the great men who helped reshape the game as they faced the challenges of segregation and discrimination.”
In 2011, Triplett spoke with The Morning Call about his time with Penn State, including the team’s trip to the 1948 Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
This is a reprint of a story from Jan. 1, 2012, prior to Penn State’s game against Houston in the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas.
Wally Triplett insists on referring to himself as "Negro." It's the word he uses in emails noting the firsts of his lifetime. It's the word printed on his birth certificate from 1926.
"I was at the Detroit Lions game on Thanksgiving, and I was telling the sister [of a Lions player], 'He's African-American, but I'm Negro,'" Triplett said recently. "A lot of people don't like to use that word, but I do. Of course, that isn't what they called me down in Dallas then."
The last bowl game Penn State played without Joe Paterno (prior to 2012) on its coaching staff was a historic moment in college football for another reason. On Jan. 1, 1948, amid the backdrop of segregation in Texas, two Nittany Lions became the first black players to compete in the Cotton Bowl at Dallas' namesake stadium.
Triplett and Dennie Hoggard helped Penn State to a 13-13 tie with Southern Methodist that also marked the first time a team with African-American players competed in Texas against a team from a segregated university. On Monday, Penn State returns to Cotton Bowl Stadium, where it will play Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. Current players and coaches say they recognize the significance.
"The sacrifices they made back then to play this game are much bigger than anything we have to go through now," Penn State offensive lineman Chima Okoli said. "The story of Mr. Triplett is truly inspiring."
For Triplett, now 85, the 1948 Cotton Bowl was among the first benchmarks of his historic career. Triplett, who lives in Detroit but was raised in the Philadelphia area, became the first African-American to start a football game for Penn State. He also became the first black player to be drafted by, and play for, a National Football League team in 1949.
Triplett played four seasons in the NFL, two with the Detroit Lions. There he was a teammate of Doak Walker, SMU's all-America tailback against whom Triplett competed in Dallas. The 1948 Cotton Bowl ended the tie after the late Hoggard nearly caught the game-winning pass on the final play.
"Doak used to tell me, 'Wally, the best thing about that game was that there was no winner,'" Triplett said. "And I agreed with him."
The 1947 team was one of Penn State's best, finishing the regular season 9-0, and outscoring opponents 319-27. The high-scoring offense featured Triplett at wingback and Pen Argyl's Elwood Petchel at tailback.
Penn State's postseason plans stalled, however, because head coach Bob Higgins would not accept an invitation from a bowl that wouldn't allow Triplett and Hoggard to attend. In 1946, Penn State players voted not to play a scheduled game at the University of Miami, which had the same policy. A year later the players decided there would be no vote.
"[All-America lineman] Steve Suhey said, 'We're Penn State, there will be no meetings,'" Triplett said. "And that was it."
(Suhey's comment is said to have precipitated the "We are Penn State" chant, but Penn State football historian Lou Prato has traced the cheer's origin to the 1970s).
Southern Methodist, meanwhile, was 9-0-1 and ranked No. 3 after winning the Southwest Conference and wanted to face the best opponent possible in the Cotton Bowl. To coach Matty Bell, that was No. 4 Penn State.
"We have no objections [to playing Penn State] ourselves," Bell told The Dallas Morning News that year. "After all, we're supposed to live in a democracy."
History came with a price for the Lions, though. Because Dallas was a segregated city, the team could not stay downtown, instead spending its nights at a Naval air station 14 miles away. Players revolted, sneaking out occasionally, and resented Triplett and Hoggard, who were invited to events and parties in Dallas' black community.
On one unauthorized excursion, players went to a nightclub to drink and meet women. Before entering, they asked permission from the owner, who came outside to meet Triplett and his teammates.
"Son, we ain't never had n------ in here, but we'd love to have you,'" Triplett recalled the owner saying. The club was called the Carousel, and its owner was Jack Ruby.
"It was a trying time, because we were balancing so many things that had never been done before," Triplett said. "We had to deal with the social side of it, deal with the fact that it was the South and deal with the fact that Dennie and I got so many invitations to things. I think our teammates thought we were getting better treatment than they were."
That changed at the game, though, were Triplett and Hoggard faced merciless taunts. Some even came from sportswriters seated behind the end zone.
"An official said to me, 'Boy, they really don't like you,'" Triplett said. "They definitely let us know we were in Texas."
The game itself was a classic in Cotton Bowl history. Petchel rallied Penn State from a 13-0 deficit by throwing two touchdown passes, one to Triplett in the third quarter.
On the final play, Petchel threw a pass in the end zone intended for Hoggard, though Triplett was nearby as well. An SMU player deflected the pass, which floated toward Hoggard, Triplett and SMU's Walker. The ball hit Hoggard in the stomach and fell to the ground, sealing the 13-13 final.
The 1947 Penn State team has held reunions in State College, and its picture hangs on the wall of a popular bar. Each of those reunions has featured a toast to the team.
"It was a very significant moment in the growth of the country," said Larry Johnson Sr., Penn State's defensive line coach. "I think Penn State made a bigger statement by deciding not to play in the game unless everyone could play. It's paramount to where we are today as a society."