Wally Triplett, one of the first African-Americans to be selected in the NFL draft, died Thursday at age 92. Triplett also was the first African-American starter at Penn State.
Triplett was selected in the 19th round of the 1949 draft by the Detroit Lions as a running back and returner. He was one of three black players drafted that year; of those three, he was the first to appear in a game.
In a 2015 story on MLive.com, Triplett described what it was like watching the NFL draft now and how it compares to the year he was drafted.
“When I look at this thing they call the draft now, I laugh at it with tears because to be drafted now means you’re automatically in a group with people that are going to get paid for doing nothing,” Triplett said. “You’re going to get paid before [you] play, and so you get some degree of assurance right away as opposed to, when we were drafted, you were just put on a list.
“If you make it, you make it. If you don’t, you don’t.”
The 5-foot-11, 173-pound Triplett spent two years with the Lions and two years with the Chicago Cardinals, appearing in 24 games with 70 rushes for 321 yards and one touchdown along with 17 receptions for 175 yards. He started nine games in his career, all for the Lions.
He also had 34 career punt returns for 401 yards and a touchdown and 18 kick returns for 664 yards and a touchdown.
On Oct. 29, 1950, Triplett set a then-NFL record with 294 yards on four kick returns, including a 97-yard touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams. The record stood for 44 years before being broken in 1994 and remains the third-highest mark in league history.
He averaged 73.5 yards per return that day — still an NFL record.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) November 8, 2018
“Wally is one of the true trailblazers in American sports history,” the Lions said in a statement released Thursday. “He resides among the great men who helped reshape the game as they faced the challenges of segregation and discrimination. His contributions date back to his days at Penn State as the Nittany Lions’ first African-American starter and varsity letter-winner, highlighted by his appearance in the first integrated Cotton Bowl.”
While at Penn State, he was part of the team that helped bring the “WE ARE!” chant to the university as part of how they overcame racial discrimination. He was one of two black players to play for Penn State in the Cotton Bowl against SMU in 1948.
In a 2009 story in the Centre Daily Times, Triplett recalled SMU wanting to meet with Penn State about not playing Triplett and African-American teammate Dennie Hoggard. One of their teammates, guard Steve Suhey, said they wouldn’t even take the meeting.
“We are Penn State,” Triplett remembered Suhey saying, according to the Centre Daily Times. “There will be no meetings.”
Triplett was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame earlier this year. During his time at Penn State he had a career punt-return average of 16.5 yards and has the fourth-longest punt return in school history, at 85 yards.
“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. … 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.”
Triplett’s two years with the Lions and two years with the Cardinals bracketed two years of service in the Korean War with the 594th Field Artillery Battalion.
Triplett was born in La Mott, Pennsylvania, on April 18, 1926, and played football, basketball and baseball at Cheltenham High School. He is survived by three children, six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.