UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Former Nittany Lion standout and trailblazer Wally Triplett passed away Thursday morning at the age of 92 in Detroit. Triplett was one of the inspirations for Penn State’s “We Are” moniker and was the first African-American to be drafted and play in the NFL.
“This is a tremendous loss for not only our football program, but the Penn State community as a whole,” Head Coach James Franklin said. “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.”
“We are Penn State, there will be no meetings.”
— Nittany Lions captain Steve Suhey in 1946, refusing to leave Wally Triplett and Dennie Hoggard at home to play at a segregated school
The inspiration for who ‘We Are’
Triplett, a tailback and linebacker for the Nittany Lions, was the first African-American to start for Penn State, on Nov. 17, 1945. In 1946, the Nittany Lions made history when they refused to play in a game against then-segregated University of Miami: When told they must leave their black players at home, the team voted unanimously to cancel the game. The following season, the question rose again, and lineman Steve Suhey said, “We are Penn State,” adding that there would be no need for any more meetings of that kind. The entire 1947-48 team went on to play Southern Methodist University in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1948, in a game that would become symbolic of desegregation in athletics as Triplett and end Dennie Hoggard became the first African-Americans ever to play in the Cotton Bowl.
In the 1947 season, Triplett averaged 4.0 yards per carry (137 yards on 34 carries) and 28.2 yards per reception (141 yards on 5 receptions) with two touchdowns in nine regular-season games. Playing for Coach Bob Higgins, he tallied five total touchdowns in 1947.
As a senior in 1948, Triplett had 424 rushing yards, 90 receiving yards and six total touchdowns. He also averaged 26.8 yards per punt return (134 yards on 5 returns) and had three interception returns for 62 yards. Triplett ranks second in Penn State history with a 16.5 punt return average (280 yards on 17 returns).
Triplett ranks second in career punt return average with a 16.5 per game mark on 17 returns. He also has the fourth-longest punt return in program history with an 85-yard touchdown return against West Virginia in 1948.
A native of La Mott, Pennsylvania, Triplett grabbed the game-tying touchdown on a 6-yard reception in the third quarter as the Nittany Lions tied Doak Walker-led and third-ranked SMU, 13-13, in the 1948 Cotton Bowl. Triplett also played an outstanding defensive game. The 1947 Nittany Lions finished 9-0-1 and ranked No. 4 in the final AP poll, pitching six shutouts and allowing an average of just 2.8 points per game. Triplett was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2018.
After his Penn State career, Triplett became the first African-American player to be drafted by and play in the NFL when he was selected by the Detroit Lions in the 19th round of the 1949 NFL Draft. He played four seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions and Chicago Cardinals, taking a two-year break to serve in the Korean War.
As a professional player, Triplett set the league’s single-game record with 294 yards on four kickoff returns, including a 97-yard touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams Oct. 29, 1950. The effort was NFL record for 44 seasons until it was broken in 1994 and still ranks as the third-best single-game performance in NFL history. His 73.5-yard kickoff return average still stands as the NFL single-game record. Two weeks after his record-setting performance, Triplettt was drafted into the Army and fought for the 594th Field Artillery Battalion for two years in the Korean War.
Triplett is survived by his children, Nancy, Wallace, Alison and David. He is preceded in death by his wife, Leonore.