Destined by a Family of Firsts
Feb. 19, 2007
Wallace "Wally" Triplett established a stunning football legacy as he became the first African-American to start and the first to earn a varsity letter on a Nittany Lion team in 1946. Triplett learned of his strengths and society's weaknesses from the town that his family established.
A three-sport athlete at Cheltenham High School, Triplett was a natural athlete. However, it was on the gridiron where he shone brightest to earn a spot on Penn State's roster. While his freshman campaign was nothing to brag about, tallying -18 yards on 10 carries in a 33-0 loss to Michigan State late in the season, one statistic does stand out. By stepping on the field that day for that first snap, Triplett became the first African-American ever to start for the Nittany Lions.
Sometimes referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of Penn State football," Triplett admits he doesn't like the moniker. He is quick to point out that football was ahead of baseball when it came to integration so he was not the first to break the color barrier for football in spite of being the first starter at Penn State.
When Triplett arrived back on campus the following year, he found something on the 1946 football schedule that grabbed his attention. Listed at the bottom of the schedule was a road game against the University of Miami (Fla.), a segregated school that had mistakenly recruited Triplett during his high school days. At that time, schools like Miami would not allow black athletes to play with white athletes. In addition it was common for universities to bow to discrimination and leave their black players at home. Understanding this practice, Wallace and teammate Dennie Hoggard were unsure how their college would handle the road trip. They kept their comments to themselves until newspaper buzz and their own teammates started to question this unthinkable situation. As time neared, a meeting was set up by the players to discuss this timely issue. In a team vote, Penn State decided to cancel the game and in doing so established a new precedent.
"When the team took the stand they did, I was very surprised," said Triplett. "I have always been quite proud of those guys. It became a part of the history of Penn State football and vaulted the school into the limelight."
Their good fortune was rewarded the following year when Penn State recorded one of the best seasons a Nittany Lion squad has ever put together. Ranked fourth in the nation, the team was a perfect 9-0 that season while inking records that have stood unblemished.
The country was just getting into the civil rights movement and college football was driving the decisions in sports. For instance, the Cotton Bowl was to be played in Dallas, Texas, a segregated city where blacks and whites could not eat or room together. There was only a select number of bowls games that were not segregated back then. After the previous season's team stance, Penn State officials stood behind their black athletes, making it public that from now on the whole team would go or no one would go.
The Nittany Lions were invited to play in the Cotton Bowl against Southern Methodist University. Triplett would be the first black player to take part in the Cotton Bowl, however the milestone would still be veiled by the struggle that was ever present in the south.
SMU was a segregated school and while they were invited to play, the Mustangs had the option to decline the offer to play against Triplett and his Penn State teammates. In the end, SMU agreed to play the Nittany Lions and working with the city government, SMU officials arranged for Penn State to stay in a nearby air base just outside the city. The Nittany Lions entered the game boasting an offense that scored 332 points on the year while their defense allowed a minuscule 25. In addition, they allowed only 17 yards per game and 0.64 rushing yards per attempt to set NCAA season and team records that still stand to this day. Triplett profoundly believed it was never him or his Penn State team that crossed the color line. Rather it was SMU who stepped over that line by accepting to play in that historic bowl.
Both teams entered the game undefeated and ended the game undefeated, as the two teams played to a 13-13 stalemate. Down 13-0 at one point, Penn State finally held off the Mustangs and staged a rally that fittingly saw Triplett catching a six-yard pass in the third quarter to tie the game. A small victory perhaps to punctuate the battle waged off the field.
"It was invigorating," admitted Triplett. "It always made you go that extra something. It caused not only me, but the team to be better and do better."
Twice in his Penn State career, Triplett rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. In his senior year, he led the team in scoring with 36 points and in all-purpose yardage with 424 rushing yards, 90 receiving yards and 220 punt return yards. His name is still securely embedded in the Penn State record books for the fourth-longest punt return for 85 yards and listed second on the career punt returns list, averaging 16.5 yards per attempt.
Upon receiving his physical education degree at Penn State, Triplett was drafted in the 19th round of the 1949 National Football League draft by the Detroit Lions. While blacks were not uncommon on NFL rosters, owners and coaches were highly selective when making these decisions. Often black athletes would be drafted by the NFL, only to be lured to the American Football League where black athletes were more prevalent and promised better money. Once again, by stepping into a uniform and onto the field, Triplett became another first. He became the first African-American player to be formally drafted by a team and play in the NFL.
Triplett played two seasons with the Lions, setting a team record for the longest run from scrimmage, a 90-yard touchdown scramble against the Green Bay Packers, and an NFL record with 294 return yards in a single game which stood for 44 years.
Triplett left after the 1950 season for a year of military service in the Korean War. Upon his return, the Lions traded him to the Chicago Cardinals were he played for one season.
After spending three seasons in the NFL, Triplett has now settled in the Detroit area with his wife Leonore. He held several different jobs before becoming a fixture in the community by speaking to youth whenever he can.
"Often I am asked by school groups to discuss success," said Triplett. "I respond by asking them to consider, `what are the two most important letters of the alphabet?' The answer, I tell them, is to always remember P and O: P for Preparation and O for Opportunity. That is what the world is all about - being prepared for opportunity."
From earning his way onto the Nittany Lion squad, to catching the game-tying touchdown in the Cotton Bowl, to being the first black player to be drafted and play in the NFL, Triplett has always been prepared for whatever opportunity presented itself. While he is humble enough to say he wasn't aware of how profound his historic accomplishments were at that time, Triplett is clear that he understood the climate in which he was living.
"I was always conscious of the color aspect, as you had to be to survive," Triplett. "Since that is what was propelling so much that was going on, it helped direct me."
Triplett's success and confidence in that turbulent time all leads back to that small suburban county town just north of Philadelphia and the long family history that provided him with self respect and identity. Triplett went to PSU to play a game he loved and as a result helped a world learn how to love it colorblind.