Penn State legend Wally Triplett, a former running back/defensive back who helped break the color barrier in both college and professional football, died in Detroit on Thursday morning at the age of 92.
Triplett, widely regarded as one of Penn State football’s best-ever athletes, was the first African-American to start for the Nittany Lions on Nov. 17, 1945. He also joined teammate Dennie Hoggard as the first African-Americans to play in the Cotton Bowl, and he was the first drafted African-American player to take the field in the NFL. (He was the third African-American player selected in the 1949 NFL draft but the first to play.)
“This is a tremendous loss for not only our football program, but the Penn State community as a whole,” head coach James Franklin said in a written 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.”
Triplett is perhaps best known — albeit incorrectly — for helping create Penn State’s iconic “We Are Penn State” chant. In 1946, Miami (Fla.) demanded Penn State leave its African-American players in Happy Valley, but the Nittany Lions ultimately refused. It was all or none. Same for the 1948 Cotton Bowl.
Penn State began claiming in 2008 that the words uttered were, “We are Penn State, there will be no meetings.” But, according to longtime historian Lou Prato, the phrase didn’t actually show up in the Penn State annals until the 1970s when it was coined by the cheerleaders.
At any rate, that hardly diminishes Triplett’s importance to the university.
“Wally stood up for his rights, and he stood up for players’ rights,” Prato told the CDT. “He was a very smart guy. He was street smart, and he was very worldly -- people don’t realize just how much. ... James Franklin is the head coach at Penn State partially because of Wally Triplett.”
Triplett grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs — in La Mott, Pennsylvania — in a relatively upscale neighborhood. His high school talent was known far and wide in those days; Miami (Fla.) even offered him a scholarship, sight unseen, to play football.
Of course, that was before Miami realized he was African-American. They assumed he was white because of his address, then revoked his scholarship. Triplett penned an articulate handwritten letter in response and, according to Prato, Miami’s coach eventually apologized. Triplett opted to attend Penn State in the fall of 1945.
Few African-Americans were on Penn State’s campus in the 1940s, and Triplett impacted many he met.
He was a critical two-way star for the Nittany Lions in 1947, when Bob Higgins’ team went undefeated with a 9-0-1 record. He famously played against SMU in the 1948 Cotton Bowl — making him and Hoggard the first African-Americans to do so — and caught a third-quarter touchdown to tie the game, as it finished in a 13-13 deadlock.
Triplett was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame earlier this year.
In 1947, he finished with 137 rushing yards on 34 carries and had five catches for 141 yards. As a senior, he had 424 rushing yards, 90 receiving yards and six total touchdowns. Defensively, he finished his final collegiate season with three interceptions.
He was selected in the 19th round of the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions and played two seasons before he was drafted into military service for the Korean War. He resumed his NFL career two years later with the Chicago Cardinals and retired after two more seasons.
Triplett still holds the second-best mark in NFL history for kickoff return yardage in a single game. Against the Los Angeles Rams in 1950, he finished with 294 yards — including a 97-yard return TD.
According to Penn State, Triplett is survived by his children, Nancy, Wallace, Alison and David. He is preceded in death by his wife, Leonore.