Imagine a granite monument, a simple rectangle as thick as a football, that stands just outside Beaver Stadium’s east side. Imagine walking over to the structure, one that’s maybe just a head taller than yourself, and catching your own reflection in the dark, polished finish.
Imagine looking closer, and reading the names engraved in a stunning white — names like Steve Suhey, Dennie Hoggard and Sam Tamburo — and imagine a couple dozen more, each one appearing from the rosters of the 1946 and 1947 Penn State football teams.
Imagine that. Because Penn State trailblazer Wally Triplett did. Until his death at the age of 92 Thursday morning, the man who helped break color barriers and make Happy Valley a welcoming place for all hoped, wished and stumped for that monument.
It never came. And it’s about time that changed.
Maybe, like me, you never heard of Triplett’s dream before this week. Maybe, like me, you realize Triplett’s dream is one that’s long overdue. Whether it’s the Penn State athletics department itself, or the annual student gift or a group of wealthy donors, Triplett’s “ultimate goal,” as historian Lou Prato called it, deserves to become a reality.
Not for Triplett, but for Penn State. A year before Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut and 18 years before the Civil Rights Act, Triplett and the Nittany Lions stood up to prejudice. When a segregated Miami (Fla.) told Penn State in 1946 to leave its two African-American players at home, the team held a vote at Old Main or an old fraternity house. And it was unanimous.
It was everyone or no one. While much of our country continued on with separate water fountains and bathrooms, and when Rosa Parks was still nine years away from refusing to move on that Montgomery, Ala., bus, the game was canceled.
The tone was set. The next season, with the nation well aware the Nittany Lions wouldn’t play without their African-American counterparts, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas relented — with SMU’s approval — and invited Penn State. The team hotel refused to allow African-Americans, so the entire team stayed in an Air Naval Training base. When several teammates spotted a nightclub, they decided to go in. With Triplett.
“We ain’t never had no n------ in here,” Triplett recalled the owner saying, according to at least one account, “but you come on.”
It was the first interracial Cotton Bowl in Texas, and Triplett and Hoggard were the first African-American players to ever compete in it. Doak Walker’s SMU Mustangs took a 13-0 lead, but Penn State rallied for a 13-13 tie.
Triplett was the first African-American starter for Penn State football. But he didn’t improve the university — and, in a lot of ways, our society — by himself. Seventeen years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the Nittany Lions judged Triplett not on color, but on the content of his character.
Triplett was a “trailblazer,” the obit on Penn State’s official website says. And that’s true. But so were the entire 1946 and 1947 teams — and Triplett recognized that.
He didn’t want the good accomplished by those teams to be hidden in newspapers and history books. He wanted a grand public reminder, something that tells Penn State alumni and visiting fans that the men whose names are inscribed weren’t just football players but crucial players in the civil rights movement.
He wanted a monument similar in design to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one that called for reflection. He didn’t care where it was located — others have floated the HUB-Robeson Center or near the “We Are” statue — but he just wanted something more than a blue historical marker.
“That was his ultimate goal that he never achieved,” Prato said. “He was able to get a historical marker, which is outside Beaver Stadium near the museum entrance. It’s there, you can go and read it. But that (monument) was his ultimate goal.”
Triplett achieved a number of firsts at Penn State, in spite of a society that didn’t embrace equality. But he didn’t do it alone. He needed help.
And, for his dream to come to fruition, he needs help now. According to a Penn State alum who specializes in memorials, the estimated cost to execute Triplett’s dream would be about $75,000-$100,000. So students, alumni, athletic department — remember those teams. Build Triplett’s monument.