Wally Triplett, trailblazing NFL player, dies at 92

Detroit Lions

Wally Triplett, a big-play threat for the Detroit Lions who became one of pro football’s first black stars before cutting his career short to serve in the Korean War, has died at the age of 92.

A star athlete growing up in La Mott, Pennsylvania, Triplett got a football scholarship to Penn State. Although he had played for a mostly white high school team and been accepted, he felt the sting of racism in college in 1946, when he learned that he wasn’t welcome to play a scheduled game against Miami because Miami was a segregated school that demanded that Penn State play without Triplett and a black teammate, Dennie Hoggard. The rest of Penn State’s players voted to cancel the game rather than play without their two black teammates.

In 1948, Triplett became the first African-American to play in the previously segregated Cotton Bowl, although he had to stay in a separate facility from the rest of his teammates because no hotels in the Dallas area would allow blacks and whites to stay together. Triplett scored the final touchdown in a 13-13 tie with SMU.

Triplett was drafted by the Lions in 1949, the first year that any African-American players were selected in the NFL draft. And that fall he became the first of those drafted players to play for his team. But racism followed him to the NFL.

“I remember staying in a different hotel than my white teammates in Green Bay,” Triplett told the Detroit News years later, “and the walls were thin. When the people in the next room said to each other, ‘You know there are Negroes next to us,’ we clearly heard it. . . . That was typical America back then, a different world. It’s hard to describe it to people who didn’t experience what we had to.”

But despite those challenges, turning down the NFL wasn’t a consideration for Triplett when he found out the Lions were offering him a whopping $4,800 salary, the equivalent of about $50,000 today.

“My father worked 12 months a year for a salary of $3,600,” Triplett said. “My first contract was for $4,800. So he told me, ‘Sign it, boy. They’re going to pay you to play.'”

A runner, receiver and return man, Triplett had one of the greatest kickoff return performances in NFL history in a game against the Los Angeles Rams in 1950. In that game, Triplett returned four kickoffs, for distances of 97, 81, 74 and 42 yards. His average of 73.5 yards per kickoff return remains the NFL single-game record.

Just two weeks later, Triplett would be sent to begin his service to the U.S. Army in the Korean War. He spent two years in the Army and when he returned from military service he was traded to the Chicago Cardinals. He played in just six games over two seasons for the Cardinals before retiring.

After retiring Triplett returned to the Detroit area and became a teacher, and he remained a Lions fan — albeit a frustrated one. As the Lions slumped into last place under team President Matt Millen, Triplett ripped the team.

“It’s embarrassing,” Triplett told the New York Times in 2006. “Millen is a nice guy, but he just can’t handle the job. The fans have the right to put the paper bags over their heads. They’re crying to get a better situation.”

Triplett had strong opinions about football that he continued to express into his 90s. And although he was an African-American trailblazer, he didn’t agree with the decision of several African-American players to kneel during the national anthem. In 2016, when he was 90 years old, he told MLive.com that he thought those kneeling players should stand.

It’s ridiculous to me,” he said. “Why bring up something like that when you’re getting benefits? I was confused; what are you protesting? In other words, if you’re going to be a ball player, be a ball player and play ball. See, that’s the way it goes. If you don’t want to be a ball player, don’t go there, don’t pull on the jock strap. That’s the way I feel about it.”

Triplett understood racism better than most, but he had little patience for political correctness. He said he never liked the way language was policed, and he preferred to be referred to as “Negro” over “black” or “African-American.”

“My forefathers were Negro slaves,” he told the Detroit News in 2015. “I am a Negro male. It’s how I am described on my birth certificate. I know it offends some people, but I won’t be pleased if you call me anything else in what you write about me.”

Triplett can be called many things: A trailblazer, a great football player, a war hero, and a legend.

28 responses to “Wally Triplett, trailblazing NFL player, dies at 92

  1. He said he never liked the way language was policed, and he preferred to be referred to as “Negro” over “black” or “African-American.”
    know it offends some people, but I won’t be pleased if you call me anything else in what you write about me.”

    Triplett can be called many things: A trailblazer, a great football player, a war hero, and a legend.

    How about being called

    A HUMAN BEING

  2. PSU team going to Cotton Bowl had to say “we all play or none” because originally Mr. Tripplet was not going to be able to play in the Cotton Bowl due to being a Negro. Good for the men of the team for doing the right thing when others wouldn’t (the organizers of the game). Multiple southern states at the time had laws that blacks and whites couldn’t compete on the same field, etc.

  3. A classy stand up Negro male who made a difference in difficult times and faced more adversity than most will in their lifetimes has left the building. RIP. Prayers go out to his family and loved ones.

  4. One of the nfl’s early triple threat players.he was proud of where he came from and if he wants to be called negro over black or African American so be it.rip 92 is a amazing run just like in his career which he had many of.

  5. Never heard of the guy before this. What a great read. Interesting opinion about race, and his reasons for that. Incredible story. I really wish the NFL would wipe the dust off and talk about long forgotten players. Simply amazing. Cheers to triplett

  6. @youngnoizecom

    his thoughts on kneeling couldn’t be worse
    ———————————————————

    Mr. Triplett witnessed more racial tension than you could ever imagine, but he was a man, not a whiny person who felt he was entitled to hand outs. Maybe a little research on your part would help.

    RIP Mr. Triplett

  7. I find it very telling that Mr Triplett — who was a gentleman and a real trailblazer — will be criticized for his beliefs concerning being called black or African-American and his opinion of those who kneel during the anthem.
    R.I.P. Mr Triplett — you earned eternal rest.

  8. RIP Mr. Triplett.

    “The rest of Penn State’s players voted to cancel the game rather than play without their two black teammates.”

    It is far too often overlooked that the vast, vast majority of people are not racist. It’s too bad that the loudest screamers get the attention.

  9. Lets us hope this path remains as a one way only street. FORWARD. NEVER BACKWARDS. There are those in America that want us to go back to these neanderthalic barbaric segregated practices.

  10. Incredible life story and one that, with its combination of glories and awfulness, is quintessentially American. The fact that his views on the kneelers and politically correct Newspeak are more than enough for the millenial Twitterverse to declare him not a “real” minority tells you all you need to know about their superficial announcements that everyone is the problem but them.

  11. sammyias says:
    November 8, 2018 at 12:31 pm
    Our racial history is embarrassing to say the least.
    ————————–
    The entire world had racial conflict through out history. And some not-so-pretty times. It is not just an American thing. But the world continues to get better and grow and adapt. huge improvements are all around us for those who are willing to see them.

  12. As a fan of The Lions, I appreciate his greatness on the football field in the great city of Detroit.

    As an American, I thank him for his service to our country.

    As a black man in modern America, I honor how he broke down racial barriers for me and so many others.

    I may not agree with some of his viewpoints (protesting, being called a “Negro”, etc…) but he earned the right to express them.

    RIP to a great human being!

  13. IIRC, Miami had offered Triplett a scholarship, but rescinded it after finding out he was black. (They apologized.)
    When Penn State played SMU in the Cotton Bowl, it was the first time a black had played against an all white university in Texas.
    To their credit, both SMU’s coach Matty Bell (he deserves to be named) and their team had no issues with Penn State bringing their black players. “After all, we’re supposed to live in a democracy.” Bell said.
    Having already decided to play as a team when it came to Miami, when the discussion of possibly leaving the black players out of the SMU game came up, Steve Suhey, a team captain, (and Matt’s dad, I think), said, “We’re Penn State. We play as one or we don’t play at all.” (or some form of that.)
    Unfortunately this is NOT the origin of the “WE ARE!”/”PENN STATE” chant, as has been erroneously reported. Would have been way cooler if it was.

  14. “I remember staying in a different hotel than my white teammates in Green Bay,” Triplett told the Detroit News years later, “and the walls were thin. When the people in the next room said to each other, ‘You know there are Negroes next to us,’ we clearly heard it. . . .”

    that literally just made me cry man…

    -ashamed white guy

  15. It’s kind of crazy when you see people who aren’t of color try to decipher what’s real oppression and what’s not. Obviously, it shows a lack of education, but we can’t expect everybody to be knowledgeable

  16. Nobody’s questioning his realness because his thoughts on kneeling are cringeworthy. There’s a whole generation of people who were complacent with systematic racism as long as they weren’t adversely affected and were accepted in some capacity (look at OJ). It’s a very sad way to think, but given the struggle of African American’s in this country, many believe that there will never be true change so what’s the point of working towards it. What the athletes are doing with kneeling is sacrificing public opinion for those who are disenfranchised. No matter how much money you make, you will always be viewed as a black man in America.

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