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.