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Wally Triplett dies at 92; blazed trails at Penn State and in the NFL

Mr. Triplett, a Montgomery County native, became the first African American to start at Penn State, and later became the first to be drafted and play in the NFL.

Wally Triplett was the first African-American player to be drafted and play in a regular-season NFL game. He died Nov. 8.
Wally Triplett was the first African-American player to be drafted and play in a regular-season NFL game. He died Nov. 8.Read moreAP FILE

Wally Triplett, 92, a trailblazing former Montgomery County resident who became the first African American to start on the Penn State football team and later the first to be drafted and play in the NFL, died Thursday at his home in Detroit.

Mr. Triplett, a three-sport athlete at Cheltenham High School who was from La Mott, played tailback and linebacker at Penn State from 1945 through 1948. According to university records, his first start came on Nov. 17, 1945.

At the end of the 1947 season, Mr. Triplett and teammate Dennie Hoggard became the first African Americans to play in the Cotton Bowl. Mr. Triplett caught a 6-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to help the Lions secure a 13-13 tie with Southern Methodist and complete a 9-0-1 season and a No. 4 national ranking.

Mr. Triplett was picked in the 19th round of the 1949 NFL draft, a 5-foot-11, 173-pound running back and return specialist, by the Detroit Lions. While he was the third African American to be selected in the draft, he was the first of the drafted players to appear in a regular-season game.

Mr. Triplett played with the Lions for two seasons before being drafted and serving with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. After returning from Korea, Mr. Triplett played his final two NFL seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, then returned to the Detroit area and became a teacher.

"This is a tremendous loss for not only our football program, but the Penn State community as a whole," Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said in a statement. "Wally was a trailblazer as the first African American to be draft 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."

Mr. Triplett also was reportedly one of the motivating forces behind Penn State's "We Are" saying. Facing the prospect of having he and Hoggard be left behind from the Cotton Bowl rather than accompany the team to then-segregated Dallas, team captain Steve Suhey decided, "We are Penn State, there will be no meetings."

That was a reference to one year earlier when the Nittany Lions voted to cancel their game against Miami after their opponent demanded that the team not bring Mr. Triplett and Hoggard with them.

For the Cotton Bowl, the Nittany Lions traveled with Mr. Triplett and Hoggard to Dallas but the team had to stay at a naval air station outside of the city before the game.

Mr. Triplett was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame earlier this year.

Mr. Triplett was an accomplished return specialist. He is No. 2 on Penn State's all-time list in punt return average at 16.5 yards on 17 returns, and has the fourth-longest punt return, an 85-yarder against West Virginia in 1948.

In the NFL, he set a league single-game record with 294 kickoff return yards in a game on Oct. 29, 1950. That mark stood until 1994, but his 73.5-yard average per return still stands.

"As the first African American to be drafted and to play in the National Football League, Wally is one of the true trailblazers in American sports history," the Detroit Lions said in a statement. "He resides among the great men who helped reshape the game as they faced the challenges of segregation and discrimination."

Mr. Triplett is survived by his children Nancy, Wallace, Alison, and David, and by six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Leonore (Bivins) Triplett.