Detroit Lions Black History Month Profile: Wally Triplett

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 30: Running back Saquon Barkley
GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 30: Running back Saquon Barkley /

As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s take a moment to remember and honor the contributions of one of the Lions’ very own pioneers, Wallace “Wally” Triplett.

Current Penn State University running back, Saquon Barkley, is the talk of the town for this year’s NFL Draft.

A deeper look into the histories of Penn State, the Detroit Lions and the draft tells us the story of Wally Triplett, a trailblazer who lit a path for Barkley and others to follow.

Penn State

Triplett, the La Mott, PA native, became the first African-American to start for the Nittany Lions. During his freshman year in 1945, he starred at running back and return specialist.

In 1946, Penn State took the unprecedented action of cancelling a regular season game against an opponent. The then segregated University of Miami (FL) routinely did not allow their all white teams to play against teams that featured black athletes.

Penn State could have played against Miami if they opted to leave their black players at home.

The significant gesture by the football team of standing by their two black teammates (Triplett and Dennie Hoggard) and unanimously voting not to play in Miami served as the impetus of their undefeated season the next year in 1947.

Wally was embraced on and off the field with open arms by his teammates and university. The “We are Penn State” slogan began as a way to show overall unity. However, outside the confines of Happy Valley, the Jim Crow Era was a grim reality that both deeply wounded and divided the nation along racial lines.

In the 1947 Cotton Bowl, Wally and his teammates were again slated to face off against an all white team, Southern Methodist University (SMU), in the segregated city of Dallas, TX.

This time, instead of being canceled, the game was played and ended tied at 13-13 after Triplett scored the game tying touchdown.

It has been nearly 70 years since his final game with the university and Wally Triplett still sits at number two all-time on Penn State’s punt return list.

Regardless of where his numbers place him, his place in college football history is cemented for generations.

Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions selected Triplett during the 1949 NFL Draft. As he took the field for the Lions that year, he once again made football history. Wally became the first African-American draftee to play for an NFL team.

Not to be confused as the first African-American to be drafted (George Taliaferro) or as the first African-American to play professional football (Charles W. Follis), Wally’s significance is as the first African-American to actually play for the NFL team that drafted him.

Many of his predecessors often chose to play in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in lieu of the NFL.

Though his time with the Lions only spanned two seasons (1949-1950), Wally still found a way to ensure his presence was remembered each year.

He set the Lions record in 1949 for the longest run from scrimmage with an 80 yard touchdown dash. He also set the Lions’ single game kickoff return yardage record with his 294 yard performance in 1950.

Incidentally in 1951, Wally Triplett also played a part in the full integration of combat units in the Armed Forces during the Korean War. His draft to service prompted a yearlong break in his pro football career.

Upon the completion of his military service, Wally returned to the NFL. He was traded from the Detroit Lions to the Chicago Cardinals where he played for two more years before retiring from the league.

His importance to the game is immortalized with his official portrait displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.

Next: The Detroit Lions All-Time Offensive Team

Post Football Life

After his NFL retirement, Wally returned to Detroit where he made a home with his wife, Leonore. He worked an eclectic mix of jobs over the years such as teacher, landlord, and realtor just to name a few.

He also spent significant time as a public speaker where he often extolled the virtues of perseverance to students and children.

Wally’s time in the NFL was relatively short, but his contributions to the game and to his community will live on forever. For as good as he was on the field, Wally Triplett proved himself to be an even better man off of it.