Former Detroit Lions running back and return specialist Wallace “Wally” Triplett III passed away today at the age of 92.
In a statement released by the Detroit Lions, the team praised Triplett as “one of the true trailblazers in American sports history. He resides among the great men who helped reshape the game as they faced the challenges of segregation and discrimination.”
From Detroit Lions:
STATEMENT FROM THE DETROIT LIONS:
“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. He resides among the great men who helped reshape the game as they faced the challenges of segregation and discrimination.
“His contributions date back to his days at Penn State as the Nittany Lions’ first African-American starter and varsity letter-winner, highlighted by his appearance in the first integrated Cotton Bowl.
“Wally’s legacy also reaches beyond breaking color barriers, having served in the United States Army during the Korean War.
“We fondly reflect on his great achievements and send our heartfelt condolences to the Triplett family.”
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) November 8, 2018
Wally Triplett was selected by the Lions in the 19th round of the 1949 NFL draft. Triplett was just the third African American player to be drafted into the NFL and the first of the players to see playing time.
Wally Triplett played two seasons with the Detriot Lions. During his rookie season, Triplett recorded an 80-yard touchdown against the Green Bay Packers that set the Lions’ record for the longest run from scrimmage at the time.
His most impressive game, however, was on October 29th, 1950 against the Los Angeles Rams. During the game, Triplett set a Lions’ single-game record for kickoff return yards with 294 yards on four kickoff returns. Triplett’s single-game record lasted an NFL-best 44 seasons before it was broken in 1994. The record-setting performance included a 97-yard return for a touchdown and a kickoff return average of 73.5 yards which is still an NFL single-game record.
A few weeks after the incredible game, Wally Triplett was drafted into the US Army and he served two years during the Korean War. Following his return from active duty, Triplett was traded from the Lions to the then Chicago Cardinals. Wally Triplett retired from professional football in 1953.
Wally Triplett also had an important impact on college football. Triplett and former teammate Dennie Hoggard were the first African Americans to take the field in a varsity football game for Penn State in 1945.
In 1946, Penn State was scheduled to play the University of Miami, which at the time was a segregated school. Miami did not allow African American athletes to play with white athletes, and it was common for visiting teams to leave their African American players at home. After a team vote, the Nittany Lions decided to cancel the regular-season game rather than not bring their African American players.
Wally Triplett and Dennie Hoggard made history again in 1948 when the two Penn State juniors became the first African Americans to play in the Cotton Bowl. Triplett left his mark on the game catching the game-tying touchdown in Penn State’s 13-13 tie with Southern Methodist University.