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An Appreciation

Wallace Triplett is an NFL legend: honoring the first African-American to play pro ball

The Detroit Lions and Penn State running back helped build the path that became a road that is now a superhighway


The more I watch the antics of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, the more I appreciate the life and times of Wallace Triplett, the former Penn State and Detroit Lions running back who died last week at 92.

The distance between Brown, whose off-field missteps have kept him in the headlines, and Triplett, who inspired a moral stand at Penn State, reflects a long road traveled.

Triplett was part of the first wave of black athletes who broke down barriers in the National Football League. He came of age during an era when black athletes, like African-Americans in general, were often denied access to opportunity solely because they were black. This was an era when blacks were compelled to tread softly, as if walking on eggshells.

A star at Cheltenham High School in La Mott, Pennsylvania, Triplett received a scholarship offer in the mail from the University of Miami.

He was ecstatic but correctly assumed that the school’s coaching staff didn’t know they were recruiting an African-American. When Triplett wrote back and informed the staff he was black, the school rescinded the scholarship it had offered so eagerly.

Miami’s loss became Penn State’s gain.

Triplett went to Penn State and enjoyed an outstanding career. He became the program’s first black starter. During the 1945 season, after a team meeting, Penn State canceled a scheduled game at the University of Miami rather than leave Triplett behind. Three years later, Triplett and teammate Dennie Hoggard became the first African-Americans to play in the Cotton Bowl. The Dallas-based Cotton Bowl had asked Penn State to consider leaving its two black players behind. The school refused, this time without a team meeting.

The impetus behind the decision became a rallying cry for future generations of Penn State students: We Are Penn State.

Three seasons later, the undefeated University of San Francisco team, perhaps inspired by Penn State, turned down a bowl invitation when the Orange Bowl asked the school to leave its black players behind.

Triplett continued making history in the NFL.

The modern NFL had its first black players in March 1946, when UCLA’s Kenny Washington became the first African-American to sign a contract with an NFL team. Woody Strode signed later that year. The Detroit Lions signed Mel Groomes and Bob Mann in 1948.

But no black player was selected in the NFL draft until 1949, when the Chicago Bears drafted Indiana’s George Taliaferro in the 13th round and Triplett was the Lions’ 19th pick. Of the three black players drafted that year, Triplett was the first to play.

Triplett lived long enough to see black players go from being a marginalized minority to an overwhelming majority. He also witnessed benchmarks: In 1988, Doug Williams became the first black starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and in 2007, Tony Dungy became the first black head coach to accomplish the same feat.

Triplett helped build the path that became a road that is now a superhighway, sometimes abused, for black athletes (Brown, according to news reports, was recently stopped for allegedly driving over 100 miles per hour in his Porsche).

But Triplett’s most enduring achievement took place in college when he inspired a program and a university to choose principle over expediency.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.