Wally Triplett, a Detroit Lions legend who was the first African-American player to be drafted and play in the league, died Thursday morning. He was 92.
“Wally is one of the true trailblazers in American sports history,” the 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.
“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.”
Triplett was selected by the Lions in the 19th round of the 1949 NFL Draft, and he was a running back and return specialist for the Lions from 1949 through 1950.
In his second season, he had an NFL-record 294 kickoff return yards, a mark that stood for 44 years and still ranks third all-time.
His NFL career was interrupted when he began service in the Korean War. He played two more seasons after that with the Chicago Cardinals from 1952 through 1953.
Triplett was a three-year letterman at Penn State, where he was the first African-American to ever start for the Nittany Lions.
“This is a tremendous loss for not only our football program, but the Penn State community as a whole,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said in a statement. “Wally was a trailblazer as the first African-American to be drafted 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.”
In 1946, 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 against Miami rather than play without their two black teammates.
In 1948, Triplett became the first African-American to play in the Cotton Bowl, although he had to stay in a separate facility from his teammates.
“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.”