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  • Peter Rubinstein

GAME CHANGERS #2 - Wallace Triplett

Write up courtesy of Luke Robson

Quick Facts:

1. First African American from Penn State to start, earn a varsity letter, and be drafted into the NFL

2. Triplett’s story through segregation and discrimination inspired the famous “WE ARE” phrase that is still used today

3. Set the Detroit Lions’ single-game record for kickoff return yardage (294 yards)

For this week’s Game Changer, the Penn State Sports Business Conference team has chosen to highlight former Penn State Nittany Lions halfback Wallace Triplett. He was a member of Bob Higgins’ football team during the 1940’s and became the first African American from Penn State to start, earn a varsity letter, and be drafted into the NFL.

Before arriving in State College, Wallace attended Cheltenham High School where he excelled both in the classroom and on the football field. After achieving this success, Triplett received a letter in the mail from the University of Miami, a school that did not accept black students or athletes at the time. Upon opening the letter, he discovered that it was a scholarship offer to play football for the Hurricanes, but things did not add up given the time period.

Due to the fact that his address was in the upscale town of La Mott, Pennsylvania, the university figured that Wallace was a white athlete. After he responded to inform them that he was in fact not white, Miami quickly rescinded his scholarship offer. Being that this was not the first time that he faced adversity as a result of his skin color, he did not let this discourage him.

Shortly after, Bob Higgins, along with other players and coaches at Penn State, welcomed Triplett to the team with open arms. In 1946, the Nittany Lions were scheduled to play a regular season game against the Miami Hurricanes down in Florida, but PSU was not allowed to bring their black athletes. Rather than leaving Wallace in State College, the team rallied behind their teammate and collectively voted to forfeit the game. This showcased the sense of community and “All or Nothing” mentality that the Nittany Lions were building their program around.

Later that year, Penn State was set to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic, but there were racial stipulations yet again. Cotton Bowl officials recommended that black athletes should be left at home for the game. As a captain on the team, Steve Suhey responded to the officials by saying “WE ARE Penn State” and alluded to the fact that everyone or no one would be present for the game.

After conversation, the Nittany Lions traveled down to Texas as one, and Wallace Triplett became the first African American to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic. During the game, Triplett caught the game tying touchdown against Southern Methodist University which led to a final score of 13-13. From his success on the field and breaking down racial barriers, Wallace Triplett was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2018.

After his time at Penn State, Wallace was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 1949 NFL draft. He became the first drafted African American to play in a league game. While playing, Triplett set the Detroit Lions’ single-game record for kickoff return yardage (294 yards) on four returns, including a 94 yard return for a touchdown. Additionally, he earned a 73.5 yard kickoff return average which still holds the record to this day.

Unfortunately, Triplett’s NFL success would be shortly lived because he became the first NFL player to be drafted into military service for the Korean War in 1950. After returning from active duty, Wallace was traded to the Chicago Cardinals and was with the team up until he retired from football in 1953.

To learn more about Wallace Triplett, you can tune into ESPN’s 30 for 30 segment which aired back in 2016. Additionally, More Productions is currently working on bringing his story to life by creating a movie showcasing his journey through segregation and discrimination.

All in all, Wallace Triplett defied racial barriers during the 1940’s and helped pave the way for other African Americans to follow in his footsteps. His story has impacted individuals nationwide and brought to life the “WE ARE” phrase that is still used throughout Penn State today. With that being said, the Penn State Sports Business Conference team could not be prouder to name Wallace Triplett as this week’s Game Changer.

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