“Just so you know, I’m a black man.”
That was Wally Triplett’s response after receiving a scholarship offer from the University of Miami football program in 1945. Excited but cautious, Triplett had no illusions about what would happen when they inevitably discovered that he was, in fact, a black man.
After thanking Miami for the offer – they had assumed he was white – and mentioning his race, he waited patiently. The next time Triplett heard from Miami, the offer was rescinded. When Triplett passed away in 2018 at the age of 92, he still had the letter.
“We know how much it meant to him because he kept the letter all those years, says Craig Detweiler, a screenwriter currently working on a film in development about Triplett’s life. “You can feel the fire burning inside him to show how wrong Miami was.”
Triplett would go on to have a record career at Penn State becoming not only one of the first black players to play for the Nittany Lions, but also the first black player recruited to compete in the NFL (two other black players were drafted before him but none happened to appear in the league). Yet despite these accolades, he is relatively unknown, especially compared to the other sports civil rights figures of his time.
So why don’t we know more about Wally Triplett?
It’s not an easy question to answer, although the brevity of his NFL career and his lack of desire to be the center of attention certainly played a role. But for someone whose mere presence forced college football to change forever, Triplett’s story is relatively hidden from the public. This motivated the filmmakers to take on the story. “I love that the telling of this story began with Penn State alumni saying, ‘How did I graduate from this school and I don’t know this story?’ It just takes a long time for these stories to unfold, ”says Detweiler.
Triplett, who was noted for his greatness at a young age, excelled in multiple sports and became a standout at Cheltenham High School outside of Philadelphia.
Undeterred after the Miami disappointment, Triplett turned his attention locally to Penn State and received a state-funded Senate Scholarship Scholarship. He would become the Nittany Lions’ first black starter along with his friend and teammate Dennie Hoggard. Nicknamed a “dynamic duo” by Detweiler, those two would leave a legacy that would change the school forever.
On the field, Triplett shone. At 5ft 10in and 170lbs he was quick and elusive, thriving as a runner and kick returner. Off the field, his activism came naturally as he grappled with the cruel wrath of racism in the United States of the 1940s.
Triplett protested after local barber shops refused to cut her hair, ultimately helping to secure a space for black barbers by raising funds. He also got one of his university professors suspended on accusations of racist qualification. (Triplett had an African-American PhD student write him an article just to test and finally test his theory.)
Filmmaker Mandi Hart, also on the project, found Triplett’s perseverance for justice amazing. “At a young age, he was wise beyond his age in terms of his long-term focus. He was intentional and thoughtful, thinking beyond the field even though it was personally expensive for him, ”says Hart.
Things would come full circle for Triplett in 1946 when Penn State was scheduled to take on Miami, the same school that initially accepted him and then rejected him years before. Miami told Penn State that Triplett and Hoggard would have to stay home for the game to take place. Miami was a segregated city and refused to play against black players. The Penn State team voted to stay home.
“The irony is that it was Miami against Penn State. His team supported him. It is an eye-opening moment and truly one of the best moments in its history. They were ahead of some things here, ”says Detweiler.
Allyship is an important part of Triplett’s story, and it shows once again that racial progress has always relied heavily on moderate white support. A year after voting to skip the Miami game, Penn State found itself facing a similar conundrum on racial grounds when they came to the Cotton Bowl against Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Cotton Bowl officials suggested that black players stay home, but this time Penn State didn’t need a vote or a meeting: “We are Penn State, there will be no meetings,” said team captain Steve Suhey. That phrase “We Are” would remain engraved in Nittany Lions folklore (it is still a rallying cry and song today), although few know that its origins are rooted in the solidarity of a time when it was rare.
Also, Matty Bell, the SMU coach, chose to play the game, “After all, we are supposed to live in a democracy,” said the famous, and Hoggard and Triplett would desegregate the Cotton Bowl. It was a moment of years in the making and, as is often the case with racial progress, the timing had to be right.
“I think the history of Wally and Penn State shows the importance of allies. the [Penn State] Coach Bob Higgins, who brought in those guys, played Jim Thorpe. SMU Coach Bell coached Native American teams. Penn’s players were war veterans, so they were used to integration. It was a slow process where they put themselves in someone else’s shoes to see these wild rifts that had been created by society, ”says Detweiler.
The game was on, but in segregated Dallas, the team had to stay at the Naval Air Base 14 miles away. This forced Triplett’s white colleagues to confront the reality of segregation.
“At the beginning of the season they would go to different cities and all the white players would stay in one part of the city and Dennie and Wally would have to go somewhere else. Well, the same thing happened in Dallas, but now everyone had to get out of town, ”says Hart.
“Reality sinks into what segregation looks like, the cost of taking a position. They didn’t enjoy it, it was difficult and maybe there was some temptation to bitterness, but for them, it was a small price to play in the grand scheme of things. “
The Cotton Bowl would end 13-13 with Triplett scoring the tying touchdown. The bow itself is perhaps a symbol of the greater importance of that game in modern American society. Everyone won in the end.
Always a pioneer, Triplett continued to lead a life and career full of novelties. He played two seasons with the Detroit Lions before joining the Korean War efforts. After completing his service, Triplett was traded to the Chicago Cardinals, where he played another two seasons, before retiring and settling into a normal life with his wife Lenora, whom he would be married to for 66 years.
So we ask ourselves the question again: Why don’t we know more about Triplett?
Detweiler suggests it is due to a lack of appetite for racial justice at the time Triplett was playing. “Wally’s story probably smoothed over with Jackie [Robinson]. Robinson was the spring of ’47, Wally was the fall of ’47, so there was a spirit in the air but a feeling in the newspapers that, ‘Oh, that story was already told, look, we solved the problem of racism.’ ”.
In recent years, we have seen how modern entertainment has reshaped the narratives surrounding the important events of yesteryear. HBO’s Lovecraft Country was for many an introduction to the Tulsa Massacre, an event that has been routinely overlooked in American education. And more recently, Judas and the Black Messiah are altering what many were taught about the Black Panther party growing up.
Ultimately, Dietweler hopes that Triplett’s story can have the same illuminating effect and can resonate with a modern audience. “It is not theoretical, it is current. He is a fierce warrior who has had this hidden history. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism