Former Lion Triplett recalls not-so glory days
First Black player to be drafted in NFL remembers bitter but breakthrough times for Black athletes
By Harry M. Anderson, Jr.
Special to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — It was 1949, and Jackie Robinson recently broke the “color line” in sports two years ago when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although Major League Baseball opened some doors, the National Football League was very staunched and stubborn to open the door for Black ballplayers to play.
Wally Triplett, an outstanding halfback from Penn State, recalls the time when he was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 1949, making him the first Black player drafted by the National Football League.
“There weren’t hardly any Black players in the NFL,” recalled Triplett, 86, who now lives in northwest Detroit. “Most Black ballplayers had to play in the All-American Football Conference (which had the Cleveland Browns) or the Canadian Football League.
“The Black players were treated better in the AAFC and the CFL and they got paid better. America was very different back then because the country discriminated against everything at that time. The 1940s and ‘50s weren’t pleasant time for Blacks.”
Even after Triplett was drafted by the Lions, the federal government had to step in.
“It took an act of Congress to break the color barrier in the NFL,” Triplett recalls. “In 1950, George Marshall, the owner of the Washington Redskins, didn’t want any Black players on his team.
“But the federal government said if you wanted to use public money to build a stadium for your team, people of all races must play on your roster.”
That provided some change in the country.
Triplett wasn’t the first Black player on the Lions roster. He was, however, the first Black player drafted by the Lions. Mel Groom and Bob Mann were the first Black players to dress in the Lions Honolulu Blue and Silver in 1948.
“They came on the team as walk-ons,” Triplett said. “Mann set some league records while he was playing.”
In 1949, Mann set a team record for receptions with 66 catches and was the Lions first 1,000-yard receiver. But after season’s end, Mann felt betrayed according to Triplett.
“They wanted him to take a $1,500 cut in pay from his original contract,” Triplett said. “He said he couldn’t take it and quit the Lions.”
Mann originally signed with Detroit for $7,500 per season, including a $2,500 bonus. Mann left the Lions after the 1950 season in disgust and finished his career with the Green Bay Packers, playing there from 1951-54. He retired from the NFL after 1954 to run a successful private practice as a lawyer. Mann died on Oct. 21, 2006 at the age of 82.
Triplett, on the other hand, signed with the Lions in1949 and earned $600 a week for 12 weeks (there were 12 games in a season then). It was a lot different than today.
“You were picked in the draft and weren’t paid until after the first game of the season,” he said. “That was typical back then, unlike today. Nowadays you have guys paid before the start of the season’s first practice.”
Triplett set a single-game record in kickoff returns of 294 yards (second-highest in history) against the Los Angeles Rams in 1950, which included a 97-yard return. He also set the longest run from scrimmage scoring on an 80-yard run against the Packers.
But all wasn’t rosy for him either.
Detroit was tough back then. It wasn’t a real friendly place, especially if you were Black. Most of the NFL owners were run by gamblers. Eddie Anderson, the owner of the Lions, owned Goebel Beer and owned a few casinos.
After 1950, Triplett was drafted into the Army for the Korean War. He also played football in the Army for Camp Polk in Louisiana. While in the Army he was traded to the Chicago Cardinals in 1951 and played with greats like Ollie Mattson. He played for the Cardinals until 1953.
During his college days at College Station, Pa., Triplett enrolled at Penn State University on a Senatorial Scholarship from 1945-48 when he was rejected by the University of Miami. Triplett was raised in a Philadelphia suburb of LaMott. With his talent and upscale address, the Hurricanes thought he was white — until they saw him in person.
Because of the racist treatment by Miami, the Nittany Lions dropped the Hurricanes from their schedule because white southern colleges didn’t play teams with integrated squads.
Triplett was called the Jackie Robinson of Penn State. He and Dennie Haggard were the first Black players to play on the Nittany Lions football squad.
“We played a lot of teams in the east,” Triplett said. “We played the likes of Army, Navy, Syracuse, Yale, Brown, Bucknell and Pittsburgh. We even played teams from the west like Washington State.
“We couldn’t play in the south because times were different back then.”
That act would be put to the test when Penn State went unbeaten in 1947 and were invited to play Southern Methodist University of Dallas, Texas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on New Years Day in 1948. SMU heard about Triplett and Haggard and wanted to meet with the Penn State team to discuss the situation, but PSU team captain Steve Suhez responded: “We are Penn State. There will be no meeting. We will all play.”
That response, “We are Penn State,” is now a cheer at all PSU home games. In fact, Triplett caught a TD pass that tied the Cotton Bowl, ending it in a 13-13 tie.
After football, Triplett, who earned a degree in physical education, taught school, sold real estate and ran a liquor store after retiring from the game. He was even employed by the Chrysler Corporation in a management position when it its headquarters was on Outer Drive.
He currently lives in Detroit with his wife, Leonore, of more than 50 years. They have four children.