The fire that drove Wally Triplett, the first drafted black player in the NFL

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

“Just so you know, I am a negro.”

That was the Wally Triplett’s reply after he received a scholarship offer from the University of Miami’s football program in 1945. Excited but wary, Triplett harbored no illusions as to 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 The next time Triplett heard from Miami, the offer was rescinded.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 saved 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 burning fire within him to prove how wrong Miami was.”

Triplett would go on to have a record-setting career at Penn State becoming not only one of the first black players to play for the Nittany Lions but eventually the first drafted black player to compete in the NFL (two other black players were drafted before him but neither went on to appear in the league). Yet, despite these accolades, he is relatively unknown, especially compared to the other sporting civil rights figures of his time.

So why don’t we know more about Wally Triplett?

It’s not an easy question to answer, though the brevity of his NFL career and his lack of desire for the spotlight certainly played a role. But for someone whose mere presence forced collegiate 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 alums who said: ‘How did I graduate from this school and not know this history?’ It just takes a long time for these histories to be revealed,” Detweiler says.

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Tipped for greatness at an early age, Triplett excelled in multiple sports and became a standout at Cheltenham High School right outside Philadelphia.

Undeterred after the Miami disappointment, Triplett turned his attention locally to Penn State and he received a state-funded senatorial scholarship for academics. He would become the first black starter for the Nittany Lions along with friend and teammate Dennie Hoggard. Dubbed a “dynamic duo” by Detweiler, those two would go on to 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 halfback and kick returner. Off the field, his activism came about naturally as he dealt with the callous wrath of racism in 1940s America.

Triplett protested after local barbershops refused to cut his hair, eventually helping to secure a space for black barbers through fundraising. He also got one of his college professors suspended on accusations of racist grading. (Triplett had an African American PhD student write a paper for him just to test and ultimately prove his theory.)

Filmmaker Mandi Hart, also on the project, found Triplett’s perseverance for justice astonishing. “At a young age, he was wise beyond his years in terms of his long-term approach. He was intentional and thoughtful, thinking beyond the field even though it was personally costly to him,” Hart says.

Things would come full circle for Triplett in 1946 when Penn State were scheduled to take on Miami, the same school that initially accepted then rejected him years prior. Penn State were told by Miami that Triplett and Hoggard would need to be left 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 at home instead.

“The irony is it was Miami v Penn State. His team stood with him. It’s a telling moment and truly one of the greatest moments in their history. They were ahead of some things here,” Detweiler says.

Wally Triplett makes an appearance at a Lions game in 2013
Wally Triplett makes an appearance at a Lions game in 2013. Photograph: Leon Halip/Getty Images

Allyship is an important part of the Triplett story, showing yet again that racial progress has always relied heavily on moderate white support. A year after voting to skip the Miami game Penn State found themselves facing a similar racially-motivated conundrum when they made it to the Cotton Bowl against Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Cotton Bowl officials suggested the black players be left at 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 be etched into Nittany Lions folklore – it’s still a rallying cry and chant today – though few know its origins are rooted in solidarity from a time when it was largely uncommon.

In addition, Matty Bell the SMU coach opted to play the game, “After all, we’re supposed to live in a democracy,” he famously said, and Hoggard and Triplett would effectively desegregate the Cotton Bowl. It was a moment years in the making and as often the case with racial progress, the timing had to be just right.

“I think the Wally and Penn State story shows the importance of allies. The [Penn State] coach Bob Higgins who brought those guys in played against Jim Thorpe. Coach Bell from SMU coached Native American teams. The Penn players were war veterans so they were used to integration. It was a slow process of them stepping into someone else’s shoes to see these wild gaps that had been created by society,” says Detweiler.

The game was on, but in segregated Dallas, the team had to stay at the Naval Airbase 14 miles away. This forced Triplett’s white teammates to confront the reality of segregation.

“Earlier in the season they were going to different cities and all the white players would stay in one part of town and Dennie and Wally would have to go off somewhere else. Well, the same thing happened in Dallas, but now everyone had to go outside of the city,” Hart says.

“The reality sinks in of what segregation looks like, the cost of taking a stand. They didn’t enjoy it, it was hard and maybe there was some temptation of 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 tie itself perhaps symbolic of the greater significance of that game on modern American society. Everyone won in the end.

Ever the pioneer, Triplett continued to lead a life and career full of firsts. He played two seasons with the Detroit Lions before joining the Korean war efforts. After he had completed his service, Triplett was traded to the Chicago Cardinals, where he played another two seasons, before retiring and settling into a regular life with his wife Lenora, to whom he would be married for 66 years.

So we revisit the question: Why don’t we know more about Triplett?

Detweiler suggests it’s due to a lack of appetite for racial justice at the time Triplett was playing. “Wally’s story probably got subdued under Jackie [Robinson]. Robinson was the spring of ‘47, Wally was the fall of ‘47, so there was a spirit in the air but a sense in the newspapers that: ‘Oh, that story was already told, look we solved the racism problem.’”

In recent years we’ve seen modern entertainment reshape narratives surrounding important events of yesteryear. HBO’s Lovecraft Country was for many, an introduction to the Tulsa massacre, an event that has been routinely skipped over in American education. And more recently, Judas and the Black Messiah is altering what many were taught about the Black Panther party growing up.

Ultimately, Dietweler is hoping that Triplett’s story can have the same illuminating effect and can resonate with a modern audience. “It’s not theoretical, it’s current. He’s a fierce warrior that’s had this hidden history.”