Wally Triplett, 1st African-American to be drafted and play in NFL, dies at 92

Yahoo Sports
Wally Triplett was only the third African-American chosen in the 1949 NFL draft and was the first of the draftees to take the field in a league game. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Wally Triplett was only the third African-American chosen in the 1949 NFL draft and was the first of the draftees to take the field in a league game. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Wallace “Wally” Triplett, a 1950s NFL pioneer and Detroit Lions legend who held many firsts in his career, died Thursday morning, according to the Detriot Lions. He was 92.

Triplett was drafted in the 19th round of the 1949 NFL draft and was the third African-American player drafted that year. Of the three, he was the first draftee to take the field that season as a running back and return specialist. His 80-yard return against Green Bay as a rookie set the team record for longest yards from scrimmage.

George Taliaferro was the first African-American drafted and died one month ago at the age of 91.

Triplett’s second season was cut short after he set the NFL mark of 294 kickoff return yards in a game against the Los Angeles Rams. The record stood for 44 years and is still third all-time. The 73.5-yard average per return that game still stands as the best.

He spent the latter part of season in the Korean War when he was drafted into the Army’s 594th Field Artillery Battalion. He served for two years and finished his career with the Chicago Cardinals from 1952-53.

“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 also a Penn State pioneer

The Lions statement noted his contributions date back to his time with Penn State.

A La Mott, Pennsylvania, native, he was a three-year letter winner for the Nittany Lions and the first African-American to start for the football team. He also participated in the first integrated Cotton Bowl.

Triplett is the subject of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “We Are,” which follows the design and installation of the “We Are” sculpture from the Class of 2013. It was inspired by the 1948 football team that overcame racial adversity.

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