Wally Triplett and the Men of ‘47

You couldn’t be faulted for missing it. The modest three-story, cream white house looks virtually identical to when it was built more than 100 years ago. Nestled on a block of student rentals at 119 North Barnard Street, Lincoln Hall stands as a paramount monument to the Penn State Spirit, but also one of its least appreciated.

Today, you’re likely to find the residents of Lincoln Hall, which is located less than two blocks from campus, listening to music and cracking open cheap beer on the porch, as they were when I stopped by on an unseasonably warm February Happy Valley day. They didn’t realize when they signed their lease that they were about to live in one of the most important lasting structures in State College—one that housed an Olympic gold medalist and the first black player drafted into the NFL. Those students only found out about the significance of their current residence after they moved in; its story is memorialized on a plaque installed on the right side of the porch in 2012 by the Penn State Alumni Association and the State College Downtown Improvement District.

The house, its name taken from the former President of the United States, was once a rooming house for male African-American students at the Pennsylvania State College—one of only a few places in town where they could live at the time. Penn State was, in many ways, ahead of its time when it came to racial inclusion in America —Jesse Arnelle, the African-American basketball star and eventual longtime Penn State trustee, was elected student body president in 1955, well before many universities were even fully integrated.

Nevertheless, the University still had its share of ugliness when it came to racial equity, including an unofficial campus housing policy that restricted black students from living in on-campus dorms and most downtown houses until well into the late 1940s. Harry and Rosa Gifford bought the house in the late 1930s when they moved their family from Mississippi to work as fraternity cooks, and they immediately began accepting six to eight African-American students each year as tenants. The place quickly became the center of black student life at Penn State, and at times, more than half of the University’s black student population resided there. Denied access to dormitory halls on campus such as their white peers knew, the sort that bore the name of some forgotten figure of historical relevance, Old State’s earliest black students made one of their own. The house on North Barnard became “Lincoln Hall.”

Its most famous resident was the 19-year-old Wallace Triplett. The Cheltenham High School football captain arrived from his home in the Philadelphia suburb of La Mott, Pennsylvania in August 1945 with no place to stay. Penn State coach Bob Higgins referred Wally to the Giffords, and he moved in soon after.

“Whenever you look at the NFL, which is the largest thing going today, trickle that down to the fact that the seed that was planted that started this negro into the NFL started right here at Penn State,” Triplett said at the plaque dedication ceremony in 2012. “And it started here in Lincoln Hall.”

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The legend of Wally Triplett almost didn’t happen. The still-segregated University of Miami offered him an athletic scholarship, sight unseen, only to revoke it after they found out he was black.

“The great war was fought and blood was shed and advancement is still being made, but Wallace, as I previously stated, I believe it will be a slow transition and our generation will not see the transition take place,” wrote Miami head coach Eddie Dunn in the letter rescinding his scholarship. “A thing like this must be reasoned, not fought out. Do not be bitter against a group of people that have nothing to do with the present conditions.”

Triplett has kept that letter to this very day.

In a pinch, Triplett was able to secure a state-funded senatorial academic scholarship to attend Penn State. His story, forged here in the Nittany Valley, would change the state of racial equity in college athletics and personify our University’s cultural values, the spirit of which still lingers to this day.

But what is the story of Wally Triplett?

“I didn’t do anything, you see,” Triplett told the Penn Stater Magazine in 2009. “It wasn’t like I was the leader. This was America in that age, and that was the way things were, and you didn’t question, and yet these guys took it upon themselves to say, ‘No. We play all or none.’”

Triplett’s modesty is a tenant of his personality today, as it has been for virtually all of his 91 years on this earth. But those now-weathered eyes witnessed one of the most beautiful Penn State stories ever told—one in which he was the central figure, transcending the bounds of time and, even if not the literal inspiration, embodying the meaning behind the phrase “We Are Penn State.”

The story is told in two-parts. Triplett saw limited playing time in 1945—becoming, along with Dennie Hoggard, the first African-American to take the field for Penn State—and earned a varsity letter in 1946, also the first black player to do so for the Nittany Lions. Triplett made the switch from tailback to wingback early in the 1946 season and was the team’s most adept kick returner.

But Wally Triplett is defined more by the game he didn’t play than the ones that he did.

Triplett first felt trouble when he noticed that familiar name on the team schedule after he returned to campus in the fall of 1946. The University of Miami, the same school that revoked his scholarship less than two years prior because of the color of his skin, was scheduled for a home game against Penn State on November 29.

Not only did Miami not let black players on its team but, like many southern schools, did not even allow black players on its fields with visiting teams. Miami officials alerted Penn State that traveling with Triplett and Hoggard might prove problematic. The situation gnawed at Triplett -- Penn State had a solid squad that year, with only one 3-point loss to Michigan State mid-way through the season and were poised to make a run at a postseason bowl.

Triplett has recounted what happened next hundreds of times. As the legend goes, the team met at Old Main to discuss the situation. They knew of Miami’s stance that bringing Triplett and Hoggard on the trip would make it, as their officials put it, “difficult for them to carry out arrangements for the game.”

The team discussed the situation and held a vote. It wasn’t close. A revote was held, however, so that the few holdouts could make it unanimous. “There was no second thought,” voter Joe Sarabok recalled to the Penn Stater.  Penn State would bring all of its players, or it would not play at all.

The dean of the School of Physical Education and Athletics, Dr. Carl Schott, relayed the team’s decision to the Daily Collegian in the November 6, 1946 newspaper:

“We recently advised the University of Miami that two colored boys are regular members of the Penn State football squad,” Scott said, “and that it is the policy of the College to compete only under circumstances which will permit the playing of any or all members of its athletic teams.”

There would be no game. It would not be rescheduled.

“I call it ‘that team’,’” Triplett recalled during a visit to the All Sports Museum in 2009. “The tradition of leaving your colored players at home was going to be tolerated no more.”

To add to the mythology, it is said that All-American captain Steve Suhey, the coach’s future son-in-law whose family line would produce generations of great Nittany Lions, stood up after the discussion and declared that the team would never have a vote of this sort again. It would never be spoken of; they already knew the answer. It was decided forever.

“We Are Penn State,” Suhey said. “We play all or we play none. There will be no meetings.”

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After the 6-2 1946 season, Penn State knew it had a squad that could compete on the national stage. With most of its starters returning, Penn State’s defense allowed its opponents to score in only three of its nine regular season games, racking up a perfect record and a 319-25 scoring differential and a No. 4 ranking in the AP poll.

“Yesterday afternoon Coach Higgins called a team meeting of the football players and asked if they would be willing to sacrifice their Christmas vacations to play in a post-season game,” the Daily Collegian reported at the time. “The Lion gridders were enthusiastic in indicating their desire to play.”

Most media predicted the Nittany Lions would receive a bid to play Southern Methodist in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day in Dallas. There was just one problem. Most of the major southern bowls didn’t explicitly ban black players at that time, but they would only be allowed to play if the other team agreed to it.

“The school let it out early—and we were on record—as we all go or none go,” Triplett recalled years later. “And it was up to the Southwestern Conference, among themselves, to determine what they were going to do.”

While Southern Methodist was ultimately willing to waive its policy against playing teams with black players, the Cotton Bowl still had never invited a team with non-white players on its roster. And besides, Dallas remained a segregated city, and there would be no accommodations for Triplett and Hoggard. Penn State received an invitation to play nonetheless. The Cotton Bowl it would need to be.

The team set out on Dec. 21 from the Pullmans bus station in Altoona. After a quick stop for a practice at Washington University in St. Louis, where Higgins had coached from 1925 to 1927, the team arrived just before Christmas at the Dallas Naval Air Station, the only place the team could find that would accept the two black players (separate accommodations were out of the question, as Suhey had declared a year earlier).

Game day came, plagued by an unseasonably frigid Texas wind. Led by future Heisman Trophy winner (and Triplett’s future NFL teammate) Doak Walker, SMU went up early with a 13-0 lead at the half. Penn State scored quickly in the second half bringing the score to 13-7.

History would strike late in the third quarter. Penn State quarterback Elwood Petchel took the snap at the six-yard line and immediately scrambled out of the pocket, indicating a run. The Southern Methodist defense took the bait. By the time they realized the play, Triplett was already in the back left corner of the endzone, frantically motioning for the ball.

Petchel let it go with a flick of his wrist. There were no defenders in sight. As the ball settled softly in his outstretched arms, Wally Triplett became the first African-American to score a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl—and collegiately, in the entire state of Texas.

Future Penn State athletic director Ed Czekaj came in to kick the extra point. The ball sailed high above the uprights making it difficult to judge its exact trajectory, and although many of the players swore for years after that the ball actually made it through the uprights, the refs determined that the kick was no good. The Nittany Lions would have to settle for a 13-13 tie.

But the score hardly mattered. College football—and Penn State—had changed forever, thanks to the courage of Wally Triplett and “The Men of ‘47” who refused to succumb to the racial pressures of the time.

Journalist and Penn State Alumnus Michael Weinreb wrote that the Penn State players during this period had "such an inextricable bond that they rose about the tensions and preconceptions and prejudices of the era, a group who stood up for civil rights out of loyalty to the bonds they forged on a football field."

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Triplett wasn’t finished breaking barriers. He went on to have a stellar senior season in 1948 and was selected by the Detroit Lions in the 1949 NFL draft.

Although he was the third African-American player taken in the draft, he was the first to take the field in a regular season game, giving Triplett the distinction of being the first African-American draftee to play in the NFL. After being drafted into military service for the Korean—of course, another first among NFL players—Triplett played a couple more quiet seasons with the Chicago Cardinals before retiring from football in 1953.

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Wally Triplett’s story has seen renewed attention in recent years. ESPN covered it in a 30:30 mini documentary, narrated by Penn State alumnus Keegan Michael-Key. Penn State student government leaders voted in 2016 to use the student facilities fee to erect a monument to Triplett near the location of Old Beaver Field, and though the project went in another direction once it reached the administrative level, it is a testament to the enduring appeal of his inspirational story that today’s students were willing to honor him in that way—nearly 70 years after Triplett and “The Men of ‘47” stood in their place.

But what compels such devotion? What is the Spirit of Penn State? Answers can be found through experiencing the ways in which the echoes of our shared past still reverberate through the places that we love. It is revering Mount Nittany. It is tipping your cap to Old Willow and admiring the remaining Elms on the Henderson Mall. It is celebrating the unique vision and singular determination of people like Evan Pugh, George Atherton, and Joe Paterno. And it is remembering places that never should have needed to exist at all, like Lincoln Hall, and the quiet dignity of the pioneers who lived there. It is learning and cherishing – and thereby keeping alive – the story of noble Lions like Wally Triplett, Steve Suhey, and a band of teammates who were ahead of their time.

The Spirit is still there if you want to experience it. Try it. Walk down North Barnard Street and stop in front of the second house on the right. Close your eyes. If you try hard enough, it’s not difficult to imagine Wally Triplett, the African-American son of a Pennsylvania postal worker, his smile reaching ear to ear, bounding down the wood-covered concrete steps of Lincoln Hall, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, on his way to catch the team bus to the Cotton Bowl, ready to change the course of history.

This article, "Legacy of Lincoln Hall, Wally Triplett and the Men of '47", was written by Kevin Horne and was the cover story for the fall 2018 edition of TOGA (The Obligatory Gridiron Annual) magazine. Wally Triplett passed away on November 8 at age 92.

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