Wally Triplett, a Detroit Lions running back who was the first African-American to be drafted and play in the NFL in a regular-season game, has died at 92.
“Wally is one of the true trailblazers in American sports history,” the Lions said in a news release announcing his death. “He resides among the great men who helped reshape the game as they faced the challenges of segregation and discrimination.
“His contributions date back to his days at Penn State as the Nittany Lions’ first African-American starter and varsity letter-winner, highlighted by his appearance in the first integrated Cotton Bowl. 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.”
The Lions selected Triplett in the 19th round of the 1949 NFL Draft and played for the Lions in 1949 and 1950. While two other black players were taken before him in that draft, he was the first to play in the regular season.
As a rookie, he set a team record at the time for the longest run from scrimmage with an 80-yard touchdown at Green Bay on Oct. 30, 1949.
A year later, on Oct. 29, 1950, he set a league single-game record with 294 yards on four kickoff returns, including a 97-yard touchdown. The record for his total yardage that day lasted for 44 years and is still No. 3 in NFL history. His kickoff return average of 73.5 yards that day remains an NFL single-game record.
Just a little more than two weeks later, on Nov. 15, 1950, he was assigned to the 594th Field Artillery Battalion after being drafted into the U.S. Army. He served two years during the Korean War and later returned to the NFL to play with the Chicago Cardinals in 1952-53.
A native of LaMott, Pa., Triplett was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2018.
In his NFL career, he returned 18 kickoffs for 664 yards — an average of 36.9 yards per return. He also gained 496 yards from scrimmage.
—Field Level Media