Wally Triplett, first Black player for the Detroit Lions

Herb Boyd | 11/22/2018, midnight
Coming of age in Detroit, it was easy to idolize the legendary boxers Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis because ...
Wally Triplett

A shifty speedster, Triplett was drafted in the 19th round, and in his rookie year set a team record for the longest run from scrimmage with an 80-yard touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. Oct. 29, 1950, against the Los Angeles Rams, he had compiled 294 yards on four kickoff returns, including a 97-yard touchdown. That total stood as an NFL record until 1994.

Triplett only played in 18 games for the Lions before being serving in the Army during the Korean War. After leaving the Army, he returned to the NFL for one season with the Chicago Cardinals. In 1953, he hung up his cleats and worked as a teacher, in the insurance business and in management for the Chrysler Corporation.

During an interview two years ago, Triplett, who insisted on being called a Negro, recounted his days in the NFL. “When I look at this thing they call the NFL draft now,” he said, “I laugh at it with tears because to be drafted now means you’re automatically in a group with people that are going to get paid for doing nothing.” His contract was $4,800 for his first year with the Lions. Nowadays, $2 million is the average pay per player.

When discussing the political attitude expressed by players upset with social conditions, particularly the pervasive police brutality, Triplett is not in accord with them. “In other words, if you’re going to be a ballplayer, be a ballplayer and play ball,” he said. “See, that’s the way it goes. If you don’t want to be a ballplayer, don’t go there, don’t pull on the jock strap. That’s the way I feel about it.”

Despite his resentment of the current outrage by Black players, Triplett’s place in the pantheon of the sport is secure, if former Lions coach Jim Caldwell has a say so. “The things he went through there, if you’ve read a little about the background of his situation, it was pretty unique because I think they went to a bowl game and they had an issue about whether or not he could eat a certain restaurant or stay at a hotel,” said Caldwell. He added that Triplett was a trailblazer, and that trail was left with the same speed and finesse he displayed in uniform.