Free Press writers Jeff Seidel, Dave Birkett break down Lions meltdown against Vikings in Minneapolis, and wonder why team has regressed Nov. 4, 2018.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

Wally Triplett, the former Detroit Lions running back who was one of the first African-American players drafted into the NFL, died on Thursday, according to a Lions news release. He was 92. 

“As the first African-American to be drafted and to play in the National Football League, Wally is one of the true trailblazers in American sports history,” the Lions said in the release. “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.”

More: 1957 Detroit Lions: Relive on of the greatest teams in franchise history

Triplett played for the Lions in 1949 and 1950 after being selected in the 19th round of the 1949 NFL draft; he was the third black player taken in that draft but the first of the group to play in a regular-season game.

During his rookie season, he set the franchise record at the time with an 80-yard touchdown run at Green Bay. 

His most remarkable game came against the L.A. Rams in 1950, when he returned four kickoffs for a total of 294 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown run. He also had returns of 74, 81 and 42 yards. His single-game yardage total stood as an NFL record for 44 seasons before being broken in 1994, according to Thursday’s release, and it’s still the third-best in league history. 

Triplett’s Lions career ended a couple weeks later when he was drafted into the U.S. Army’s 594th Field Artillery Battalion. He served two years during the Korean War, then finished his career with the Chicago Cardinals in 1952-53.

Triplett, a native of La Mott, Pa., was a three-year letter winner at Penn State, according to the release, and he was the first African-American player to start for the Nittany Lions.