Honor Wally Triplett’s mem­ory with his ‘ul­ti­mate goal’: a mon­u­ment

Centre Daily Times - - Sports - BY JOSH MOYER jmoyer@cen­tredaily.com

Imag­ine a gran­ite mon­u­ment, a sim­ple rec­tan­gle as thick as a foot­ball, that stands just out­side Beaver Sta­dium’s east side. Imag­ine walk­ing over to the struc­ture, one that’s maybe just a head taller than your­self, and catch­ing your own re­flec­tion in the dark, pol­ished fin­ish.

Imag­ine look­ing closer, and read­ing the names en­graved in a stun­ning white — names like Steve Suhey, Den­nie Hog­gard and Sam Tam­buro — and imag­ine a cou­ple dozen more, each one ap­pear­ing from the ros­ters of the 1946 and 1947 Penn State foot­ball teams.

Imag­ine that. Be­cause Penn State trailblazer Wally Triplett did. Un­til his death Thurs­day at age 92, the man who helped break color bar­ri­ers and make Happy Val­ley a wel­com­ing place for all hoped, wished and stumped for that mon­u­ment.

It never came. And it’s about time that changed.

Maybe, like me, you never heard of Triplett’s dream be­fore this week. Maybe, like me, you re­al­ize Triplett’s dream is long over­due. Whether it’s the Penn State ath­let­ics de­part­ment it­self, or the an­nual stu­dent gift or a group of wealthy donors, Triplett’s “ul­ti­mate goal,” as his­to­rian Lou Prato called it,

de­serves to be­come a re­al­ity.

Not for Triplett, but for Penn State. A year be­fore Jackie Robinson’s ma­jor league base­ball de­but and 18 years be­fore the Civil Rights Act, Triplett and the Nit­tany Li­ons stood up to prej­u­dice. When a seg­re­gated Mi­ami (Fla.) told Penn State in 1946 to leave its two black play­ers at home, the team held a vote at Old Main or an old fra­ter­nity house. And it was unan­i­mous.

It was ev­ery­one or no one. While much of our coun­try con­tin­ued on with sep­a­rate wa­ter foun­tains and bath­rooms, and when Rosa Parks was nine years away from re­fus­ing to move on that Mont­gomery, Ala., bus, the game was can­celed.

The tone was set. The next sea­son, with the na­tion well aware that the Nit­tany Li­ons wouldn’t play with­out their black coun­ter­parts, the Cot­ton Bowl in Dal­las re­lented — with SMU’s ap­proval — and in­vited Penn State. The team ho­tel re­fused to al­low African-Amer­i­cans, so the en­tire team stayed in an Air Naval Train­ing base. When sev­eral team­mates spot­ted a night­club, they de­cided to go in. With Triplett.

“We ain’t never had no n------ in here,” Triplett re­called the owner say­ing, ac­cord­ing to at least one ac­count, “but you come on.”

It was the first in­ter­ra­cial Cot­ton Bowl in Texas, and Triplett and Hog­gard were the first African-Amer­i­can play­ers to ever com­pete in it. Doak Walker’s SMU Mus­tangs took a 13-0 lead, but Penn State ral­lied for a 13-13 tie.

Triplett was the first African-Amer­i­can starter for Penn State foot­ball. But he didn’t im­prove the uni­ver­sity — and, in a lot of ways, our so­ci­ety — by him­self. Sev­en­teen years be­fore Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the Nit­tany Li­ons judged Triplett not on color, but on the con­tent of his char­ac­ter.

Triplett was a “trailblazer,” the obit on Penn State’s of­fi­cial web­site says. And that’s true. But so were the en­tire 1946 and 1947 teams — and Triplett rec­og­nized that.

He didn’t want the good ac­com­plished by those teams to be hid­den in news­pa­pers and his­tory books. He wanted a grand pub­lic re­minder, some­thing that tells Penn State alumni and vis­it­ing fans that the men whose names are in­scribed weren’t just foot­ball play­ers but cru­cial play­ers in the civil rights move­ment.

He wanted a mon­u­ment sim­i­lar in de­sign to the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Me­mo­rial, one that called for re­flec­tion. He didn’t care where it was lo­cated — oth­ers have floated the HUB-Robe­son Cen­ter or near the “We Are” statue — but he just wanted some­thing more than a blue his­tor­i­cal marker.

“That was his ul­ti­mate goal that he never achieved,” Prato said. “He was able to get a his­tor­i­cal marker, which is out­side Beaver Sta­dium near the mu­seum en­trance. It’s there, you can go and read it. But that (mon­u­ment) was his ul­ti­mate goal.”

Triplett achieved a num­ber of firsts at Penn State, in spite of a so­ci­ety that didn’t em­brace equal­ity. But he didn’t do it alone. He needed help.

And, for his dream to come to fruition, he needs help now. Ac­cord­ing to a Penn State alum who spe­cial­izes in memo­ri­als, the es­ti­mated cost to ex­e­cute Triplett’s dream would be about $75,000 to $100,000. So stu­dents, alumni, ath­letic de­part­ment — re­mem­ber those teams. Build Triplett’s mon­u­ment.

ABBY DREY CDT photo

Penn State leg­end Wally Triplett met with Nit­tany Li­ons coach James Franklin af­ter prac­tice in Novem­ber 2015.

ALAN CLAVER Penn State Ar­chives

Wally Triplett was the first black draftee to play in the NFL, picked by the Detroit Li­ons in the 19th round in 1949.

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