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Detroit — There's a rusty red Ford in the parking lot with an NFL alumni sticker on its dashboard.

Functional, but not fancy transportation. Not even a Trailblazer for a man who actually was one — the first drafted black player to play in the NFL.

But it means Wally Triplett's already arrived for his weekly match in the Mixed Retirees' League at Garden Bowl on Woodward in Detroit.

A league that once numbered 28 teams, but is now down to 10 — on a good day.

A league that retains in its abundant spirit what it once featured in numbers.

We've come, though, not to watch, but to speak with Triplett — Bobby Layne's teammate, Jackie Robinson's friend.

He is a black man who staunchly still calls himself a Negro.

And readily explains why.

"It's the term that best describes the oppression we went through to get to where we are," said Triplett, who lives in the Russell Woods area of Detroit. "I want people to know that. Don't make an apology for it.

"My forefathers were Negro slaves. I am a Negro male. It's how I am described on my birth certificate. I know it offends some people, but I won't be pleased if you call me anything else in what you write about me."

It is Triplett's intention to be true to his heritage. But if the choice makes him an oarsman against the tide, it would not be the first time in his life.

As an athlete, he was a barrier-breaker with an impressive achievement to his name. But first we have to meet him.

"Over there," we're told after asking which of the bowlers Triplett is. Nearly 89, he bowls because "it's something to do."

His scores aren't good. He releases the ball loudly instead of smoothly. It bangs to the floor, then rolls slowly. Plus he's often chatting elsewhere when it's his turn.

"If you've ever seen me bowl, you'd wonder why I do it," he laughs.

'A different world'

None of that matters, though.

What matters is that with so little acclaim many of teammates don't know his background — "He's just Wally to us," league president Betty Jackson said.

But he's a man who conducts himself every bit as proudly as when he became the first drafted black player to play in an NFL game.

Indeed, that's the barrier Triplett broke, and for which he has received such scant recognition over the years that his story remains largely untold.

The achievement deserves correct and careful comprehension, though, so as not to be confused with others.

Triplett wasn't the first black player in the NFL or even on the Lions, who selected him in the 19th round in 1949. Nor was he the first black player drafted.

But he was the first who bridged the two, becoming the first drafted black player to play in the NFL.

"That's documented," said Saleem Choudry, exhibits/museum services manager of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Wally is mentioned in our African-American Pioneers pamphlet."

Triplett's portrait also used to hang on the wall at the Hall of Fame.

It wasn't an easy journey for him, of course, times being what they were.

"I remember staying in a different hotel than my white teammates in Green Bay," Triplett said, "and the walls were thin.

"When the people in the next room said to each other, 'You know there are Negroes next to us,' we clearly heard it."

But it was nothing more than what Triplett had overcome all his life.

"That was typical America back then, a different world," he said. "It's hard to describe it to people who didn't experience what we had to.

"It was a fact of life that you had to fight to defend yourself along the way. I could take care of myself, but it helped I had four brothers."

1950 record stands

Wallace Triplett was born April 18, 1926, in a suburb of Philadelphia. His father was a postal worker. His mother did "day work," he said.

Because Wally wasn't from an impoverished part of the city, the University of Miami offered him a football scholarship sight unseen, only to rescind it, he said, after learning he was black.

He went on to attend Penn State. Ironically, Penn State voted to cancel a game in 1946 against Miami after refusing to leave their black players, including Triplett, at home.

Also, it was for Penn State — in a game against SMU — that Triplett became the first black player, though heavily taunted, to participate in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

He was a running back who remembers himself as being "quick, but not all that fast."

Nor at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds was he big.

But he was elusive. And as a return specialist for the Lions, he still holds the team's game record of 294 kickoff return yards in 1950. That's also the second-highest return yards in NFL history.

Five years older than Wally while growing up nearby, Roy Campanella was an early friend and it was through Campanella that Robinson often would find a welcoming table at the Triplett house.

"My mother used to fix Jackie collard greens and bake him hot rolls when he would come over for dinner," Triplett remembered. "We'd pick up the two of them, Roy and Jackie, after their day games (for the Brooklyn Dodgers) against the Phillies.

"Jackie was smart, a real intelligent guy, but someone you could beat in the nickel pinochle games we played because he always bid too high."

Finding a future in football

When Triplett left for college, it wasn't with a future in the NFL in mind.

"That's not how it was," he said. "I didn't think I would play professional football. I didn't even like football that much. My mother always said school was first.

"I wanted to teach, and eventually I did."

Despite marrying his sweetheart from Philadelphia — Wally and Leonora have been married for 64 years and had four children — it wasn't to his hometown Triplett permanently returned when his playing days were done for the Chicago Cardinals in 1953.

It was to bustling Detroit.

"The city was unbelievable," he said. "Oh, man, everybody had jobs. You could have two or three like I did."

He sold insurance. He taught. He worked for Chrysler. He owned a liquor store "although I didn't drink," and also was hired for a time at Hazel Park Raceway. There was hardly anything Triplett didn't do after his football career.

One of his early role models was the great singer Paul Robeson, a football All-American. Robeson was someone Triplett looked up to so much that he considered attending Rutgers, Robeson's alma mater.

But it was to Penn State that Triplett won a Senatorial Scholarship for academics, not sports.

Though preferring soccer, Triplett was urged by a friend to try out for the football team — and made it.

He didn't anticipate playing beyond his college years, however.

"The NFL wasn't anything in those days," he said. "Kind of a joke, really.

"The Eagles used to train on our high school field and we'd stand around and watch. When the ball would come our way, I'd kick it back farther than any Eagles kicker could."

That was the soccer training, and talent, in Triplett. But his future would be football.

A pioneer, but no celebrity

Triplett never considered himself a football star, nor a celebrity.

"It wasn't like that at all," he said. "Joe Louis was a celebrity, not us. He was a good guy, too."

But the money in football was undeniably better than many other jobs.

"My father worked 12 months a year for a salary of $3,600," Triplett said. "My first contract was for $4,800. So he told me, 'Sign it, boy. They're going to pay you to play.' "

Following the 1950 season, Triplett was drafted again, this time into the military for the Korean War. He played in six games over two seasons for the Cardinals after returning in 1952.

That was yesterday, though. Long ago.

Today, the elderly gentleman moving slowly, but gracefully while bowling, is still an athlete. You can see that in his step and hear it in the strength of his voice.

He has kind, peaceful eyes and no lack of confidence about who he is.

"I'm proud of what I am and what I've done," Triplett said.

A pioneer to this day.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Tom_Gage

Breaking the barrier

Firsts for African-Americans in the National Football League:

First African-American in the NFL: In 1946, running back Kenny Washington of the L.A. Rams was the first African-American to sign an NFL contract.

First African-American Detroit Lion: Receiver Bob Mann signed a contract with the Lions in 1948.

First African-American drafted by an NFL team: In 1949, halfback George Taliaferro was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 13th round, but he didn't sign.

First African-American draftee to play in the NFL: Running back Wally Triplett was drafted in the 19th round by the Lions.

First African-American quarterback in the NFL: Willie Thrower of Michigan State in 1953 for the Chicago Bears.

First African-American referree: Johnny Grier in 1988.

First African-American head coach: Art Shell, Oakland Raiders, in 1989

Note: Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first African-Americans to play professional football in 1920 for Akron of the American Professional Football Association.

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