By Christian Milcos and Tom He
Wally Triplett and the 1948 Penn State football team made sports history when the squad rallied around Triplett to ensure that he would be able to play in the Cotton Bowl against Southern Methodist University.
Triplett became the first African-American to play in the Cotton Bowl, which was hosted in Texas. He went on to score the game-winning touchdown to break a 13-13 tie in the fourth quarter.
Jim Voigt, longtime Beaver Stadium employee, said the Cotton Bowl and the NCAA frowned upon allowing African-Americans to play in the Cotton Bowl, as Texas was still segregated at the time. However, Penn State banded together to make sure that the whole squad would make the trip to Dallas. In addition, Voigt said the team threatened to not participate in the game if all their healthy players were not allowed to take the field.
It is rumored that during a meeting debating whether or not the Nittany Lions should participate in the contest, team captain Steve Suhy was the first to utter the words, “We are Penn State.” He then went on to say there would be no more meetings on the eligibility of Triplett.
The legitimacy of this folklore is discussed to this day. Museum director Ken Hickman said the story of Triplett has “utterly no connection whatsoever” to the “we are Penn State” chant.
“The research has been done,” Hickman said. “The chant’s history goes back to the school’s cheerleading squad in the 1970s.”
He said even though a similar phrase may have uttered by someone at the meeting, the chant was ultimately popularized in the ’70s.
“It would be great if there was that established connection, but its really a matter of coincidence more than anything,” Hickman said.
However, with no cameras being readily available to capture the events that transpired at that famous 1948 meeting, others prefer to leave it as an unsolved mystery.
“It (Triplett’s story) is a huge part of the rumor of the origin of the chant part,” Hickman said. “It is certainly an important part of Penn State sports with all the players on that team standing up as one in the action that they took.
The mystery of the “We are Penn State” chant may go forever unsolved, but the stance Penn State took in the late ’40s was a stepping stone in fully integrating college sports.
Penn State football had become notorious for breaking racial barriers during the formative years of college football. The team voted to cancel their trip to Miami to face the Hurricanes the season prior to the controversial Cotton Bowl appearance. In addition, the town and university were able to influence the NCAA to allow blacks and whites to play as one team in the first ever integrated Cotton Bowl.
Triplett then went on to become the third African-American player drafted and the first to take the field during an NFL game, representing Penn State to the fullest during both milestones. Triplett’s story is still told to this day as ESPN recently featured him in a documentary simply titled “We Are.” He continuously gives back to the school that allowed him to live out his dream, by attending football practices and games every fall at 90-years-old.
Triplett and the 1948 Penn State football team may not be as well-known as teams such as the undefeated 1969 and 1994 squads. Despite this, the Bob Higgins-coached 1948 team broke barriers and changed the college football status quo in the South. They truly embodied the phrase, “We are Penn State.”