DALLAS — The men who changed college football here at the Cotton Bowl are nearly all gone.
Those who played in one of Penn State’s most important football games. The ones who watched it. Those who recorded it.
On that cloudless but frigid New Year’s Day in 1948, the Nittany Lions became the first Cotton Bowl team ever with African-American players — the first to play any such high-profile college game in racially segregated Texas.
It happened just nine months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Penn State, with black players Wally Triplett and Dennis Hoggard, fired a shot in the long-standing battle to desegregate all of college football.
On Saturday, those men and that team will be honored when Penn State plays Memphis in the Cotton Bowl in AT&T Stadium.
Coach James Franklin met with Triplett a few years ago and he briefed his current Lions on the history and impact of that 1947-48 team.
Receiver KJ Hamler said he did his own research. Triplett was Penn State’s first black star and became the first African-American to play in an NFL game with the Detroit Lions. Hamler grew up near Detroit.
“It’s crazy how far we’ve come from that time to now, and we wouldn’t be the team we are without him,” Hamler said.
“The history” Franklin said, “is significant. And I think you can make the argument it’s not just those two guys. It’s how the whole team and how the whole community kind of rallied behind those guys.”
One of Penn State’s best football teams
That 1947 team was certainly one of the most important in school history. It also may have been one of the best, particularly on defense.
Just being invited to play in the Cotton Bowl was a significant landmark for the program. It was only their second bowl game ever and first in 25 years. The Lions were undefeated against a daunting schedule and were truly making a national name for themselves for the first time.
But this game only came about because of the unity and beliefs of the players and coaches involved.
The No. 4 Nittany Lions had turned down a game at Miami the previous year after Miami officials discouraged them from bringing their two black players.
Meanwhile, undefeated and No. 3 SMU wanted the best bowl game opponent possible, and coach Matty Bell supported integration of the sport. He helped convince Cotton Bowl officials to invite the Lions.
“We have no objections ourselves” to playing against black athletes, Bell told The Dallas Morning News. “After all, we’re supposed to live in a democracy.”
Still, Penn State would have to deal with brutal Jim Crow laws that gripped Southern states. Dallas hotels would not house Triplett and Hoggard, forcing the Penn State team to stay and prepare for the game at a Naval base 14 miles outside the city.
Consider that many college teams in the Deep South would not allow black players for another two decades.
But this match-up would tantalize far beyond the two universities and fan bases involved, and for more than its racial implications.
SMU featured running back Doak Walker, a national phenomenon, who would win the Heisman Trophy the following year and would have a national award named after him.
The game was a quick sellout in the old 43,000-seat stadium. And it certainly lived up to its billing.
Walker and SMU dominated early, scored the first two touchdowns and nearly led by more. Only a Triplett tackle before halftime prevented a Mustangs kickoff return from going the distance.
That sparked the bigger and better-conditioned Lions to take over early in the third quarter.
Triplett caught a short TD pass and tied the score, 13-13, in the third (both team missed extra points).
No one would score again.
Penn State nearly pulled out the dramatic victory on a last-second pass into the end zone, but Hoggard could not pull in the deflected ball.
A history-making meal at SMU
And nearly 72 years later, a few are still around to talk about what it means.
What these men in their 80s and 90s remember most now, interestingly enough, is what happened after the game.
The players from the two teams showered at the old Cotton Bowl stadium and then traveled across town to share a quiet dinner in SMU’s student center. It was a fitting way to conclude a momentous day of coming together.
SMU’s Frank Payne Jr., who turns 92 in February, sat next to Hoggard at the dinner “and we just talked like two college students. I don’t think we looked at it then as a big deal.
“We played our heart out in that game.”
Gerry York was a fan attending the game. He turns 84 next month and has long served as SMU’s football historian.
To the SMU players, “It was a football game. I don’t think any of those guys gave it a thought” that they were making history, he said. “They had more on their minds than what color the guy was on the other side of the field.”
That unity is what still sticks with Brad Bradley, who photographed that game and hasn’t missed a Cotton Bowl since. He’s 97.
“It definitely changed the entire landscape” of college football, he said last week.
The game unfolded into the dinner and then, of course, into so much more.
Walker and Triplett, for example, became NFL teammates in Detroit and, more importantly, good friends.