Last week, I wrote about the history of Penn State’s commonwealth campuses. I mentioned the time-honored phrase, “We Are Penn State,” and how, despite being spread out across the state, we are still united as a university. Now all of this is fine and good and poetic, but it got me thinking: where exactly does the phrase “We Are Penn State” come from? It couldn’t have simply popped into someone’s head, and then magically spread itself out to every corner of the Penn State universe overnight.
So I decided to answer that question this week. The origin story of “We Are Penn State” took me by surprise– It’s a story of overcoming prejudice, celebrating community, and repping good old Penn State pride. Let’s start at the beginning: La Mott, Pennsylvania in the 1940s.
That’s where Wally Triplett, one of the first starting African American players for Penn State football, grew up. His father worked in a postal office La Mott, which was an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. La Mott was an integrated suburb, which contrasted the harsh discrimination that occurred inside Philly’s limits. That’s why when Triplett received a scholarship offer from the University of Miami to play football in 1946, he wasn’t surprised. “It was thought by the University of Miami that I was white,” said Triplett in an interview with Penn State’s African American Chronicles.
The University of Miami was a segregated school, so that meant there was no possible way for Triplett to play as a Hurricane. Triplett explained to the University of Miami why he could not accept their offer, and the school immediately rescinded their offer.
Instead, Triplett decided to attend Penn State in 1945. Not only was the University integrated (by the way, the University of Miami wasn’t integrated until 1961), but Triplett was also attracted to the success of the athletic programs at Penn State. “I was aware of the great footballs teams that they had and also the teams that they were going to have,” said Triplett in that same interview.
Triplett took the field for the first time in 1945 playing against Michigan State. When the schedule for the 1946 season was announced, Triplett noticed a familiar name on the line-up. Sure enough, Penn State was set to play the University of Miami in the coming season.
The Nittany Lions didn’t touch the issue of playing a segregated team until halfway through the season. But slowly, more and more people started to question what the team would decide about the game. Several opinion columns appeared in The Daily Collegian, begging the team to make a decision. Much to everyone’s surprise, the coaches allowed the football players themselves to vote on whether to play the University of Miami.
Even more to everyone’s surprise, the team voted to cancel the game against the University of Miami. “Out of that came a team more unified in 1946 and 1947,” said Triplett. “That team was actually going toward an undefeated season because we had that spirit that came from the decision to not play against Miami.”
Fast forward to 1948, when the Nittany Lions were playing well enough to be bowl game eligible. Now back in that time, there were only four bowls– and only one that allowed black players. That bowl was the Rose Bowl, for which Penn State was not eligible.
That should have been the end of the bowl game discussion for Penn State, but they were selected to compete in the 1948 Cotton Bowl against Southern Methodist University. That meant that to take the bowl field, no black players could play during the game. Before the Cotton Bowl, Penn State was rumored to be meeting with Southern Methodist to discuss the removal of African Americans for the bowl game.
Obviously, the idea of those meetings didn’t bode well with Triplett, who was the first African American to earn a varsity letter at Penn State; and he wasn’t the only one. Team captain Steve Suhey was against of the meetings with SMU. It was because of his opposition to the bowl game meetings that Suhey uttered the arguably four most recognizable words in all of Penn State: “We are Penn State. There will be no meetings.”
Yup, you read that right. One of our most famous sayings was, essentially, an offhand comment made by a football player. It ended up ringing true, as Triplett was able to play against SMU in 1948. In fact, he scored the tying touchdown in the bowl game.
Surprisingly, Triplett doesn’t remember the comment as anything special. “The way it came about was one of the most insignificant answers, seemingly,” said Triplett. But we all know the old saying: things aren’t always what they seem. Because now, it’s hard to walk downtown during a football weekend or go on a campus tour without hearing that “insignificant answer” somewhere.
It’s because the sentiment behind that simple comment is much, much deeper. It speaks to the true nature of a Penn Stater. We are a fierce breed, compelled to make every fellow Nittany Lion feel appreciated and respected. Even though Steve Suhey probably wasn’t thinking those impassioned ideas when he first said, “We are Penn State,” it is still true. We really are Penn State.