Defensive stands by Penn State's Nittany Lions are well-documented through the years, but, perhaps, no stance had as much impact on the noted university, and college football for that matter, than the one the 1946 football team took off the field.
Twenty years of so before anti-segregation initiatives and laws reached their height in the Martin Luther King era, the Nittany Lions' said "no thanks" to the University of Miami when they were invited to play in an intersectional game in the South but were told to leave the two African-Americans on their team at State College.
"That stand reverberated around the country," recalled Joe Sarabok, a native of Lansford who was a member of the Lions' squad coached by Bob Higgins at the time. The Lions had two African-Americans (Wally Triplett and Dennis Hoggard) on their team, but there was no way their teammates were heading to Miami given the fact that the invitation to play was conditional.
"If they didn't go, we didn't go," Sarabok said of the team's reaction after members were called to Old Main on campus where it was explained to them Miami's position on the invitation. "The Miami administration called and said they were waiting and welcoming us, but that they (Triplett and Hoggard) could not come," said Sarabok, "The coaches wanted to go," he remembered, "but by unanimous vote, the players (they had 58 at the time) said 'no'. There was no doubt in anybody's mind that it was an all-or-none situation and so the game was canceled."
Fifty-three years later, the members of the that team and the 1948 Cotton Bowl squad were honored at halftime of the Minnesota game played Oct. 17 at Beaver Stadium. Only 14 of them survive, 10 of which were able to attend, but the weekend festivities hosted by the Penn State Alumni Association, Sarabok said, were warmly accepted fittings for a team many felt is PSU's most unrecognized team.
"Nobody was treated any greater or any better than what we were treated," said Sarabok, now 83 and a resident of Palmrya. "We appreciated it, because in addition to being undefeated, we believed and still believe that what happened that year was an important time in this country. We all feel this team was way ahead of Martin Luther King. Our stance opened up a whole new barrier at that time. We feel this team and this university was one of the forerunners in really what happened in the future."
Barely more than a year later, the '47 Lions went 9-0 before playing SMU to a 13-13 tie in the 1948 Cotton Bowl, when it became the first team to play an interracial football game in Texas. Unfortunately, at that time, their two Negro players were not allowed in the same hotels as their white teammates, and so the entire team stayed at the nearby Dallas Air Naval Training Base.
The Lions finished No. 4 in the country and allowed just 27 points all season. Its defense allowed just 17 rushing yards per game and held Syracuse to minus-42 yards on the ground, which still stands as an NCAA record.
Triplett, their star runningback, eventually became the first black athlete to start for a professional football team (Detroit Lions).
As for the reunion last month in State College, Sarabok said, "It was Homecoming, and that made it special."
The weekend theme was "Remembering the Lion Within," with subtheme being "Celebrating Past Leaders," according to Roger Williams, executive director of the alumni association. In a message to the Cotton Bowl team of '48, he said, "You, your coaches and teammates share a rich legacy in the annals of Penn State football history and we are honored to recognize your leadership during the Homecoming, especially the leadership the team showed in striking a blow for social justice by deciding to 'play all or none' during the 1946 and 1947 seasons."
The weekend included participation in the Homecoming parade, the pep rally, where Sarabok and Triplett were speakers, socials and the teammates being guests of President Graham Spanier in his Beaver Stadium suite.
Sarabok graduated in 1944 from the former Lansford High School, where the '43 Panthers were undefeated and outscored their opponents by a margin of 397-18. He and teammate Joe Chuckran began studies in February 1944 at PSU, before returning to Lansford to receive their diplomas.
An Associate Press First Team All State lineman (along with another lineman, Paul Kucan), Sarabok later served in the Navy and was discharged in '46, returning to PSU to play until he graduated in 1950.
He retired as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Lederley Laboratories in 1991 after working there for 35 years. In 1994, he was inducted into the Carbon County Chapter of the Sports Hall of Fame.