You have probably never heard of George Taliaferro but you really should get to know him.
Taliaferro was a pro football pioneer, a running back who played the game in the leather helmet era. He was fast and he was elusive and he was also the first black player to be drafted by the National Football League.
That was in 1949 when George Halas, boss of the Chicago Bears decided that talent trumped color and went against the prevailing unwritten rules of the game by turning to an African-American running back from Indiana University.
How pervasive was football’s segregation rule? One day, George Preston Marshall, imperial owner of the Washington Redskins, proudly declared that members of Talliaferro’s race“ should never be allowed to do anything but push wheelbarrels’’
Taliaferro, it should be noted, did much more than that, Marshall’s opinion notwithstanding. He was a star first at Indiana University and then in pro football. And yet, the racism of America was never very far away.
He was the leading rusher on Indiana’s 1945 undefeated Big Ten championship team. At various times, he played quarterback, defensive back and kicker for the Hoosiers and was voted the team’s most valuable player in 1948. But he was barred from living in a dorm, eating in a cafeteria or swimming in the university pool. He came close to leaving the school but his parents insisted he tough it out.
At one point, a local restaurant refused to serve him until university president Herman Wells intervened and said he would make the eatery off-limits to the entire student body if the rule continued. The restaurant then changed its policy.
Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line two years after Taliaferro arrived at Indiana, had a similar experience while barnstorming with a team of black players. Their bus stopped for gas and a rest stop. The gas station proprietor refused to allow them to use the rest room. In that case, said Robinson, take the pump out of the gas tank. The rest room doors opened after that.
Finished at Indiana, Taliaferro faced a dilemma. The All America Football Conference, founded in 1946, was welcoming black players and the NFL was not. Taliaferro signed with the Los Angeles Dons and a week later, Halas broke with his partners and used the 129th pick of the NFL draft to pick the running back.
Taliaferro thought about returning his $4,000 signing bonus to go with the Bears but then remembered how his father had taught him to be a man of his word. He stayed with the Dons, rushing for 472 yards and passing for 790 and four touchdowns.
A year later, the AAFC merged with the NFL and Taliaferro played pro ball for six more seasons with teams in New York, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He never did get to play for the Bears.
He later earned a master’s degree at Howard, taught at Maryland, was dean of students at Morgan State and then returned to spend two decades in a variety of roles at Indiana. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981 and was a Pro Bowl choice from 1951-53 in the NFL.
George Taliaferro died last week at the age of 91.