Roosevelt alumnus first Black drafted in NFL
By Giavonni Nickson
As a part of its Bicentennial year celebration, Indiana University (IU) honored the life and legacy of Gary IN native George Taliaferro.
IU recently renamed the North End Zone Plaza at Memorial Stadium and unveiled a bronze statue of Taliaferro which chronicles his lifetime achievements. In a press release, Indiana University called Taliaferro one of the most important and influential individuals in the history of Indiana University and IU athletics.
IU President Michael A. McRobbie presided over the ceremony for the newly dedicated George Taliaferro Plaza and bronze statue unveiling. McRobbie presented the Indiana University Bicentennial medal to the Taliaferro family. The Indiana football team also honored Taliaferro by wearing his number 44 on the left side of its football helmets.
“George Taliaferro was a true revolutionary for college and pro football,” said Chris Beaty, former IU football player. “From not being allowed to live on campus because of his color to being the first Black player the NFL drafted, he gave hope to a whole generation that followed him. It’s an honor and a privilege to see his legacy preserved by the Indiana football program.”
IU legend George Taliaferro prevailed against a backdrop of the racial segregation experienced in pre-World War II Gary, IN when African Americans could not go north of 15th Avenue after dusk, or shop in the downtown stores. The racial segregation in Bloomington, IN was even more jarring upon his arrival in 1945.
In a 2015 interview with Gregg Doyel, Taliaferro stated that when he reported to IU he couldn’t swim in the pool, live in the dorm or eat in the cafeteria. He could attend movies, but only on weekends, and only if he sat in the balcony, away from the white people. With courage and perseverance, Taliaferro used sports to rupture racial barriers.
As a three-time All-American and cornerstone of the IU football team, Taliaferro led the Hoosiers’ unbeaten 1945 Big Ten championship team in rushing. He would go on to lead the program in rushing twice and passing once.
His on-field battles against fierce opponents continued off the field as he fought to help desegregate both IU’s campus and the Bloomington community.
During the 1940s, when IU President Herman B. Wells found out that Taliaferro had to return home between classes because no nearby restaurants would serve him, Wells arranged for the two to have lunch at a nearby campus establishment. Wells and Taliaferro had lunch, and IU and the Bloomington community took a giant step toward desegregation.
Taliaferro overcame countless obstacles and used his life lessons to plant seeds of inspiration for generations of IU student-athletes that would follow.
“I met Mr. Taliaferro on several occasions when he came to talk to our football team. His talks were inspirational and practical. Mr. Taliaferro shared the challenges that he had to overcome when he played football at Indiana University, and why it was a necessity for all athletes to graduate, especially the African American athletes. It was an honor to know a living legend,” said Duane D. Stone, former IU football defensive back 1999-2003.
While Taliaferro’s football prowess speaks for itself, his life off the field and commitment to mentorship was unmatched.
“Brother Taliaferro was a legend on and off the field. He and his wife used to host us during my time playing at IU. It was an honor to have him invest in us by sharing stories about his time at IU, using football as a platform, and generally about being a man. I remember being in awe that someone so accomplished prioritized pouring into others. He modeled how we all have a responsibility to pay it forward,” said William Lumpkin, former IU football defensive back and captain 2001-2005.
Taliaferro’s lasting impact on the lives of students and athletes sparked the creation of the George Taliaferro Sport Association (GTSA) on the IU Bloomington campus that works to maximize diversity and inclusion within all sports communities.
The organization’s co-founder Jovan Williams said, “George believed that together everyone achieves more no matter your race, religion, or social class. GTSA and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. will continue to make sure his name is remembered and his legacy lives on.”
Following the 1948 collegiate season, Taliaferro became the first African-American drafted by an NFL team when the Chicago Bears selected him in the 13th round. He was also the league’s second African American quarterback. In the NFL, he played seven years and earned Pro Bowl honors three times.
Taliaferro paved the way during the Jim Crow era breaking the color barrier for athletes with professional football aspirations. He totaled 2,255 rushing yards, 1,300 receiving yards, 1,633 passing yards and accounted for 37 touchdowns while playing for franchises in New York, Dallas, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. He also became the only player in league history to play seven positions – running back, quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, punter, punt returner and kickoff returner.
Much of Taliaferro’s legacy is highlighted by what he accomplished in the NFL, but the strength of his legacy lies in the lasting impact he left throughout each stage of his life
Earl Smith, retired Gary School Corporation athletic director, decorated coach, and Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame Inductee, recalled the impact Taliaferro had on him as a young high school student.
“As a kid coming up we always strived to emulate George because he was a role model. I appreciate that he would always come back and serve as a mentor to a lot of us.”
Smith smiled and laughed about one of his favorite memories at the end of an all-star game Taliaferro played in.
“I can remember when I was in high school, he played in the all-star game. After the game, he gave us his helmet, shoulder pads, and jersey. I think I wore his helmet all the way back home and didn’t want to take it off,” said Smith.
Taliaferro’s contributions did not end at the conclusion of his playing career. He later earned a Master’s Degree from Howard University. He advised prisoners adjusting to society upon their release, taught at Maryland, was dean of students at Morgan State, returned to Indiana as a professor and special assistant to IU president John Ryan, and helped start Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central Indiana in Bloomington.
Taliaferro, who passed away October 8, 2018, at the age of 91, left an indelible mark on the lives of all he touched. Coupled with his groundbreaking sports achievements, he was a true humanitarian.
Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.