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George Taliaferro, first African-American ever taken in NFL draft, dies at 91

By Zach Osterman, Indianapolis Star

George Taliaferro, an All-American at Indiana and a trailblazer for African-Americans in football, has died. He was 91.

A cornerstone of the 1945 Indiana football team, the only team in program history to go undefeated, Taliaferro starred at running back for the Hoosiers.

More than that, Taliaferro was the first African-American ever drafted by an NFL team. The Chicago Bears picked him in the 13th round of the 1949 NFL draft, and Taliaferro played from 1949-55 with franchises in both the old NFL, and the All-America Football Conference.

While at Indiana, Taliaferro led the Hoosiers in passing, rushing and punting during different seasons. He became the first African-American to lead the Big Ten in rushing, in 1945, and he helped that IU team finish 9-0-1, its only blemish a 7-7 tie against Northwestern early in the season.

That team outscored opponents 140-6 in its final four games.

Taliaferro is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

From Gregg Doyel’s 2015 column on Taliaferro’s amazing life:

When he reported to IU in 1945 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.

“I couldn’t do … anything … on … campus but attend class and play football,” he says.

George called his father in 1945 and told Robert Taliaferro he was coming home to Gary, maybe to work alongside his father in the tin mill at the US Steel Corp. A few years earlier, when George was still at Gary Roosevelt High, he told his father — a foreman at the tin mill — that he wanted to be just like him.

“Then you should cross your arms across your chest and lie down and die,” Robert told him. “Because I never had the kinds of opportunities that you are going to have.”

The Chicago Bears drafted Taliaferro in 1949, making him the first African-American ever selected. But the All-American Football Conference years earlier had opened its doors to African-American players, and he already had agreed to play for the Los Angeles Dons — and while the Bears were his favorite team growing up 30 miles away in Gary, Taliaferro had given his word to the Dons.

“I … never … played for the Chicago Bears,” he says.

He did damn near everything else. He played seven seasons of pro football, six in the NFL with New York, Dallas, Baltimore and Philadelphia, three times making the Pro Bowl. He became a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Baltimore, advised prisoners adjusting to society upon their release, got his master’s in social work at Howard University, 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.

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