George Taliaferro, an All-American running back at Indiana University who was the first African-American drafted by a National Football League team, died Monday at a nursing home in Mason, Ohio. He was 91.
His son-in-law, Lorin Buckner, said the cause was heart failure.
After three seasons at the Bloomington campus at Indiana, Taliaferro had established himself as one of the top players in college football. Fast, strong and elusive, he played halfback, quarterback, defensive back and kicker on a team with several other African-Americans.
In 1945, he rushed for 719 yards and led the Hoosiers to an undefeated season and its only undisputed championship of the Big Ten Conference (which was also known then as the Western Conference). He was voted Indiana’s most valuable player in 1948.
Despite his success on the football field, Taliaferro could not live in a dorm, eat in the cafeteria or swim in the pool. But despite his early misgivings about staying at Indiana, he remained, in the knowledge that he would receive a good education there.
“The thing I liked most about football was hitting people,” he said in an interview for a documentary film, “George Taliaferro: Hoosier Legend” (2008). “It allowed me to vent my frustrations with being discriminated against in the United States.”
As the 1949 NFL draft approached — it was actually held late the previous year — Taliaferro thought he had little chance of being selected because so few blacks were playing in the league. Seeing the rival All-American Football Conference as more promising — it had moved faster to desegregate — he signed with the Los Angeles Dons, for a $4,000 bonus, a week before the NFL draft.
Shortly after the draft, Taliaferro happened to be in a bar in Chicago with other players. One of them, holding behind his back a newspaper with an article about the draft, asked the group if they could guess whom the Chicago Bears had selected. They began to name white players, but no one mentioned Taliaferro, or any other black player.
The answer was Taliaferro. The Bears — the team he had dared to dream of playing for while growing up nearby in Gary, Indiana — had chosen him in the 13th round, about halfway through the draft.
George Halas, the owner and coach of the Bears, lamented losing Taliaferro to the Los Angeles Dons, saying he was the first black player “I’ve felt could make the team.”
Integration was slowly coming to big-time sports. Kenny Washington ended the ban on African-American players in the NFL when he signed, without being drafted, with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946; a year later, Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a path followed that season by players like Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and Dan Bankhead. (Robinson and Washington had been teammates on the UCLA football team with Woody Strode, who also signed with the Rams in 1946.)
“The thing that bothers me to this day,” Taliaferro said in the documentary, reflecting on the delayed integration of pro football, “is that I can name for you any number — hundreds — of African-American players who could have played in the National Football League.”
Taliaferro was born Jan. 8, 1927, in Gates, Tennessee, and moved with his parents to Gary when he was very young. His father, Robert, worked in a steel mill and died in 1947 when he and his brother were apparently handling a shotgun that went off accidentally. His mother, Virnater Taliaferro, was a homemaker.
After his freshman season at Indiana, Taliaferro served in the Army at Camp Lee (now Fort Lee) in Petersburg, Virginia. The brigadier general in charge there ordered him to join the camp’s football team or go to Officer Candidate School, which required a three-year enlistment. Angered at the demand, he nonetheless agreed and, as he said in interviews, told the general, “I’ll see you after football practice!”
After two more years at Indiana he joined the Dons in 1949. After his successful rookie season, the AAFC merged with the NFL, and Taliaferro moved on, playing the next two seasons for the New York Yanks and then the Dallas Texans, the Baltimore Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles. He was extraordinarily versatile, playing quarterback, halfback, wide receiver, defensive back, punter, and punt and kick returner. He was an All-Pro three times.
But prejudice remained pervasive. He told the Dayton Daily News last year that while playing for the Colts in 1953, he heard the owner of the Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall, shout at him, using a racial slur, during a game that blacks “should never be allowed to do anything but push wheelbarrows!”
Taliaferro’s response, he said, was to score two touchdowns in a Colts victory.
He retired from football in 1955 and became a social worker in Baltimore and a dean at Morgan State University. He later returned to Bloomington as a special assistant to the president of Indiana University and an affirmative action coordinator. He also taught classes there in social work. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
He is survived by his wife, Viola (Jones) Taliaferro, a former Monroe County circuit court judge in Bloomington; his daughters Donna Taliaferro, Linda Harvey, Renée Buckner and Terri Johnson; a brother, Rozell; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Reflecting in the documentary on a life in which he dealt with racism often, Taliaferro said, “I have been and I remain a thorn in the sides of those who would think they are better than I am.”