George Taliaferro Turning Adversity into Advantage

George Taliaferro Turning Adversity into Advantage

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Earlier this week a brief headline appeared “Pioneer George Taliaferro passed away at age 91, first African American drafted by an NFL Team”. Nice story for sure but needs a bit of explanation. No, it wasn’t Fritz Pollard, the first African American to play in the NFL in 1920?

While both stories are true, there was no draft in when the league was founded in 1920. NFL teams could sign anyone. It was complete free agency. At first, this was not a problem, because frankly, not many college stars were playing professional football. There wasn’t enough money to make it worth their time.

By 1936, to make the league more competitive, the NFL implemented its first draft, which was held in Philadelphia. It took 13 years before the league drafted its first African American. George Taliaferro, Indiana’s star running back, a three time All American, was selected by the Chicago Bears in the 13th round of the 1949 NFL Draft.

Although drafted by the NFL’s Chicago Bears, he did not play for them. Taliaferro had already signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All-American Football Conference. The Gary, Indiana star, who had received a $4,000 signing bonus from the Dons, considered joining the Bears, but his mother reminded him that one of his family’s core values was trustworthiness.

‘‘I had to be a man of my word,’’ Taliaferro told the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. ‘‘So, I never even bothered getting back to George Halas and the Bears.’’

Therefore, the distinction of the first African American drafted by an NFL franchise to actually PLAY in the NFL goes to Wally Triplett. Triplett, a halfback from Penn State, was also selected in the 1949 draft. He was chosen by the Detroit Lions in the nineteenth round and played with the Lions for two seasons (1949-50) and then two more seasons with the Chicago Cardinals (1952-53).

For George Taliaferro, being a trailblazer in the NFL was only a footnote for a man of character, who truly led a remarkable life. He visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 and shared his values and incredible story during a Black History Month program.

While at Indiana, he fought the shackles of race discrimination. During his time at Indiana, Taliaferro became an advocate for widespread desegregation. He along with the University President, protested that he be allowed to eat in a restaurant called “the Gables” on campus. He watched as the university president call the restaurant and told the owner he and Taliaferro would be dining there for lunch that day. The owner balked at the idea.

“Dr. Wells, very matter-of-factly, said, ‘Then I’ll have to make your restaurant off limits to all students.’ Case closed,” Taliaferro recalled in that WTIU documentary. “All of the restaurants (around the University of Indiana Campus) were integrated in that one fell swoop.”

Taliaferro took more direct action with the Princess Theatre near the Bloomington square. One Tuesday afternoon, Taliaferro bought a ticket to attend a movie in the balcony marked by a “Colored” sign, knowing that it was closed on Tuesdays.

“In full daylight I removed two screws and took that sign down," Taliaferro told IndyStar’s Gregg Doyel in a 2015 interview. "And then I sat downstairs and watched a movie."

Taliaferro kept that sign for the rest of his life.

“He was a very courageous man,” said Dawson Fletcher, an IU football player (2012-16) who was close with Taliaferro. “He was born to do exactly what he did.”

After football, he worked higher education as dean of students at Morgan State in Baltimore, as special assistant to then-IU president John Ryan, as chancellor and then dean of the School of Social Work at IUPUI

Throughout his academic career, Taliaferro used his platform and his life experiences to advocate in the Bloomington community. He encouraged diversity across his alma mater and mentored young people.

“Going back to the 1970s, George Taliaferro was out there doing a lot of community kind of work for Indiana University to promote diversity long before the term was in common use,” said Charlie Nelms, a former IU vice president who also served as chancellor at North Carolina Central University. “I think he used his athletic talents and abilities as a platform to do some things that were much greater than athletics.

“I think you see some athletes doing that today, but George was one of the first African-American athletes to do that. One of the first athletes to do that, period.”

Taliaferro spent two years in the military where he met his wife Vi, a lawyer, and they were married for 67 years. Both were honored by Indiana University with Distinguished Alumni Service Awards, the university’s highest accolade reserved for alumni.

And their community engagement rarely stopped with IU, George Taliaferro was instrumental in the formation of the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington. “They were the perfect couple,” said Mark Deal, an IU assistant athletic director whose father played with Taliaferro in college. “They worked so hard for kids and worked so hard to give folks a chance in this town.”

As news of Taliaferro’s passing spread Tuesday morning, community and university figures rushed to send condolences. Current IU President Michael McRobbie ordered flags across campus lowered to half-staff through the impending homecoming weekend. Indiana’s players will face Iowa on Saturday with Taliaferro’s No. 44 on the sides of their helmets, rather than the traditional IU logo.

Taliaferro’s legacy lives on in countless ways. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. He was honored with a humanitarian award from the Big Ten in 2011. His name remains on the George Taliaferro Sport Association, a campus organization dedicated to diversity and inclusion in sports on IU’s Bloomington campus.

At every turn, George Taliaferro turned adversity into an advantage and passed those lessons on to thousands. Today, we at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Celebrate His Legacy of Excellence Everywhere.

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