Some men’s impact on the game of football are obvious. Their numbers tell their story. George Taliaferro was not that sort of man.
But that doesn’t mean there should not be a place for him in Canton, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, because that is a place for legends and for pioneers and in many ways, George Taliaferro was both.
In 1949, Taliaferro became the first African-American drafted by the NFL when the Chicago Bears took him on the 13th round. His success during his seven-year pro football career opened the door for some of the greatest players in NFL history to enter.
Four years before that historic day, Taliaferro had been a star running back at Indiana University on the only undefeated Hoosiers team in its history, the one in 1945 that went 9-0-1 with Taliaferro as its most productive tailback in a single-wing offense.
At the same time he was becoming a three-time All-American, Taliaferro was facing spirit-crushing racism on campus. He was not allowed to swim in the University pool, live in University dorms or eat in the school’s cafeterias. If he went to the movies there were many rows he was not allowed to sit in. They were the ones up front.
“I couldn’t do anything on campus but go to class and play football,’’ Taliaferro once said. “I felt like a fifth class citizen.’’
At one point not long after arriving in Bloomington, a disillusioned Taliaferro called his father, who worked in a Gary, IND. steel mill all his life and told him he was coming home to join him. His Dad did not hesitate.
“Then you should cross your arms across your chest and lie down and die because I never had the kinds of opportunities that you are going to have," Robert Taliaferro told his son in the way only men who understood the truth of those dark words could say it. Then he hung up the phone.
George Taliaferro stayed, rushed for 719 yards in 1945 and led the undefeated Hoosiers to the only outright Big Ten Title in school history. The following year he would be drafted into the Army and was given two options. He could play on the base football team and be out in a year or go to Officer Candidate School and serve three years. Taliaferro told his commanding officer, “See you after football practice.’’
Taliaferro returned to Indiana in 1947 and again become an All-American. Two years later he would accomplish much more.
While sitting in a Chicago restaurant with friends in 1949, Taliaferro learned his boyhood team, the Bears, had made him a trailblazer. But there was a problem.
Although Taliaferro understood the impact of being the first African-American ever drafted by an NFL team, he also knew he had a week earlier signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-American Football Conference, a league far more inviting to black players in those days.
Truth be told, he’d signed because there was no logical reason for him to think he might be drafted by an NFL team because, well, no black player ever had been. Yet even though he would not be able to play for the Bears, Taliaferro realized immediately what the newspaper headline in Chicago that day meant.
“I understood precisely what it meant,’’ Taliaferro once said. “It meant other African-American players would have an opportunity that would have never been present. It was simply an idea whose time had come.’’
A year later, the All-America Conference merged with the NFL but Taliaferro was still not free to join the Bears. Although he never did play for George Halas, he lasted seven years in pro football, the last six in the NFL. Truth be told, if you went by what he actually did on the field, he probably played the equivalent of 15 years.
Taliaferro, at one time or another, played seven different positions in the NFL – quarterback, running back, wide receiver, kick returner, punt returner, punter and defensive back. As he once put it, “When I came off the field the game was over.’’
Taliaferro was named to three Pro Bowls in those six NFL seasons but what he accomplished after retiring in 1955 perhaps said more about him. He went on to earn graduate degrees and became first a social worker in Baltimore and later dean of students at Morgan State and a professor and assistant to the president back home at Indiana, where he also served as affirmative action coordinator in the 1970s.
Throughout his life, George Taliaferro had a love affair with football not simply because of what he could do on the field (which was plenty), but also what it allowed him to do. It allowed him to escape onto perhaps the only level playing field he could find back in the 1940s, when discrimination and racism were virulent and rampant.
“The thing I liked most about football was hitting people,’’ Taliaferro once explained. “It allowed me to vent my frustrations with being discriminated against in the United States.”
George Taliaferro has a Hall of Fame story and arguably a Hall of Fame career built at a time when few African-Americans had such opportunities. It was Taliaferro who blazed a trail on football fields in Indiana and then around the National Football League while becoming among the best all-around players of his day.
Hall of Famer? You be the judge of that but one thing is clear. If there’s a contributor’s category in Canton, which there is, how many guys contributed more to the growth and success of the NFL t