BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — George Taliaferro, the star Indiana running back who in 1949 became the first black player drafted in the NFL when George Halas and the Chicago Bears took him in the 13th round, has died. He was 91.
The university spoke with Taliaferro’s family about his death in Mason, Ohio, senior associate athletic director Jeremy Gray said Tuesday. Other details were not disclosed.
He was the leading rusher on Indiana’s 1945 Big Ten championship team that went 9-0-1, the only undefeated team in school history. During his four years in Bloomington he led the Hoosiers in rushing twice and passing once.
It wasn’t an easy transition — the segregation in Bloomington was jarring — and Taliaferro told the Indianapolis Star he once called his father in Gary, Indiana, and suggested he might come home and work together in one of the U.S. Steel plants. His dad wouldn’t hear of it.
“I lay awake all night trying to figure … out … why … he wouldn’t help me,” Taliaferro told the Star. “And it came to me: That for the first 18 years of my life, every day I left my father and mother’s house to go to school, they told me two things: ‘We love you; you must be educated.’ It came to me that the other reason for my being at Indiana University … on the campus at Bloomington … Indiana — was to be educated.”
Indiana said university President Herman Wells once intervened with a local restaurant to make sure he and Taliaferro would be able to eat there. When the manager balked, Wells said he would make the restaurant off limits to the student body and the manager relented.
The Bears selected Taliaferro with the 129th overall pick — a potential dream come true for the Gary native who grew up following the Bears. The problem was that Taliaferro had signed a week before the draft with the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All America Football Conference, which had welcomed black players since its debut in 1946.
Taliaferro told the Dayton Daily News last year he thought about returning his $4,000 signing bonus to the Dons in hopes it would clear the way for an NFL career, but then spoke with his mother.
“She said, ‘What did you promise your father?'” Taliaferro told the Dayton Daily News. “I knew right away. I had to be a man of my word, so I never even bothered getting back to George Halas and the Bears.”
Taliaferro rushed for 472 yards and five touchdowns and passed for another 790 yards and four scores in his rookie season with the Dons in 1949. The AAFC merged with the NFL the following season and Taliaferro ended up with the New York Yanks for the 1950 season. Taliaferro rushed for 411 yards and four touchdowns and caught another 21 passes for 299 yards and five scores for the Yanks, leading the team in touchdowns and helping them to a 7-5 record.
Taliaferro spent five more years in the NFL. He totaled 2,266 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 lined up at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, punter, kick returner, punt returner and defensive back.
Taliaferro later earned a master’s degree at Howard University, taught at Maryland and served as dean of students at Morgan State. At Indiana, he also spent two decades serving his alma mater in a number of capacities, including as a special assistant to the president, IUPUI chancellor and dean of School of Social Work. He was also active in helping the Children’s Organ Transplant Association.
Flags on the Bloomington campus were lowered to half-staff through this weekend’s homecoming game against Iowa. Taliaferro’s No. 44 will replace the traditional logo on Indiana players’ helmets for the game and there will be a moment of silence before kickoff.
“He was a mentor to me, and, like all great mentors, was often one who was appropriately challenging me,” athletic director Fred Glass said. “Simply put, he was a great man and will be greatly missed.”
Indiana said Taliaferro is survived by his wife of 67 years, Viola, and two daughters.
Funeral arrangements were pending.