“I cannot believe I let her talk me into this,” I thought as I crutched across Indiana University’s vast campus to an 8 a.m. Introduction to Social Work class. My roommate hadn’t let up until I agreed to sign up for it. Not a morning person, I typically avoided early morning classes, especially electives. When I hobbled into the room, though, it became clear why she had been so insistent.
George Taliaferro looked at me as I came through the door, and a huge grin opened on his face. “Well, there’s one hung low!” he said, noticing my crutches. His warmth and personality were evident from the start, and his passion for education and compassion became evident soon after. He wrote “All Sickness Ain’t Death” on the board before every exam. I had no idea at the time how appropriate that phrase was for his life.
My other roommate took his class at my urging the next semester, and the three of us remained in contact with him after graduation. He had been such an influence in all of our lives; my roommates had even changed their majors to social work. However, none of us knew - because he had never mentioned it - that Taliaferro was also an important NFL trailblazer. “It had nothing to do with social work,” he told me when I asked why he had never shared his history.
It turned out that George Taliaferro had played football for Indiana University (IU), and as a freshman had led the team to an undefeated season and uncontested Big Ten Championship. Despite being recruited by IU, he was not permitted to live or eat on campus due to segregation. Still, he was a starter. Neither Purdue nor Notre Dame had black players yet, and other schools stacked black players behind white starters. Indiana coach Bo McMillin did not see color and often battled segregation for his black players.
Taliaferro dominated on both sides of the ball, playing seven positions in all, including quarterback. In what would have been his senior year if the Army draft would not have interfered,Taliaferro made the decision to go pro and finish his education in the offseason. His father had suddenly passed away, and he wanted to help his mom. He made a verbal commitment to the Los Angeles Dons of the All America Football Conference and then a childhood dream came true.
While dining with friends in Chicago, another friend joined the group, newspaper hidden behind his back, prompting the men to guess who had been drafted into the NFL. They all threw out the names of white players. Finally, the newspaper was held up to reveal that George Taliaferro had been drafted by the Chicago Bears. With that, in 1949 George Taliaferro became the first black man drafted by an NFL team. A man of his word, he opted to stay with the Dons, but ended up in the NFL when the two leagues later combined.
Dawn is the author of Taliaferro, Foreward Magazine’s 2007 Sports Book of the Year. An English teacher at Westfield High School, she earned a BS degree in education/English from Indiana University and a Master’s degree in journalism from Ball State University. She is an avid Colts fan.