George Taliaferro, a star football player who led Indiana University to its only undefeated season in 1945 and who in 1949 became the first black player drafted in the NFL, died Oct. 8 in Mason, Ohio. He was 91.
Indiana University’s senior associate athletic director, Jeremy Gray, announced the death, but other details were not disclosed.
After a standout high school career in Gary, Ind., Mr. Taliaferro became one of the few black players at Indiana, where he led the Hoosiers in rushing twice and passing once. During his freshman season in 1945, he was the leading rusher on a team that went 9-0-1 and won the Big Ten championship.
In his first game, at Michigan, he scored a touchdown to lead Indiana to a 13-7 victory. During the Hoosiers’ 49-0 win over Minnesota, Mr. Taliaferro scored three touchdowns, including one on an 82-yard interception return and another on a 95-yard kickoff return.
He finished the season with 719 rushing yards. He missed the 1946 season while serving in the Army, but he returned to play in 1947 and 1948. He led the Hoosiers in rushing and passing in 1948 and in punting three times. He also played defensive back.
He was a three-time all-American and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
Despite his success on the gridiron, Mr. Taliaferro had a difficult time adjusting to campus life in Bloomington. When a restaurant refused to serve him, the university president intervened and told the manager that unless the policy was changed, the university would declare the restaurant off-limits to every student.
At one point, Mr. Taliaferro told the Indianapolis Star, he called his father to tell him he wanted to return to Gary and work in a steel plant.
“For the first 18 years of my life,” he said, “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 . . . was to be educated.”
In 1949, Mr. Taliaferro was drafted in the 13th round by the Chicago Bears, making him the first African American player selected by an NFL team. He never played for the Bears, however, having signed a week before the draft with the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All-America Football Conference (AAFC), which had fielded integrated teams since 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers broke the major league’s color barrier. (Other African Americans had played on integrated professional teams during the first three decades of the 20th century before the NFL was segregated in the 1930s.)
Last year, Mr. Taliaferro told the Dayton Daily News that he thought about returning his $4,000 signing bonus to the Dons to sign instead with the Bears until he spoke with his mother.
“She said, ‘What did you promise your father?’ ” Taliaferro recalled. “I knew right away. I had to be a man of my word, so I never even bothered getting back to [owner and coach] George Halas and the Bears.”
Mr. Taliaferro played one year with the Los Angeles Dons in 1949 and joined the New York Yanks the next year, when several AAFC franchises joined the NFL or merged with existing teams.
He stayed with the franchise after it moved to Dallas in 1952. He then played for the Baltimore Colts in 1953 and 1954 before finishing his career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1955.
Mr. Taliaferro, who stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 196 pounds, played seven positions during his pro career, including tailback in the single wing, the equivalent of a modern-day quarterback. He gained 2,266 yards rushing, caught 95 passes for 1,300 yards and scored 28 touchdowns. He also amassed 1,633 passing yards and threw for 10 touchdowns.
George Taliaferro was born Jan. 8, 1927, in Gates, Tenn., and moved as a child to Gary, where his father worked in steel mills.
He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Indiana in 1951 and received a master’s of social work from Howard University in 1960. He taught at the University of Maryland and served as dean of students at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
He later returned to Indiana, where he held several positions, including as a special assistant to the president, chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and dean of the School of Social Work. He was also active in helping the Children’s Organ Transplant Association and received a humanitarian award from the Big Ten in 2011.
Survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Viola Jones, a retired Indiana judge; four daughters; a brother; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.