When Your Word is Your Bond, and Legacy
Feb. 3-4, 2007
Indiana's George Taliaferro is one of the most prominent figures in the National Football League, despite having only played in 61 games, rushing for 1,794 yards and throwing for 843. In 1949, Taliaferro was selected in the 13th round as the 129th pick overall by the Chicago Bears, making him the first African-American to be drafted by an NFL team.
A standout at defensive back, Taliaferro led the Hoosiers to their first Big Ten Championship in 1945, earning first-team All-America honors for his efforts. During the season, he amassed 719 yards, which included a pair of impressive touchdowns against Minnesota - a kickoff return for 95 yards and an 82-yard interception return as well. Not only was Taliaferro a top defender, but he also led Indiana in passing, rushing, and punting too.
Shortly before he was drafted by the Bears in 1949, Taliaferro signed a contract to play for the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) - a league established in 1946 that was more accommodating to African-American players. Upon learning of his selection in the NFL Draft, Taliaferro had a choice to make. Make history as the first African-American to compete in the NFL or make good on his word.
He chose the latter.
Not once did he play for George Halas, the legendary Bears owner who broke the color barrier by drafting the talented Hoosier. Instead, Taliaferro opted to play for another team all because of his word he gave to another team.
"That has been the order of my life," Taliaferro said. "My dad in one fell swoop helped me realize his standpoint of what it meant to be a man. That was to be the best you can be in every situation you find yourself. The longer I live, the easier it becomes to be the best I can be because of the promise I made to my father and the vow I made to myself."
Taliaferro began his professional career with the Dons in 1949, playing in 11 games. Despite being a defensive standout at Indiana, Taliaferro was moved to running back as a professional and spent most of his career playing quarterback, running back, wide receiver and punter. At quarterback, he completed 45-of-124 passes for 790 yards and recorded two touchdowns and 14 interceptions, which earned him AAFC Rookie of the Year honors.
To this day, Taliaferro remains humbled by his distinction as the first African-American to be drafted by the NFL.
"It was an honor to be the first, but that was something I chose not to talk a great deal about. It was just a time in America when the country would not recognize the contributions of African-Americans," he said. "There were so many great African-American players before me, it makes the honor watered down for me. I always think about the African-American players that I grew up watching that could have been great NFL stars. (The distinction) had to happen to someone and I just came along at that time."
From 1950-51, Taliaferro played professionally for the New York Yanks and then signed with the Dallas Texans in 1952. He played the 1953 and 1954 seasons with the Baltimore Colts and again made history as the then-single-wing tailback was moved to start two games for the injury-plagued Colts as a T-formation ("shotgun") quarterback - the second African-American to do so in the NFL. Taliaferro, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1951, 1952, and 1953, finished his career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1955.
What is striking about Taliaferro is that he grew up just outside Chicago in Gary, Ind., and always dreamed of playing for the Chicago Bears. When he finally had his chance to fulfill his childhood dream, he chose a different route in a true display of loyalty and honor.
After all, his word was his bond. It is what his father said would make him a man.
"Ever since I could read and write, I told everyone in Gary that I was going to be a great football player for the Chicago Bears," he said. "When I was drafted, I said `Mom, this is an unbelievable dream come true.' All I had to do was give the $4,000 signing bonus back to the Dons and void the contract, but my mother said to me, `What did you promise your father?' From that point on, there was never a thought in my mind of playing for the Chicago Bears."
Halas respected Taliaferro so much for sticking to his word that he came calling again after the 1955 season.
"When I retired from the NFL in 1955, George Halas called and asked me to come back and play for the Bears," said Taliaferro. "I declined his offer and told him that I was nowhere near the football player he had drafted in 1949. It would be taking money on false pretenses."
During his stint in professional football, Taliaferro also kept his word to his mother and managed to return to Bloomington in the offseason to work on and complete his bachelor's degree in physical education from IU in 1951.
"I came back during the 1950 and 1951 offseasons to complete my education because it was just a continuation of the dream and the words of my mother and father," he said. "They told me two things: I love you and you must be educated. My dad died on Christmas Day in 1947, but I told my mother that I was going to finish my degree."
Taliaferro asked his mother if she knew the difference between college and professional football, which he later explained, "you get paid in the pros." She also did not understand the concept that you could return from playing professionally and work on your degree in the offseason. To make things easier on his mother, Taliaferro told her he would have the Dons put in his contract that he was required to return to Indiana to finish his education.
"It was now the law," he said. "That's the only way she would have let me play."
Taliaferro married his wife Viola in December of 1950 as he worked on his degree. She had already finished her college education by the time she was 18 and was a strong supporter of his pursuit of a degree.
Following his playing career, Taliaferro served as dean of students and assistant football coach at Morgan State University, and received a master's in social work from Howard University in 1960, before returning to Bloomington to serve in a variety of roles.
In 1972, he was named Special Assistant to IU President John Ryan and was asked to develop equal opportunity policies and programs for staff and students on all of the IU campuses, while assisting in recruiting and counseling minority students as well. One of the first projects Taliaferro coordinated was the University's Affirmative Action plan. In 1980, he helped found the Neal-Marshall Alumni Club, an affiliate of the IU Alumni Association, which addresses the needs of Indiana University African-American alumni and increases their participation in local and national IU alumni groups. The club is named for the first African-American male and female graduates of Indiana University - Marcellus Neal (BA 1895) and Frances Marshall (BA 1919). This organization continues to assist African-American students, faculty, and staff, as well as promoting the awareness of the history, traditions and legacy of African-Americans at IU.
One year after being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981, Taliaferro was reassigned to the dean's office of the School of Social Work at Indiana. He worked as a professor and advisor to the dean until he retired in 1992. Since that time, Taliaferro has remained active in the community, raising money to finance organ transplants for adults and children.
Taliaferro, who now serves as Chairman Emeritus of the Children's Organ Transplant Association (COTA), was awarded the "Volunteer of the Year Award" by the Bloomington-based organization in 2002. Each year, the former COTA board chairman lends his fame and name to an annual golf tournament - the George Taliaferro Open - which has raised $425,000 since its inception seven years ago.
"We needed to do a fundraiser that would pay for expenses and not take money raised for transplants," he recalled. "Someone approached me about a golf tournament in my name and I cannot begin to tell you how overwhelmingly satisfied I have been with this event."
The former Hoosier standout and his wife, who has spent her career serving as a judge in local and state courts, focus their time and effort in the Bloomington community.
"All of my plaques and trophies that had adorned our house for years have now been placed in the garage," he said. "The walls now don the awards and certificates that my wife has earned for putting forth the importance of juvenile rights in the law."
Today, when he's not on the golf course or spending time with his four daughters and seven grandchildren, Taliaferro can be found "driving Miss Vi" to Indianapolis almost daily for work during her retired career.
"The only difference between what she used to do and now, is that now she decides when she'll work," he said. "And now that's every day."
But she always knows the car will be waiting.
After all, he gave her his word.