Dec. 14, 2012
This story originally appeared in the 2012 Big Ten Football Championship Game Program
By Jeff Rabjohns
George Taliaferro was generating fans across the state of Indiana before his college football career was even a few weeks old.
In his day in the 1940s, college football games weren’t on television, but a group of Indiana supporters – the forerunners of the IU Varsity Club – would get copies of game film and take them across the state on Mondays and Tuesdays.
In YMCA gymnasiums and other places where 10-feet by 15-feet screens could be set up, fans would gather to watch the black-and-white footage.
Right from the start, this 17-year-old freshman captured the imagination.
“I would sit on the floor as a little kid and just marvel,” said Huntington, Ind., native Bob Hammel, who spent 50 years as a sportswriter, most of that time covering Indiana.
Taliaferro became an All-American at Indiana, leading the Hoosiers to an unbeaten 1945 season and the school’s highest final ranking in the Associated Press poll at No. 4. After a year of military service, Taliaferro returned to IU and finished his college career as a first-team All-American.
Following his final Big Ten season, Taliaferro became the first African-American drafted by the NFL, a 13th-round pick of the Chicago Bears. Following a professional football career, he returned to Indiana and worked in administration for several decades, a life marked by civic service.
Taliaferro is noted for football accomplishments but his life has been distinguished by achievement. He was honored with the Big Ten’s inaugural Dungy-Thompson Humanitarian Award last year and the 2011 National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame Distinguished American Award.
He is the Chairman Emeritus of the Children’s Organ Transplant Association and is on the board of directors of the Monroe County Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, among his numerous efforts.
Playing in the Big Ten and going on to professional football, however, may not have come to pass if not for a chance “game” his high school played his senior season.
“I truly had never given a thought to playing in the Big Ten Conference, although I grew up in Gary and was aware of the Big Ten Conference and all the players who had performed in it. Because of segregation, I did not have the experience of playing against white players until my senior year,” Taliaferro said.
In Taliaferro’s senior year, East Chicago football coach Pete Ruckinski requested a scrimmage against his high school, Gary Roosevelt. Taliaferro played well, and Ruckinski whispered in the ear of Indiana coach Alvin “Bo” McMillin about this player Indiana just had to have.
It wasn’t easy when he arrived in Bloomington.
“I found out I couldn’t live in the dorms. I couldn’t eat in the restaurants. I couldn’t swim in the Indiana University swimming pool,” Taliaferro recalled of the segregation of the time. “You had to be very careful what you said, to whom you said it and how you conducted yourself. You didn’t know what the rules were. It was very, very difficult.”
All the while, Taliaferro was dominant on the football field. The Hoosiers went 9-0-1 in 1945 and beat the three nationally ranked teams on their schedule that season by a combined score of 82-2. Taliaferro was a second-team All-American.
Taliaferro’s career began with a 13-7 victory at Michigan, a school the Hoosiers have beaten just nine times in their history.
“George made me an Indiana fan. I was eight years old and I heard the Indiana game on radio,” Hammel said. “I had a sense from the way they were talking, it was a big accomplishment to go up to Michigan and win. George was a 17-year-old freshman, and he actually had 100 yards rushing.
“They killed the clock at the end, so he had some losses that pushed his total to 94, but that was his debut game. One-hundred yard games just didn’t happen in those days. George was sensational right away.”
The Hoosiers’ finished undefeated in 1945 but did not play in the postseason, as the Big Ten’s agreement with the Rose Bowl Game began the following season. Taliaferro served a stint in the Army in 1946, putting his playing career on hold. But while stationed in Virginia, he met Viola Jones. The two celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary on Nov. 23.
In 1949 when his college career concluded, Taliaferro and 10 friends were working out in Chicago, preparing for pro football drafts. During dinner one night, one of his friends walked in and held up the Chicago Daily sports section which said in big block letters, “Taliaferro drafted by Bears.”
Taliaferro told his mother all he had to do was tear up his contract with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-American Football Conference and the $4,000 signing bonus and he would be the first African-American to play in the NFL.
“My father had told me when he was alive that a man is no better or no worse than his word,” Taliaferro said. “My mother said to me, ‘What did you tell your father?’ I did not talk to the Bears again.”
Taliaferro eventually played in the NFL and later returned to Indiana as a special assistant to the school president to develop and implement the university’s Affirmative Action Plan.
Taliaferro’s father had a fourth-grade education and his mother a sixth-grade education because, he said, it was against the law where they grew up in Tennessee for blacks to go to school past sixth grade.
“Because of the way he conducted himself and his morality, I thought he was the greatest person in the world and told him often, I want to be just like you,” said Taliaferro. “He told me I could be anything I wanted to be if I was willing to work for it, and that has been the mainstay of my life.”
In his 22nd year as a sportswriter, Jeff Rabjohns covers Indiana and the Big Ten for Peegs.com, a part of the Rivals.com network.