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  • Associated Press George Taliaferro poses in his New York Yanks football uniform in 1950. A standout running back for Indiana, he was the first black player to be drafted by an NFL team when George Halas of the Chicago Bears took him in the 13th round.

  • FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2012, file photo, Indiana University alumnus and former NFL player George Taliaferro holds the "COLORED" sign he took from the Princess Theater during the 1940s, when all the Bloomington theaters were segregated, in Bloomington, Ind. He spoke at a celebration of the 90-year-old Indiana Theater. Taliaferro, a standout running back for Indiana who became the first black player to be drafted by an NFL team when George Halas and the Chicago Bears took him in the 13th round of the NFL draft, has died. He was 91. Senior associate athletic director Jeremy Gray said Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, the Hoosiers had spoken with Taliaferro’s family about his death in Mason, Ohio. (AP Photo/Bloomington Herald-Times, Jeremy Hogan)/The Herald-Times via AP)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 1:00 am

Versatile IU star was a trailblazer

Taliaferro, 91, was first black player drafted into NFL

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

George Taliaferro, a three-time Indiana football All-American and the first black player to be drafted into the NFL, died Monday at 91 in Mason, Ohio.

“Indiana University Athletics and the entire Indiana University family are deeply saddened by the passing of George Taliaferro,” athletic director Fred Glass said in a statement. “George's association with Indiana University has always made me even prouder to be a part of this institution.

“He was a mentor to me, and, like all great mentors, was often one who was appropriately challenging me. Simply put, he was a great man and will be greatly missed.”

Indiana plans to honor Taliaferro in a variety of ways leading up to the Hoosiers' Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium against Iowa on Saturday. Flags across campus will be flown at half-staff the rest of the week and Indiana's helmets will bear Taliaferro's number “44” in place of the usual “IU” logo. In addition, a tribute video will play before the game.

“Indiana Football's thoughts and prayers are with George Taliaferro's family,” coach Tom Allen said. “Our hearts are heavy as we appreciate all that he has done for this university and for the sport of football.

“He was a trailblazer as the first African-American ever selected by the National Football League. He was a great part of our community and he made this world a better place.”

Taliaferro played for the Hoosiers in 1945-48 and led the team in rushing in 1945, when Indiana went 9-0-1, the only undefeated season in school history. He went on to lead Indiana in rushing twice and passing once and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981 for his playing career at IU.

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 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.

In the 1949 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears selected Taliaferro with the 129th overall pick, making him the first black player drafted into the league. He had assumed no NFL teams would pick him, so he had already signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All-American Football Conference.

He honored that commitment and played for the Dons in 1949.

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.”

The AAFC and the NFL merged in 1950 and Taliaferro played six years in the league. He made three straight Pro Bowls in 1951-53 and 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.

After his NFL playing career ended, Taliaferro got a master's degree from Howard University and eventually came back to Bloomington, where he was the dean of the School of Social Work, among other positions. He also served as the chancellor at IUPUI. 

After his passing became public, many figures connected to Indiana shared their memories of Taliaferro on social media. Former Hoosiers guard Dane Fife remembered Taliaferro would often visit practice when Mike Davis was the head coach and Davis would sit with the former football player.

Former Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon also shared his thoughts on Twitter.

“Sad to hear of the passing of the 1st African Am QB in #NFL, George Taliaferro,” Moon wrote. “He was a true inspiration to me and many other young QBs. Thank you! May you rest in peace...”

Taliaferro is survived by his wife, Viola Taliaferro, to whom he was married for 67 years, and four daughters.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

dsinn@jg.net

The Associated Press contributed to this report.