IU Legend George Taliaferro Has Passed Away

Various reports have surfaced that IU legend, NFL star and trailblazing pioneer George Taliaferro has passed away at the age of 91.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” — Jackie Robinson

By any measure, Geroge Taliaferro led an important life.  The below story on that important and inspirational life was originally published on August 30, 2018 in connection with our list of the Top 10 IU football players of all-time.

As a trailblazer, it was never going to be an easy path for George Taliaferro.

Even for a star athlete, transitioning from life in Gary, Indiana to racially segregated Bloomington didn’t come without its challenges in the 1940’s.  Taliaferro couldn’t live in the dorms and was only allowed on the IU campus to attend classes and football practice.  When he went to class, he couldn’t sit in the front row.

When he went to the movies he was ordered by a sign to sit in a separate section.  Since then Taliaferro has often told the story of how he took a screwdriver with him to the Princess Theatre in Bloomington and removed the “COLORED” sign.

The torment that he experienced off the field turned into rage on it.  Taliaferro had to endure a lot of hardship in his life, but he had an outlet — football.

“The thing that I liked most about football was hitting people.  It allowed me to vent my frustration with being discriminated against in the United States,” Taliaferro once said in a documentary on WTIU.

Taliaferro arrived in Bloomington in 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier.

You cannot talk about him without framing it in the context of the racial environment of the time.  That story can never be told enough.  But George Taliaferro was more than just a trailblazer.  He was a great football player.  An all-time IU great.

Taliaferro was the only IU football player to be named to All-America teams following three different seasons, and the only reason it wasn’t four was because he left a year early to play professionally.  He received first team recognition in 1948 after earning second team All-America honors in both 1945 and 1947.

His introduction to college football as an 18 year old was at the 100,000 plus seat Michigan Stadium in 1945.  All he did was rush for 96 yards, complete three passes and handle IU’s punting duties in the Hoosiers 13-7 win, their second consecutive win in Ann Arbor.

In the eighth game in 1945 Taliaferro led IU to a 49-0 rout of No. 20 Minnesota, scoring three touchdowns, including returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a score and running back an interception 82 yards for another TD.

Taliaferro became the first African-American to lead the Big Ten in rushing (719 yards) as Indiana finished that season undefeated at 9-0-1 and Big Ten champions.

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Taliaferro running in the open field in 1948 at the old Memorial Stadium on 10th Street. Photo Credit – IU Archives

The Gary, Indiana native was drafted into the Army after his breakout freshman season.  According to Taliaferro, influential Michigan coach and athletic director Fritz Crisler played a role in seeing to it that he was drafted.  Apparently he had seen enough of IU’s young superstar on that fall 1945 afternoon in Ann Arbor.

After missing the 1946 season while serving in the Army, Taliaferro returned in 1947.  He led the Hoosiers in rushing yards in 1945 and 1948, and in passing yards in 1948

He was also was the team’s punter every year and he averaged a program record at the time of 40.6 yards per kick in 1948.  A true jack-of-all trades, Taliaferro still owns the seventh most punt return yards in program history, and he is fourth all-time in interception return yards.

Even more than his great accomplishments as a Hoosier, Taliaferro is best known for breaking down barriers at the professional level.  Often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of the NFL”, he was the first African-American drafted into the NFL.  The Chicago Bears took him with their 13th round pick in 1949.

He shined in the NFL for six seasons, making the pro bowl three times.  He was the first African American to play quarterback, and he may be the only player to ever play seven positions in the NFL.

Taliaferro played in the NFL from 1948-55 for the Los Angeles Dons, New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Colts and Philadelphia Eagles.

He was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

Ever vigilant, Taliaferro has continued to carry that “COLORED” sign that was directed at African Americans through the years and has shown it off at various speeches.  The fire still burns.

George Taliaferro at IU spring game
Photo Credit – IU Athletics

In the hearts and minds of Hoosier fans today, the signs now say something else.  In no small part due to his own painstaking efforts, if there were physical signs in Bloomington directed at him now they would read something completely different.  Something like “LEGEND”, “TRAILBLAZER”, or “HERO” comes to mind.

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