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.
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.
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.
THE INDIANA FOOTBALL ALL-TIME GREATS HONORABLE MENTION LIST
- Chuck Bennett was a 1928 second team All-American.
- Howard Brown was a 1945 second team All-American.
- Jade Butcher was a 1969 first team All-American.
- John Cannady was a 1946 second team All-American and played in the first NFL Pro Bowl.
- Gary Cassells was a 1967 first team All-American.
- Zora Clevenger was a 1903 All-American and a College Hall of Famer.
- Tim Clifford was the 1979 Big Ten MVP.
- Don Croftcheck was a 1964 first team All-American.
- Doug Crusan was a 1967 second team All-American.
- Jim DiGuilio was 1992 and 1993 first team All Big Ten.
- Tandon Doss was 2009 and 2010 first team All Big Ten.
- Mike Dumas was a 1990 second team All-American.
- Vaughn Dunbar was a 1991 1st team All-American.
- Homer Dutter was 1909 and 1910 first team All Big Ten
- Chris Gartner was a 1972 first team All-American.
- Harry Gonso was 1967 first team All Big Ten.
- Duane Gunn was 1982 and 1983 first team All Big Ten.
- Bob Haak was 1937 and 1938 first team All Big Ten.
- Bill Hillenbrand was a 1942 first Team All-American.
- Bob Hoernschemeyer was a 1943 1st Team All-American.
- Vern Huffman was IU’s first All-American quarterback and the 1936 Big Ten MVP.
- Ernie Jones was a 1987 first team All-American.
- Joe Norman was a 1978 second team All-American and is the all-time tackles leader.
- Tom Nowatzke was a 1964 first team All-American.
- Adewale Ogunleye was 1997 first team All Big Ten and the all-time sacks and tackles for loss leader.
- Tracey Porter was 2007 first team All Big Ten.
- Ben Raimondi was a 1946 second team All-American.
- Bob Ravensburg was a 1945 first team All-American.
- Tom Schuette was a 1966 first team All-American.
- Jim Sniadecki was a 1968 first team All-American.
- Jason Spriggs was a 2015 1st team All-American.
- Pete Stoyanovich was a 1987 second team All-American.
- John Tavener was a 1944 1st Team All-American and a College Hall of Famer.
- Van Waiters was a 1986 and 1987 third team All-American.
- Tim Wilbur was a 1980 second team All-American and is the program’s all-time interceptions leader.
- Marv Woodson was a 1963 first team All-American.
Prior IU greats on the list:
#10 — John Isenbarger
#9 — Dan Feeney
#8 — James Hardy
#7 – Nate Sudfeld
#6 – Tevin Coleman
#5 – Corby Davis
#4 – Antwaan Randle El
#3 – Pete Pihos
#1 – Anthony Thompson
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