George Taliaferro — the Roosevelt High School and Indiana University standout who in 1949 became the first black player drafted in the NFL when George Halas and the Bears took him in the 13th round — died Monday.
He was 91.
The city of Gary's mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson this week called Taliaferro "a true Gary legend."
"He was a true Gary legend, not only because of his sports achievements, but also because he was a true humanitarian," Freeman-Wilson said.
"He never missed the opportunity remind me of his love for his hometown. Our prayers and thoughts are with Judge Violet Taliaferro who is a trailblazer in her own right and his entire family," she added.
In the 2018 NFL draft, 19 of the 32 players selected in the first round were black and four were taken in the top 10.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley was the first African-American player drafted, going No. 2 overall to the New York Giants.
But before any of these players were even born or given the opportunity to play football at the highest level, Taliaferro paved the way during the Jim Crow era.
Taliaferro, the Roosevelt High School and Indiana University standout who in 1949 became the first black player drafted in the NFL when George Halas and the Bears took him in the 13th round, died Monday. He was 91.
The university spoke with Taliaferro's family about his death in Mason, Ohio, senior associate athletic director Jeremy Gray said Tuesday. Other details were not disclosed.
Taliaferro was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. In the NFL, he played seven positions and earned Pro Bowl honors in 1951-53.
The Bears selected Taliaferro with the 129th overall pick — a potential dream come true for the Gary native who grew up following the Bears. The problem was that Taliaferro had signed a week before the draft with the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All America Football Conference, which had welcomed black players since its debut in 1946.
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."
Taliaferro rushed for 472 yards and five touchdowns and passed for another 790 yards and four scores in his rookie season with the Dons in 1949. The AAFC merged with the NFL the following season and Taliaferro ended up with the New York Yanks for the 1950 season. Taliaferro rushed for 411 yards and four touchdowns and caught another 21 passes for 299 yards and five scores for the Yanks, leading the team in touchdowns and helping them to a 7-5 record.
Taliaferro spent five more years in the NFL. He 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.
“Rest in peace, George Taliaferro,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said in a tweet. “Not only 1st African-American drafted into NFL, but also league's 2nd African-American QB. A trailblazer and true gentleman, George graced us with his presence at a recent home game. One of our last connections to pro football of the '40s/50s.”
Much of Taliaferro’s legacy is highlighted by what he accomplished in the NFL, but he also left a lasting impact throughout each stage of his life and every level he played on.
He was the leading rusher on Indiana's 1945 Big Ten championship team that went 9-0-1, the only undefeated team in school history. During his four years in Bloomington he led the Hoosiers in rushing twice and passing once.
Taliaferro also became the first African American to lead the conference in rushing with 719 yards and was given All-Big Ten and second-team All-American recognition in 1945.
One of Taliaferro's teammates in 1945 was Russ Deal, who went on to become the head football coach at Hobart for 18 seasons. His son, Mark, told The Times in 2015 that Taliaferro reached beyond the football field.
“George is not only one of the five greatest football players in Indiana University history, but he is one of the five greatest men in Indiana University history," Mark Deal told The Times. "His story is extraordinary and the barriers that he broke not only in the National Football League but also at Indiana University may exceed his accomplishments on the football field."
The move from Gary to Indiana 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.
Sometimes, Taliaferro took matters into his own hands.
African Americans could only attend a Bloomington movie theater on weekends and sit in the "Colored" section in the balcony in 1947. Taliaferro, who just returned from serving in the Army in 1946, went on a Tuesday.
"I took a screwdriver, took down that sign and went and sat downstairs," Taliaferro told The Times in 2015. "I think that ended segregation in the move theater."
At the time of the 2015 interview he still had the sign.
Taliaferro also experienced racism growing up in Gary. According to a 2015 story in The Times, "African Americans could not go north of 15th Avenue after dusk. He said in pre-World War II Gary, they could not shop at the downtown stores. Sports was a way that broke some of the barriers."
After retiring from football, Taliaferro earned a master's degree at Howard University, taught at Maryland and served as dean of students at Morgan State. At Indiana, he also spent two decades serving his alma mater in a number of capacities, including as a special assistant to the president, IUPUI chancellor and dean of School of Social Work. He was also active in helping the Children's Organ Transplant Association.
Flags on the Bloomington campus were lowered to half-staff through this weekend's homecoming game against Iowa. Taliaferro's No. 44 will replace the traditional logo on Indiana players' helmets for the game and there will be a moment of silence before kickoff.
"As a student-athlete at IU — at a time when segregation was prevalent across our state and nation and in the face of tremendous obstacles — he fought to integrate our classrooms, cafeterias, movie theaters and restaurants,” Indiana University president Michael A. McRobbie said in a statement. “And he continued to be a champion for fairness, compassion and equality well past his playing days.”
Indiana said Taliaferro is survived by his wife of 67 years, Viola, and two daughters.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Staff writer James Boyd contributed to this report.