Many say George Taliaferro was Jackie Robinson before Jackie Robinson.
Nearly two years before Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, Taliaferro was leading Indiana University's football team to the 1945 Big Ten title and a 9-0-1 season.
In 1949, the Bears drafted him and he was the first African-American to be drafted by an NFL team. Taliaferro never played for the Bears as the 1945 Gary Roosevelt grad had signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference and chose to honor the deal.
Before Rosa Parks, before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream ... " speech, before Selma and the 1965 passage of the Civil Rights Act, Taliaferro did his best to break down racial barriers and he did in 1947 in a Bloomington movie theater. African-Americans could only attend the theater on weekends and sit in the "Colored" section in the balcony. Taliaferro, who just returned from the army, went on a Tuesday.
"I took a screwdriver, took down that sign and went and sat downstairs," Taliaferro said. "I think that ended segregation in the move theater."
To this day, he has the sign in his Bloomington home.
When he tells the story to IU students, he asks a question.
"Where do you think this happened? I mean the "Colored" sign," Taliaferro said. "I get answers like 'Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, the Deep South.' Then you should see the looks on their faces when I tell them it happened right here in Bloomington, Indiana."
His trip to college was not the first time he faced segregation and prejudice. He saw it first hand in Gary. The unwritten law of the time said 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.
In 1944, Roosevelt played at Horace Mann and Taliaferro said the game was at Mann's field on Fifth Avenue. He played against future IU teammate Carl Beisecker and the two did something that was unheard of in those days. Fifty years later they reunited on the "Today Show."
"Carl and I met at the 50 yard line and shook hands," Taliaferro said. "My teammates had gotten back on the bus, his teammates went into the locker room. Here we were and I can still remember Carl saying to me, 'George, it was a magnificent opportunity to play football against you, after all we heard about what kind of football player you are. It was a pleasure.
"I said the same thing back. Carl was and still is a gentlemen."
He said he said the same thing back when the two meet in Arizona. Beisecker's daughter Angela Bowers said her dad was thrilled.
"It was just a great meeting," Bowers said. "George and Viola were friends with my parents and are just great people."
Taliaferro was a teammate and friend of 1945 captain Russ Deal, who later coached football at Hobart. His son Mark, an assistant athletic director said 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," Deal said. "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."
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