George Taliaferro played quarterback and a whole lot more
At 90 years old, the first African-American drafted into the NFL recalls a career in which he took on seven positions
Not long after George Taliaferro answers the phone in his room at a Cincinnati-area senior home, the man who has played more positions than any player in NFL history is apologizing. “I’m 90 years old,” Taliaferro says. “I don’t percept as quickly today as I did yesteryear.”
And then Taliaferro, his voice booming, spends the next 90 minutes sharing stories about his All-American collegiate career at Indiana, how he discovered he was drafted into the NFL and how he became the most versatile player the league has known.
In seven NFL seasons, Taliaferro played an unheard-of seven positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, punter, kick returner, punt returner and defensive back. Asked his favorite, Taliaferro responds without hesitation.
“Football,” he said. “I just enjoyed playing football.”
Born in Tennessee, Taliaferro was an infant when his parents moved to Gary, Indiana, where his father was employed at a steel mill. Like many black kids during that time, Taliaferro grew up admiring Joe Louis and wanted to be a boxer. He even caddied for Louis when the fighter would drive from Chicago to play golf in Gary. “He said he liked me because I’d always find his balls,” Taliaferro remembered.
But Taliaferro’s mother forbade him to box. “My dad insisted that I do something to burn off energy,” he said. “Football was that something.”
During sandlot games, Taliaferro could have easily dipped, sidestepped and run around his friends, but he chose a different approach. “I was running over people,” he said. He maintained that on-the-field toughness as a star at all-black Roosevelt High School in Gary.
During his senior year, the coach of an all-white school in Chicago reached out to the Roosevelt coach and requested a scrimmage game as a tune-up for the Illinois state championship. Playing in his first game against a top-level all-white team, Taliaferro was dominant.
“That coach from Chicago told the coach at Indiana [University] about me,” Taliaferro said. “That’s how I wound up in Bloomington.”
When he arrived at Indiana, Taliaferro wasn’t happy. “I felt like a fifth-class citizen.”
After being dropped off to stay with a black family, Taliaferro was eager to move onto campus to experience life in the dorms. “Being educated is not only the acquisition of knowledge,” he said, “but the understanding of what’s going on in the world and learning to conduct yourself with and among people of all races.”
As the first day of school approached, Taliaferro asked the football coaches when he was going to be moved on campus. He was told black students didn’t live in dorms.
“I called my father and told him I didn’t want to be in a place where I couldn’t live on campus, where I couldn’t swim in the pool and where I couldn’t sit in the bottom section of the movie theater,” Taliaferro said. “My father told me there were other reasons I was there, and then he hung up the phone on me. I was never so hurt because I thought the one person who could understand being discriminated against was him.”
That tough love stemmed from two things his parents, neither of whom went past sixth grade, told him every day as he grew up. “They’d say, ‘We love you,’ ” he recalled. “And, ‘You must be educated.’ ”
So Taliaferro stayed, and he released that pent-up frustration on the football field. He remembered walking out on the field for his first college game at Michigan on Sept. 22, 1945, and looking at the fans who filled the 85,000-seat stadium — the biggest crowd he had ever seen in his life.
“Every black person from Gary came to that game, and when I looked up I asked God, ‘Why am I here?’ ” Taliaferro said. “And then I said they’re going to catch hell catching me. And they did. I put on a show.”
Taliaferro scored a touchdown (another was called back) in Indiana’s 13-7 win. It was the start of the only undefeated season in school history (9-0-1), the Hoosiers’ only outright Big Ten title (they shared a championship in 1967) and the highest season-ending school ranking (fourth). It was also the first of three All-America seasons at Indiana for Taliaferro, who led the team twice in rushing (1945 and 1948), three times in punting (1945, 1947, 1948) and once in passing (1948). His 95-yard kickoff return against Minnesota in 1945 still ranks ninth on Indiana’s all-time list.
He was drafted into the Army after his freshman year and shipped to an Army base in Virginia. He was one of 66 men on the bus from Indiana to Virginia. When he arrived, the other 65 were taken to the barracks; Taliaferro was taken to the office of the commanding officer.
“He said, ‘I’m happy to have you as a member of our company, and I’m looking forward to having you bring us a championship team in football,’ ” Taliaferro recalled. “I got hot, right there, and I told him I didn’t plan to play.”
The commanding officer then leaned forward in his seat, put his elbows on his desk and laid out his two options: Play football during his one-year commitment or go to officer’s candidate school with an enlistment of three years.
“I said, ‘I’ll see you at the football practice,’ ” Taliaferro said. “I had been hit on the head [playing football], but I hadn’t had my brain knocked out.”
Taliaferro was the captain of the Army team that won a Mid-Atlantic title before he returned to Indiana.
After his college career ended in 1949, he was at a Chicago restaurant taking a break from workouts with other football players when Earl Banks, who later became the legendary coach at Morgan State University, excitedly walked in holding up a newspaper. “Guess who got drafted,” Banks said, and the group immediately started running off the names of white players they knew.
Banks showed the group the headline:
Taliaferro drafted by the Chicago Bears.
It was an odd place to discover his place in history: Taliaferro, selected in the 13th round, was the first African-American player drafted by the NFL.
“I knew everybody who ever played with the Bears,” Taliaferro said. “That was my team.”
But Taliaferro never played with the Bears, having signed a contract the previous week to play for the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All-America Football Conference. He joined the NFL with the New York Yanks during the 1951 and 1952 seasons, and moved west with that team in 1952 when it became the Dallas Texans.
When the Dallas franchise failed, the players went to Baltimore, where Taliaferro played two years with the Colts. He played his last season, 1955, with the Philadelphia Eagles.
During his seven-year professional career, Taliaferro had 15 rushing touchdowns, 1,300 receiving yards, 843 passing yards and 35 forced fumbles (13 recovered). He averaged 21 yards on kickoff returns, 7.8 yards on punt returns and 37.7 yards on punts as he established himself as the most versatile player in NFL history.
“I’m the one person in the history of the NFL to play seven positions,” Taliaferro bragged. “When I went on the field, the game was over when I came off.”
While he claims he didn’t have a favorite position when he played in college and the NFL, Taliaferro said he took special pride in playing quarterback.
“The coaches didn’t think I could do it,” he said. “I showed them that I could.”
After his career ended, Taliaferro turned down an opportunity to coach at Morgan State. He did serve under Banks as an unpaid assistant for 13 years and was the dean of students for two years.
He returned to Bloomington in 1972 to become a special assistant to the school president at Indiana University. Both he and his wife, Viola (who became a judge), lived in Bloomington until earlier this year, when they moved into a retirement home near Cincinnati.
Asked to sum up his football career, Taliaferro paused for a moment before responding.
“I never tried to outdo anybody,” he said. “I just tried to be the very best I could be.”
With that, Taliaferro says goodbye.
After an hour and a half, it’s clear that the 90-year-old Taliaferro, who played a sport that’s in the spotlight today for battering the brain, still percepts very well.
The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.