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An Appreciation

The versatile George Taliaferro just enjoyed playing football

The first African-American player drafted by the NFL died at the age of 91

George Taliaferro was sitting in a Windy City restaurant eating with some of the nation’s top football players when he found out his favorite team, the Chicago Bears, had selected him in the 13th round of the 1949 NFL draft.

The next move by Taliaferro, who died on Monday night at the age of 91, was a no-brainer. He’d call up the Los Angeles Dons, the All-America Football Conference team he had signed with the previous week, return the $4,000 signing bonus they had given him and then join the Bears after becoming the first African-American player drafted by the NFL.

Taliaferro called his mother to tell her his plans.

She wasn’t having it, quickly reminding him of the values he was raised on.

“My father taught me that a man is no better or no worse than his word,” Taliaferro told me last September. “After speaking to my mother, I realized I had an obligation to fulfill my commitment.”

So Taliaferro played with the Dons for two years before eventually joining the NFL in 1951. During a seven-year professional career, Taliaferro played seven positions, including becoming the second black quarterback in NFL history.

He took pride in establishing himself as the most versatile player in NFL history. “When I went on the field,” he bragged, “the game was over when I came off.”

Before playing in Los Angeles, Taliaferro was a star at Indiana, where, in 1945, he helped lead the Hoosiers to a 9-0-1 record while becoming the first African-American player to lead the Big Ten in rushing.

After those two years with the Dons, Taliaferro entered the NFL with the New York Yanks in 1951, the first of his three straight Pro Bowl seasons. He later played with the Dallas Texans, Baltimore Colts and Philadelphia Eagles.

As a runner, Taliaferro gained 2,266 yards on 498 carries with 15 rushing touchdowns. As a receiver he had 95 receptions for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. And as a quarterback, Taliaferro passed for 1,633 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Taliaferro lined up as a running back, wide receiver, punter, kick returner, punt returner and defensive back.

Of the seven positions, which was his favorite?

“Football,” Taliaferro told me. “I just enjoyed playing football.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.