George Taliaferro, a three-time All-America running back at Indiana who became the first black player to be selected in an NFL draft, died Monday night in Mason, Ohio, at the age of 91.
The Chicago Bears picked Taliaferro in the 13th round of the 1949 NFL Draft, but he decided to stick with his earlier decision to play for the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference.
Mark Deal, an assistant athletic director for alumni relations at Indiana whose father Russ was Taliaferro’s teammate with the Hoosiers, said the running back didn’t think he had a chance to play in the NFL because of his race.
“The way George told the story,” Deal told the Chicago Tribune, “he was eating dinner when someone came in and told him the Bears had drafted him. He said, ‘That can’t be right.’”
Hearing otherwise, Taliaferro decided he wanted to join the Bears, but his mother wouldn’t allow it.
“She told him, ‘You’ve already made a commitment to the Dons, you are going to play there,’” Deal said.
After one season with the Dons, Taliaferro joined the NFL in 1950, playing for the New York Yanks (1950-51), Dallas Texans (1952), Baltimore Colts (1953-54) and Philadelphia Eagles (1955).
The three-time Pro Bowl player (1951-53) gained 2,266 rushing yards on 498 carries in his pro football career with 15 rushing touchdowns, 1,300 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches.
Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981, Taliaferro helped lead Indiana in 1945 to the only undefeated season (9-0-1) in the history of the program and its only outright Big Ten title.
On Twitter, Indianapolis Colts owner called Taliaferro “a trailblazer and true gentleman.”
In a press release, Indiana University president Michael McRobbie added that Taliaferro “was a true trailblazer in every sense of the word and an individual of the greatest integrity, whose impact will be forever felt at IU and throughout the Hoosier state.”
According to a statement from the school, Indiana football players will wear Taliaferro’s No. 44 on their helmets on Saturday against Iowa. Flags will also be flown at half-staff on the Bloomington campus.
—Field Level Media