Taliaferro remembered as ‘IU royalty’

Jersey No. 44 was reserved for the special ones, the kinds of players former Indiana University football coach Bo McMillin cherished.

George Taliaferro was one of them.

“Forty-four was the big guy, the gun, the guy who was the stud,” said Mark Deal, IU’s assistant athletic director for alumni relations.

In the early-1940s, the number belonged to Bill Hillenbrand, a two-time All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist. In 1945, it went to Taliaferro, a freshman tailback from Gary.

Taliaferro had arrived in Bloomington in June of that year eager to become the first member of his family to attend college. Initially, as he sized the bigger bodies of his new teammates that summer, Taliaferro held doubts that he was ready for college football.

But McMillin assuaged those concerns, and in handing him the No. 44 jersey, placed trust in his rookie runner.

“Bo saw what he had,” Deal said.

As the years have proven, McMillin was correct.

From the football field, where Taliaferro authored a legendary playing career, to the streets of this once-segregated college town, where he used his platform to defy and ultimately smash racial barriers, Taliaferro occupies an extraordinary place in Indiana lore.

Taliaferro, who died Monday at age 91, is remembered as an egalitarian who fought injustice on behalf of all Hoosiers, leaving a glowing legacy of humility, kindness and shared sense of purpose.

“He will go down in history because he made his name as a sports figure,” IU historian Jim Capshew said. “He went on and became an inspiration for the whole community.”

Indeed, it was a full life. As part of the university’s week-long tribute to the all-time great, the Hoosiers will wear Taliaferro’s No. 44 instead of the traditional logo on their helmets when they play Iowa Saturday at noon.

The first African-American player selected in the NFL Draft, Taliaferro was as much of a trailblazer off the field as he was on it. As a student in the 1940s, Taliaferro pushed to desegregate both IU’s campus and the Bloomington community, soliciting the help of former university president Herman B Wells along the way.

In 1945, Taliaferro led the Hoosiers in rushing on the way to a Big Ten championship and the program’s only undefeated season. A picture of that team hung inside The Gables restaurant, which did not serve African Americans. Taliaferro’s only view of the portrait came from outside the restaurant’s windows along Indiana avenue.

Taliaferro had long been frustrated by the lack of dining options for African Americans near campus, so he sought Wells’ assistance. Wells called The Gables and asked if he and Taliaferro could eat there. The initial response was no.

After some strong-arming, Wells and The Gables came to an agreement: Taliaferro and another African American friend could dine at the restaurant for one week. If there were no complaints from white patrons, Taliaferro and his friend could add two more to their party for a second week. If there were no complaints after the two-week period passed, The Gables would open to all African Americans.

There were no complaints.

What Taliaferro started at the restaurant extended to Bloomington’s movie theaters. Emboldened, Taliaferro began sitting in sections reserved only for white patrons at the Indiana and Princess theaters. At the latter, Taliaferro famously brought a screwdriver to take down a sign that read “COLORED.”

He kept the sign for the rest of his life.

“Because he was a popular athlete — a star athlete — people were more willing to allow him to do things that maybe another black person couldn’t,” said Dawn Knight, who wrote Taliaferro’s biography “Taliaferro: Breaking Barriers From The NFL Draft To The Ivory Tower.”

“He had a significant social standing because of (his athletic abilities). He was able to use that as a platform to facilitate change.”

Taliaferro was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1949 and proceeded to play for professional franchises in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Even in an age when players appeared on both sides of the ball, Taliaferro was unique. He played seven positions: quarterback, running back, receiver, kick returner, punt returner, punter and defensive back.

Upon retiring from from football, Taliaferro and his family lived in Maryland, where he devoted himself to social work in the Baltimore and Washington areas. He earned his master’s degree from Howard University, taught at the University of Maryland and served as dean of students at Morgan State University.

He also began volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Baltimore, work that continued later in Bloomington. Taliaferro was devoted to other causes, too. He was passionate about the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and was a longtime board chairman for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association.

When he wasn’t working to shape the community, Taliaferro was feeding his love of golf.

And even then, he tried to set an example.

“George had a great sense of humor,” friend Frank Motley said. “He was also a stickler for the rules of golf. One day, I was out there playing with him and the ball landed behind a tree. George said to me, ‘You can move that tree, but don’t touch that ball.'”

The athleticism that propelled Taliaferro to a decorated football career also made him a tireless golfer in his later years. Well into his 80s, Taliaferro walked the old IU Golf Course and regularly played nine holes a day.

He knew every break and bend, and even found ways to use the occasions to do good.

“To play nine holes of golf with George was not only a treasure, but an insight into the man because he was always trying to help people,” Deal said. “Even though he’d hit it down the middle of the fairway, he’d be inside the woods or in the bushes finding balls and put them in a sack, a little Kroger bag.

“He would take all the balls he found to Indianapolis for (The First Tee) program so underprivileged kids would have balls. You’d go over his house and in his garage he had barrels of balls that he’d give to underprivileged kids in the city of Indianapolis. He was just an amazing man.”

As much as he loved golf, Taliaferro objected to a 1999 proposal for a new 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus-signature course in Bloomington. There were questions about the impact the proposed course might have on the Griffy Lake watershed, among other objections.

At a community forum with IU trustees late that year, Taliaferro was one of many voicing opposition to the project.

“I remember George talked about how he was a big golfer and how he’d love to have a nice new course, but this was not the place to put it,” Capshew said. “He was very adamant about it. He was very firm and very cordial about it, saying this is not a good project. … One thing that struck me about George was that he had very consistent ideals and he knew what to do.”

At home, Taliaferro was a devoted husband to Viola, the first African American judge in Monroe County and his wife of 67 years. Together, they produced daughters Linda, Renee’, Donna and Terri.

“One of the things that struck me was how protective he was of Vi,” said Valeri Haughton, a Monroe County circuit court judge.

Haughton and Motley visited the Taliaferros Sunday at their Ohio home, where George flashed his beaming smile and offered the same upbeat outlook that Bloomington came to know as part of the fabric of the community. He died the next day.

“He came up on the rough side of the mountain,” Motley said. “He hadn’t forgotten that. He didn’t let others forget it either. As great as Indiana was for him, it wasn’t always great to him. But he spoke the truth. That was the one thing you’d get from George. You’d get the truth.”

The truth about George Taliaferro was that he was a great man, as unassuming as he was accomplished.

“He was royalty,” Deal said. “He was definitely IU royalty. There’s no doubt about it.”

3 comments

  1. George Taliaferro was a treasure where ever he was. He definitely was a treasure and great, great representative of IU. He has left a wonderful legacy that many should become aware of as people talk about his life.

    He played during a special time for IU football a time that was only a dream to many fans and unknown to most fans of IUFB. I wish he could have once again seen IU return to that prominence before he died. The Mallory years and Pont’s 1967 team were as close as IU got to the 1940’a teams.

    1. Speaking of IUFB football royalty, does anybody here have any clout with the Indiana Football Hall of Fame? http://www.indiana-football.org/

      Bob Skoronski is not in the IFHF, but he should be. In 1955 (senior year) he was IUFB MVP, but more remarkable is the eleven years as the starting left tackle with the Green Bay Packers. Won five NFL titles under Lombardi (including Super Bowls I and II), and was the Packers’ offensive captain for all five of those titles (not Bart Starr). All Pro 1966. Next to him on that line was Fuzzy Thurston, drafted the same year, 1956, out of Valparaiso- and who IS in the IFHF. What the %#*@? I sent the Indiana Football Hall of Fame an email alerting them to this gross omission, but no response. GET YOUR LOBBYIST HATS ON, EVERYBODY! Induct BOB SKORONSKI to the INDIANA FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME NOW!!!!

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