More Than Ever, It's Important to Remember George Taliaferro's Role in Social Justice
By Dawn Knight — Special to Sports Illustrated Indiana
In 1991, when I was a student in his Introduction to Social Work class at Indiana University, George Taliaferro taught us that every person has worth and dignity and deserves respect, that each has the right to self-determination. On exam days, he wrote, “All sickness ain’t death” on the board, leaving it there for us to ponder. I assumed it was directed at students who hadn’t studied – I had no idea he was the living embodiment of the phrase.
Decades before I walked among the limestone buildings of IU’s picturesque campus, Taliaferro had been a student there himself. In fact, he was a star football player who, as a freshman in 1945, led Indiana to its only undefeated Big Ten championship. Despite being a popular athlete who had been recruited by the university, he had not been permitted to live on campus, eat at the restaurants, or sit in the front of the classroom. His experiences at IU were much different from my own.
Later, he became a trailblazer as the first black man drafted by an NFL team and the league’s first black quarterback. He never mentioned any of that in class, though. In fact, I didn’t find out about all of his accomplishments until after I had already graduated and had started my teaching career. I couldn’t believe that over the course of a semester, he had never even hinted at it. So, I asked him why. “It had nothing to do with social work,” he said. Still, having been born and raised in Indiana, a student at Indiana University, and a football fan, I couldn’t get over the fact that I hadn’t heard about him before. In class, he had taught us that everyone has a story, and we had failed to ask about his.
Stories are important. When we listen to them, we are better able to understand the world and others around us. We are better able to empathize. We stop seeing the world in black and white and start seeing the shades of gray. That is why Taliaferro taught us that everyone has a story. His, I realized, needed to be told.
So, I wrote my first book about him (Taliaferro: Breaking Barriers, IU Press 2008). In it, I told about a game-winning performance that led IU to recruit him; his culture shock upon arriving on campus only to discover he couldn’t live in the dorm; and what life was like in a segregated Bloomington. I told how, because he wasn’t permitted to eat there, he had to cup his hands around his face and peer through the window to see the picture of the championship team that hung in the Gables Restaurant. Later, he used his status as a popular athlete to help de-segregate The Gables and other restaurants and movie theaters in Bloomington.
Aside from the obstacles that racism had placed in his way, Taliaferro also lost his father to a sudden, violent death; was drafted into the Army; and, despite returning to IU after, left before completing his degree.
In 1949, Taliaferro was in Chicago working out with friends, pro football players Buddy Young, Earl Banks, and Sherman Howard. After, they met for lunch; Howard, Young, and Taliaferro, arriving first. In the short time since they had parted, Banks had discovered information he was eager to share. When he arrived, he told the others, “Guess who was drafted by the Bears.” They guessed – each throwing out the names of white players who were possible candidates. Banks just shook his head, until he finally had to reveal the copy of the Chicago Defender he was hiding behind his back. On the cover was the article “George Taliaferro Is ‘Drafted’ by Chicago Bears.”
Taliaferro was stunned. They all were. When the Bears drafted him in the thirteenth round of the 1949 draft, he became the first black man drafted by an NFL team. Ultimately, he didn’t fulfill his childhood dream of playing for the Bears, though, opting instead to sign with the Los Angeles Dons of the NFL’s rival league, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). In the off season, he finished his degree, keeping a promise to his parents who had told him every day of his life, “We love you. You must be educated.”
Eventually, the AAFC was swallowed up by the NFL, and Taliaferro ended up playing for the Baltimore Colts, where he became the first black man to quarterback in the NFL. Taliaferro himself credited Willie Thrower with this honor. Although Taliaferro had played the position (plus six others on both sides of the ball – he still holds the record for most positions played) for the Colts for two years before Thrower joined the league, he was not rostered as a quarterback. Thrower, on the other hand, was.
In the book, I told these stories and others, including how Taliaferro used his platform as a professional athlete to fight oppression and racism. Almost immediately after the book came out, however, Taliaferro told me more stories, like the time Nat King Cole serenaded him and his wife at the Brown Derby in LA, and the time he threatened Muhammad Ali with a golf club. He talked about meeting Malcolm X at the Red Rooster in Harlem. I regretted these and others I found out too late to include.
Then, Colin Kaepernick knelt, and I realized not only had I missed some important stories, but what those stories meant. Although Taliaferro was special, what he went through was not unique; nor was using his status as an elite athlete to do something about it.
In Colin Kaepernick I saw similarities to Taliaferro and other athletes who had also used their platforms as elite athletes to fight for social justice. Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman in the 1968 Olympics; the Syracuse 8; Wally Triplett; Muhammad Ali – the list goes on. Taliaferro was an important trailblazer in his own right, but more importantly was what his story said about society, about race, when told in conjunction with others – and how those stories provide a historical lens through which to better understand race in our society today.
So, I wrote a new book. In Race and Football in America: The Life and Legacy of George Taliaferro (IU Press 2019), the culmination of hundreds of hours of research and interviews, I tell the story of George Taliaferro – including his interactions with Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Nat King Cole, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Congressman John Lewis, among others. Throughout, I weave in the stories of other athletes, past and present, who, like him, used their platforms to fight for social justice, and the very real consequences of doing so. Although at the time those athletes were vilified, lost scholarships, lost jobs, and even lost friends, history has been kind to them. The same will likely be true of today’s athletes who fight racism and oppression and those who support them.
George Taliaferro was on the right side of history. When he died on Oct. 8, 2018, a Today Show segment noted that his was “a life well lived.” Taliaferro had a profound impact on the country and on the students in his classes. I hope that in sharing his story, I can pass along his lessons to others, prompting them to listen, speak out, support, engage, take action, and vote. As Taliaferro once wrote on the board in our class, “May our complacency disturb us profoundly today.”
*Race and Football in America: The Life and Legacy of George Taliaferro is available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Walmart, and wherever books are sold.