This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of George Taliaferro.
George Taliaferro became the first African-American player drafted by an NFL team when he was picked by the Chicago Bears in 1949.
Taliaferro was a standout, three-time All-American at Indiana University, leading the Hoosiers to their only undefeated season in program history. He was one of the best players in collegiate football and played several positions, including halfback, quarterback, defensive back and kicker.
The NFL had a long history of racial discrimination and Taliaferro felt he had no chance of being drafted. So he signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference for $4,000, which adjusted for inflation is more than $40,000 today.
Taliaferro was surprised when the Bears picked him in the 13th round of the 1949 NFL Draft, but he had a contract to honor. Chicago owner George Halas was reportedly disappointed by Taliferro's decision and aired thoughts that reflected the discriminatory views NFL executives had about African-American players, saying that it was a shame Taliaferro didn't join Chicago because he was the first African-American player "I've felt could make the team," according to The New York Times.
The AAFC merged with the NFL following Taliaferro's rookie season in 1949—folding the Dons in the process. He joined the NFL's New York Yanks shortly afterward.
NFL executives continued to be racist once Taliaferro actually entered the league.
The Washington Redskins owner at the time, George Preston Marshall—who disallowed his team from having African-American players for decades—once yelled toward Taliaferro that "N----- should never be allowed to do anything but push wheelbarrows," according to the book Race and Football in America: The Life and Legacy of George Taliaferro.
Taliaferro said in that book that, in response, he bowled over his Redskins opponents, scoring three touchdowns in the process.
“The thing I liked most about football was hitting people,” he said in an interview for a documentary film, George Taliaferro: Hoosier Legend. “It allowed me to vent my frustrations with being discriminated against in the United States.”
Through it all, Taliaferro made three All-Pro teams and set the table for thousands of African-American players after him.
In his later years, Taliaferro accomplished plenty of achievements in the realm of education and social justice. He received a master's degree in social work from Howard University. He founded a branch of the Big Brothers Big Sisters foundation, which aims to help children in underprivileged communities gain guidance and mentorship. He also returned to Indiana University to become an affirmative action coordinator while serving as a special assistant to the president of the school. He became dean of students at Morgan State University.
Taliaferro died at the age of 91 in 2018.
His legacy lives on through his commitment to breaking barriers—both on and off the field.