When no one believed black players belonged in the NFL, he proved they did

Posted at 11:14 PM, Mar 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-02 00:34:02-05

MASON, Ohio -- George Taliaferro, a 91-year-old retiree in a white mustache and horn-rimmed glasses, is living history for Indiana University: A three-time All-American, a team player capable of excelling in any position and a key ingredient in his alma mater's only solo Big 10 championship win.

When he enrolled there in 1945, one of only a few black students pursuing a higher education at the majority-white institution, he was persona non grata. 

"It was like being a third-class citizen," he recalled Thursday. "I couldn't eat in the cafeteria; I couldn't swim in the swimming pool; I couldn't live in the dormitory."

He considered dropping out the first week -- and the second and the third -- but the thought of disappointing his parents, neither of whom had ever graduated high school or made more than $22 in a week, was even worse than the prospect of staying where many white students and professors were determined to make him feel unwelcome.

Football became the vehicle that carried him forward. He played it "with every heartbeat, with every stride," he said, eventually leading the team to the championship title.

"Being discriminated against never bothered me after that because I was going to strive to the best of my ability to be the best human being that I could be," he said. "I was going to be educated."

In 1949, he became the first black athlete every drafted by the National Football League. He declined the Chicago Bears' invite that year in favor of the All-America Football Conference's Los Angeles Dons, but migrated to the NFL in the ‘50s to play with the New York Yanks, Dallas Texas, Baltimore Colts and Philadelphia Eagles. 

Today, imagining what the world of professional sports might look like without the athletic contributions of black players is nearly impossible. A 2016 study found about 68 percent of all NFL players were black, as were 75 percent of National Basketball Association Players. The number of black athletes who have broken world records and turned in iconic careers is inestimable.

Early trailblazers like Taliaferro helped make a path for them, one step at a time.

"After a while," he said, "everybody saw that it was the right thing to do."