Tom Archdeacon: Reminiscing with the NFL’s first black quarterback

He opened the old leather bag in front of him and with his left hand — where the ring finger was adorned with a bulky, gold College Football Hall of Fame ring — he began rummaging through the packed contents.

“I’ll show you how Jim Crow it was back then,” George Taliaferro said quietly as he began his search, pulling out and setting aside a folder of newspaper clippings, some old photos and a copy of his 2007 book, “Taliaferro: Breaking Barriers from the NFL Draft to the Ivory Tower.”

Finally, he found what he was looking for at the bottom of the bag. It was a white metal sign, about the size of a 12-inch ruler, that bore seven blue letters and one divisive proclamation:


“I just got this back two months ago from the Indiana State Museum (in Indianapolis),” he said. “I’d loaned it to them for a year-long exhibition.”

The sign originally had hung in the historic Princess Theater in Bloomington, Indiana. It had designated the only area — up in the balcony — where black patrons were allowed to sit in the 1940s.

“We had to sit up top to watch the motion pictures and then only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Taliaferro said. “I finally took a screw driver and got that sign down and out of there.”

A few days ago at the Barrington independent and assisted living complex in West Chester where he lives, George took a break from caring for Viola — his beloved wife of nearly 66 years who is dealing with Alzheimer’s — and shared some stories about his life as a pioneering star in college and pro football..

After living in Bloomington for 42 years, he and Viola moved to West Chester 17 months ago to be closer to one of their daughters who lives nearby.

Although he’s been here just a short time, George has made a splash with some of the other residents, their families and the staff, all of whom are amazed at the way he carries himself at age 90.

He’s charming and caring and sharp.

And imagine if the folks here knew the whole story, how he used to take down barriers, not with a screw driver, but with his arms and his legs, his smarts and his will.

In the process he became the first African-American drafted into the National Football League and its first African-American quarterback.

Tony Dungy, the Pro Football Hall of Fame player and coach, penned the forward to that book written by Dawn Knight.

“He helped change the landscape of football much the way Jackie Robinson did for baseball,” Dungy wrote. “Every African-American in the NFL today owes a debt of gratitude to George.”

Taliaferro not only helped integrate Bloomington, but he raised Indiana University football to a height never known before … or since.

In 1945, as a freshman in his first college game, he led the Hoosiers to victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was the Wolverines only loss that season. In the eighth game he led IU to a 49-0 rout of No. 20 Minnesota, scoring three touchdowns, including returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a score and running back an interception 82 yards for another TD.

Indiana had its only undefeated season that year — going 9-0-1 after a tie with Northwestern — and won its only outright Big Ten football title. Taliaferro became the first African-American to lead the Big Ten in rushing (719 yards) and was named a second team All-American.

He was similarly honored after the ‘47 and ‘48 seasons and might have been in 1946 too had his college career not been interrupted for a year when he suddenly was drafted into the Army. He said he was later told by some in the know that Michigan coach Fritz Crisler secretly helped orchestrate his change of uniforms.

As a pro, Taliaferro first played with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference and was voted rookie of the year. In the five years that followed in the NFL, he was named All-Pro three times.

And he often excelled under especially trying racial circumstances.

When he played for the Dallas Texans, his wife was not permitted to sit with the other wives at home games in the segregated Cotton Bowl. Instead she was relegated to the distant “Colored” section.

By 1953, the Texans had become the Baltimore Colts and that led to another mettle-testing moment during a game with the Washington Redskins. As Knight recounted in her book:

Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who for decades refused to have a black player on his roster, ended up standing behind Taliaferro during team introductions that day.

“N——- should never be allowed to do anything but push wheelbarrows,” he said loudly.

Taliaferro heard him and ended up dumping a wheelbarrow load of points on the ‘Skins.

“I went out that day,” Taliaferro laughed, “and scored three touchdowns.”

Turned down Bears

Taliaferro’s father had a fourth-grade education, his mother a sixth-grade.

When he was two months old, his parents moved from Humboldt, Tennessee to Gary, Indiana, where his dad found work in a steel mill.

“From the time I was 6 until I graduated high school, my mom and dad always said two things to me,” he recalled. “It was ‘We love you’ and ‘You must be educated.’ ”

While his mother was his lifelong counselor, his dad — because of his work ethic, backbone and moral compass — was his role model.

And that prompted a story:

When he was 12, Taliaferro said his father asked him to spade the garden while he was at work. Instead George went off with his buddies to a nearby swimming pool.

“It was about 90 degrees, a beautiful, sunshiny day,” he recalled. “The concrete was hotter than fire, the water felt cold as ice. I flipped and flopped and dived and eventually I fell asleep.”

When his dad arrived home from work and saw the untouched garden, he delivered a withering admonition.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘A man is no better and no worse than his word,’ ” remembered Taliaferro, who said he had been so shaken back then that he began working in the plot that evening and did not stop:

“My mom came out and held a lantern. She begged me, ‘Junior, go to bed and finish it tomorrow.’ But I kept at it until 5 a.m. I said, ‘He’ll never say that to me again.’ ”

When it came to education, Taliaferro found doors opened for him through sports. A football star at all-black Roosevelt High School in Gary, he had college offers from several schools, including UCLA, Illinois, North Carolina Central and Wilberforce.

He chose Indiana and said he got a “rude awakening” when he got to Bloomington.

Instead of living in the athletes’ dormitory, he and a few other black players were sent to live with a local black couple, John and Ruth Mays, whose house was near campus.

“I couldn’t sit anywhere I wanted in class either. I had to sit in the back,” he said. “In the cafeteria we had one table in the corner for African-Americans. You couldn’t sit anywhere else.”

He said some restaurants in town didn’t serve blacks and the swimming pool and theater were segregated.

“Finally I called my father and said, ‘I don’t want to attend Indiana University, I want to come home,’ ” he said. “I told him all the things I couldn’t do and finally this man with a fourth-grade education said, ‘Isn’t there another reason you’re at Indiana University?’

“Then he hung up.

“And that’s when it finally hit me. I cried all night and the next morning I woke up with my pillowcase wet. What had my mother and father always told me? ‘Get an education.’

“Discrimination never bothered me after that.”

That’s not to say everything went smoothly, especially after the ‘45 season when he was taken into the Army and ended up at Camp (Robert E.) Lee in Petersburg, Va.

“I remember when we got to camp, 64 of the guys on the bus were taken to the barracks, but I was put in a weapons carrier and taken to see the commanding officer, Brig. General Graham.

“He said, ‘Son, I’m happy to have you as part of our outfit and I look forward to you bringing us a football championship.’

“Well, I was as PO’d as I’ve ever been in my life and I told him, ‘I don’t plan to play football here.’ And I remember his answer verbatim. He said, ‘You do have an alternative. You can either play football or go to Officer Candidate School and that’s an automatic three-year enlistment.’”

Taliaferro smiled as he recalled his response:

“I told him, I’ll see you after football practice!’”

He was made the captain of the Camp Lee team, and after stardom there, he returned for two more trumpeted years at Indiana.

In 1949, he chose to forgo his final year of Hoosier football and play pro ball. He got a $4,000 bonus for signing to play with the Dons of the AAFC, which was a rival of the NFL.

He never imagined being drafted by the NFL. No African-American player ever had been and, in fact, from 1934 to 1946 there was an informal ban on black players in the league.

By 1949 only a few blacks were on rosters, whereas the AAFC — which included the Cleveland Browns — was more open to players of color.

Taliaferro said he was having lunch in Chicago with several other top black players when Iowa standout Earl Banks walked up with a copy of the Chicago Defender he kept hidden.

He asked them to guess who had been drafted by the Chicago Bears.

“We all started naming white football players and finally he held up the newspaper,” Taliaferro said.

The big, bold headline read: “Taliaferro Drafted by Bears.”

“I had followed the Bears my whole life,” he said. “It was a dream come true, but I’d already signed with the Dons. But I figured I could give the $4,000 back and tear up the contract.”

Although his father had been accidentally shot and killed on Christmas Day 1947 by his brother — who had gotten a new shotgun and didn’t know it was loaded — George’s mom remained a font of sage advice.

And this time he said she drew on something George’s father had instilled:

“She said, ‘What did you promise your father?’ I knew right away. I had to be a man of my word, so I never even bothered getting back to George Halas and the Bears.”

Played for Yankees

When he’d been stationed at Camp Lee, Taliaferro had ventured over to nearby Virginia State College for Negros to watch the football team practice. Sitting in the stands he met Milton Purvis, a sportswriter for the school paper who soon introduced him to the team and then four girls in the cafeteria.

One was Viola Jones, a beautiful cheerleader and top student from West Virginia.

“I took one look at her and said, ‘Where’s she been all my life?’ ” grinned Taliaferro.

After that he found excuses to come to campus and soon was courting her. They married in November 1950 and had four daughters.

By 1950 the AAFC had folded and four of its teams, including Cleveland, joined the NFL. Players like Taliaferro from the remaining franchises were put into a draft.

He ended up with the New York Yankees, who two years later would become the Texans and then the Colts. He made history in New York as the league’s first black quarterback and in 1951 he also led the NFL in kickoff returns. He was named an All-Pro as a Yankee, a Texan and a Colt.

Although one of the most valuable players on his teams — playing seven positions: quarterback, halfback, wide receiver, cornerback, punter, kick returner and punt returner — he still was forced to stay in separate quarters when his teams stayed in “whites only” hotels in the South.

After football he got a master’s degree at Howard University, became a social worker helping prisoners and coached at Morgan State.

Eventually he and Viola moved to Bloomington, where he became a special assistant to the IU president and later a professor. Off campus he launched the Boys and Girls Club in Bloomington and for over 30 years worked with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association, helping raise $100 million for kids in need.

Viola, who got a degree from IU as did all four of the Taliaferro daughters, became a Monroe County circuit court judge, the state’s first African-American judge south of Indianapolis, and served as a special adviser to U.S Attorney General Janet Reno.

Knight’s book opens with a head-shaking story from Halloween night in Bloomington a dozen years ago. After answering the door, talking with three little white children and giving them candy, George listened as the littlest boy looked at him and said, ‘Thanks, n——-!’”

Asked why the racial remarks and treatment through the years never turned him angry or bitter, Taliaferro smiled:

“That’s thanks to my mother and father. They always told me I was somebody.”

Over the years, plenty of people realized that, especially Carl Biesecker, who first met George in a groundbreaking high school game back in Gary in 1944.

Biesecker played for all-white Horace Mann High. Taliaferro starred for all-black Roosevelt. Their teams met in the city’s first integrated football game and afterward Biesecker walked across the field to shake hands with Taliaferro.

“It was a historic moment,” Taliaferro said. “He told me, ‘After all we’d heard, it was an absolute pleasure to play against you.’

“He’s now 90 years of age, as am I, and he lives in Arizona in a facility just like this.”

Biersecker also had been caring for his wife, Lucy, who eventually died from Alzheimer’s. Then he had a stroke. When he recovered, he asked his daughter for a favor, said Taliaferro:

“He said, ‘Before I die, grant me one wish. See if you can find George Taliaferro.’ ”

The men were reunited in Phoenix in 2015.

According to a reporter at the reunion, Taliaferro walked in and said:

“How you doin’ baby?”

The two men laughed through the tears, reached out and shook hands again.

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