The city of Gary, Ind., has produced a number of celebrities, athletic stars, world-class economists, and other noted personalities throughout its first 100 years. Some have maintained their relationships with and fondness for their hometown, while others have moved on without looking back.
But it’s doubtful whether any notable Gary native holds the city as close to heart as Gary Roosevelt and Indiana University Bloomington graduate George Taliaferro. The football star, who led the Hoosiers to an undefeated season and Big Ten championship in 1945, and who later became the first African-American to be drafted by an NFL team, returned to Northwest Indiana on Sunday for an alumni reception and book-signing event at the Radisson Hotel in Merrillville, and he showed no hesitation about expressing his affection for the town of his youth.
“I’m home,” Taliaferro told the audience of alumni and admirers who had come out to see him. “There cannot be a greater moment in my life than to come back to Gary, Ind., and to have you here to welcome me.”
Taliaferro was joined by IU alumna Dawn Knight, his former student and the author of a new book about his life, “Taliaferro – Breaking Barriers from the NFL Draft to the Ivory Tower.” Both Knight and Taliaferro signed copies of the book for the many friends, fans and IU alumni who attended the event.
Knight told the audience that Taliaferro’s inspiring classroom presence had nothing to do with his football career. That’s because he never mentioned it to his students. It was only years later, during conversations with her former instructor, that Knight learned about Taliaferro’s storied high school, college and professional gridiron accomplishments.
When she asked Taliaferro why he’d never mentioned football in class, his response was simple and straightforward.
“He said that it didn’t have anything to do with social work, so why should he mention it?” she recalled.
Knight, who is now a teacher at Westfield High School, credited Taliaferro with inspiring her to make a difference in the world.
“He wrote something on the board one day: ‘May our complacency disturb us profoundly today.’ At first I wasn’t sure what it meant, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. I realized that we really should be doing something to make a difference in somebody else’s life today, and leaving the world in a better place than we found it.”
Taliaferro, who still lives in Bloomington, said that he’s always strived to live up to the principles that he advocates to others. And though football was an important part of his early life, he expressed just as much pride in his accomplishments in the classroom, in the administration at IU, where he served as special assistant to IU President John Ryan for 10 years, and in his service to the community in Bloomington and throughout Indiana. Taliaferro was also one of the original 10 founders of the Neal-Marshall Alumni Association for African-American graduates of IU.
“I’ve said this to reporters all over the country: It would have been a sin for me not to have made a contribution to this life,” Taliaferro said.
Taliaferro, who is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, made an immediate impact on the Hoosiers in 1945, leading the team in rushing with 719 yards during his freshman year. That season saw the Hoosiers win the Big Ten with a 9-0-1 record, and Taliaferro was a crucial element of that powerhouse offense. In a 49-0 drubbing of Minnesota, for instance, Taliaferro scored three touchdowns, including one on a 95-yard kickoff return and another with an 82-yard interception return.
Taliaferro, who played halfback, quarterback and defensive back at various times for the Hoosiers, continued his tremendous college football career in 1947 and ’48, after serving a stint in the U.S. Army. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1949, becoming the first African-American to be selected by that league. But he turned down the opportunity to play for his favorite team because he had already signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-American Football Conference.
Taliaferro could have broken that commitment, but lessons learned years earlier from his father, who passed away at age 42 while Taliaferro was in college, ensured that such considerations never even crossed his mind.
On Sunday, Taliaferro recounted an instance from his youth when his father had asked him to turn over the soil in the family’s garden space. Taliaferro agreed that he would do so, but a visit to a friend’s house to go swimming interrupted those plans. When his father returned home from work and found the chore had not been completed, he placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and spoke the words that would remain with George Taliaferro for the rest of his life.
“He said, ‘A man is no better and no worse than his word,’” Taliaferro recalled.
His father never mentioned the incident again. He didn’t have to. Taliaferro said that his mother stood outside with a flashlight until 2:30 a.m. so that he could see to finish the job he had promised to complete for his father.
“She said, ‘Junior, you need to go in and eat,’” Taliaferro recalled. “But I said, ‘Never again will my father be able to tell me that I’m not a man.’ I have lived that moment every day for the 81 years I have been on this earth.”
In an interview with local sports writers on Sunday, Taliaferro downplayed the significance of his status as the first African-American football player to be drafted by the NFL. Any number of other players could have held that distinction, he said; his number just happened to come up at a time when the NFL began its move toward inclusion.
“There were so many other players from right here in Gary who could have played in the NFL,” he said. “I could tell you their names. It was just an idea whose time had come.”
Taliaferro did later play in the NFL for several teams, including the Indianapolis Colts. Current Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who wrote the forward for Knight's book, has cited Taliaferro as a personal inspiration.
Regarding today’s generation of professional athletes and youth in general, Taliaferro expressed a surprising degree of optimism, given the influence of money and fame in modern athletics.
“I have faith in the kids today,” he said. Taliaferro added that he encourages young people to become involved in the political process and to take ownership of their future.
“Understand politics and politicians,” he said. “Because your life, whether you participate or not, is going to be influenced by the policies and decisions that are made with or without your involvement.”