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Indiana football Hall of Famer still impressive

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For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Taliaferro overcame opponents, racism and more

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 5:25 pm

BLOOMINGTON -- George Taliaferro rakes fallen pine tree limbs from his mulched landscaping. His pace is steady and sure. There is time to do what needs to be done. There is always time for that.

“I'll be with you in a minute, young man,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes to the visitor who is no longer young.

Perspective, you see, is everything.

Taliaferro is 86 going on 56. He is a sharp-witted man shrugging off age as he once did would-be tacklers. He has a firm handshake, a direct gaze and a personality that dominates rooms just as his athletic talent once dominated football fields.

Taliaferro is, if you believe former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, an NFL legend, and if he lacks Jackie Robinson's world-renowned pioneer reputation, if walking away was not how he handled bigotry, well, don't under-estimate his national role in ending racial injustice.

We'll get to that.

Taliaferro is a former Indiana University All-America, NFL All-Pro and College Football Hall of Famer. He was the first African American player to be drafted by an NFL team (Chicago in 1949) and the first to play quarterback in the NFL (Baltimore, 1953). He was a running back, a kick returner, a quarterback, a receiver, a punter and a defensive back. He was a 6-foot, 200-pound force of nature, and if he's lost a step or two over the years, that doesn't mean he's any less impressive.

In the decades since his 1955 retirement from football, Taliaferro has been a prison official, a university professor, a dean of students, and, finally, an IU administrator. His charitable work helped him win the Big Ten's Dungy-Thompson Humanitarian Award.

“It's impossible to overstate how important George has been from his time on campus through his direct involvement as an administrator and even now as a mentor to the players, coaches and administrators,” IU Athletic Director Fred Glass says. “I admired George and his wife, Vi, before I knew them. Nobody has been more helpful to me than George and Vi. Everybody knows the story about him breaking color barriers here at IU and nationally, about being a leader in Civil Rights. The guy can break down life advice and athletic advice, and I've been a great beneficiary of that.”

Sixteen months of unexpected military service that cost Taliaferro a year of college eligibility didn't slow him down. Neither did a segregated nation and its sometimes hostile ways, where he was good enough to play football for IU, but not good enough to stay in its dorms or swim in its public pool or eat in Bloomington restaurants.

He helped change that, by the way.

Taliaferro knew Jackie Robinson, the man who shattered major league baseball's color barrier in the late 1940s not by lashing out at racism, but by turning the other cheek to it. Taliaferro admired Robinson even if he could never duplicate that approach.

“Jackie Robinson was the only African American athlete, in my judgment, who could have integrated baseball,” he says. “I don't think I could have done it. I got to know most of the other outstanding African American players and none of them could have done it.

“He wasn't the best black player, but he was the best one who could commit himself to taking the injustices he was dealt and never say a word. Integrating baseball was bigger than he was.”

Taliaferro had his own struggles with athletic injustice.

“Most of the time I was treated with respect,” he says, “but I was very much aware of the players who allowed their racism to show in the way they conducted themselves.”

That awareness sometimes led to confrontation. Perhaps the most famous example came in the early 1950s. Taliaferro was playing for Baltimore. The Colts faced the San Francisco 49ers in an exhibition game. The 49ers had a player named Sam Cathcart. Taliaferro had heard that Cathcart was a racist and that he targeted black players during games.

During the game, Taliaferro punted and Cathcart returned it, running right at Taliaferro. Rather than trying to dodge the tackle, Taliaferro says, Cathcart leaped feet first at him. In that era, players wore leather helmets without face masks. Their shoes had sharp spikes. A kick in the face could cause major damage.

Taliaferro blocked the kick to his face, but took a shot to his chest.

“It separated the sternum from the clavicle,” he says.

As Cathcart fell to his back, Taliaferro says he punched him twice in the face.

“The first punch broke his nose. (Heavyweight boxing champ) Joe Louis would have been proud of the way I nailed him.”

Years later in an interview, Cathcart said he didn't try to kick Taliaferro in the face, but Taliaferro doesn't buy it.

“There was no reason for him to jump feet first into me.”

Taliaferro was a three-time All-America at IU. As a freshman running back in 1945, he led the team with 719 rushing yards and a 4.5-yards-per-carry average. In his college debut, against Michigan, he rushed for 94 yards as the Hoosiers won 13-7.

“I had an exceptional day for a freshman,” he says. “I ran wild. Nobody knew it was basically out of fear. Fear is a great motivator.”

The Hoosiers went on to finish 9-0-1 and win their only outright Big Ten championship. As a senior quarterback, Taliaferro threw for 550 yards and three touchdowns; he rushed for 262 yards and three TDs.

Then it was time for the pros, but the NFL had never drafted an African American player. Taliaferro had no reason to think that would change for him. While his dream was to play for the Chicago Bears (he had been a standout high school athlete in Gary, Ind.), he figured he had no chance to do that. So he signed a contract to play for the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference.

Then, in the 13th round of the 1949 draft, the Bears picked him. Taliaferro could live his dream, but he was a man of his word, and he had signed with the Dons. So he passed on the Bears and played for Los Angeles, winning rookie of the year honors. Then the league folded and he switched to the NFL, playing for the New York Yanks, the Dallas Texas, the Baltimore Colts and, finally, the Philadelphia Eagles. He made all-pro three times before injuries ended his career.

Taliaferro remains a presence at IU games. He participated in a youth clinic during last month's spring football game at Memorial Stadium.

“What's impressed me is the aura and presence he has,” coach Kevin Wilson says. “He's an iconic figure at Indiana with all the barriers he broke and the way he broke them. I'm impressed with the integrity and quality of the man. He's a better man than he was a player, and he's in the College Hall of Fame. When he walks in a room and starts talking, everyone gets quiet and you listen. It's respect.

“He's been a positive influence. When he speaks to a group or meets with someone, it's been a home run. He's a big-time special Hoosier.”

Taliaferro spends nearly three hours with a visitor before yard work calls. He offers a final message that's as relevant now as it was when he was a young man and all things seemed possible.

“This opportunity will never surface again. Be the best you can be. That goes for men and women. It goes for athletics and education. Take advantage of this opportunity.”