Obama’s win a dream for football pioneer

By Fred Mitchell
Updated: November 9, 2008

CHICAGO — The social, political and historical significance was not lost on George Taliaferro as he joined millions of Americans on Tuesday watching the results come in for the election of the first African-American president of the United States.

“Barack Obama and the American citizenry have just made it possible for everybody to dream,” Taliaferro said Wednesday from his home in Bloomington, Ind.

“He has opened the floodgates of hope for every human being on the face of the earth. Don’t ever stop dreaming.”

Taliaferro, 81, made it possible for young African-Americans to dream of playing professional football. After leading Indiana University to its only undefeated Big Ten championship in 1945, Taliaferro became the first African-American drafted by the NFL when the Bears picked him in 1949.

His pioneering story hasn’t resonated in the same way as that of Jackie Robinson in baseball, yet it is no less significant and should be shared with today’s NFL players, many of whom act as if they invented the game.

Taliaferro, who grew up in Gary, was a halfback, quarterback and punter on a Hoosiers team that included Rex Grossman Sr., the grandfather of the Bears quarterback who’ll probably start Sunday at Soldier Field.

“His grandfather was a great human being,” Taliaferro said. Because of the color of his skin, Taliaferro said he was not allowed to eat in the school cafeteria or swim in the pool at Indiana in the 1940s.

He was not allowed to live off campus, where more discrimination confronted him in restaurants and movie theaters. Yet the school promoted him as one of its star football players.

He later taught at the university and became special assistant to the president.

“I made up my mind one night while tears flowed out of my eyes … I could not understand why they would want me there and not treat me as a human being,” he recalled. “I made up my mind that being discriminated against was a small price to pay to become educated. And I demanded that I would be educated.”

Taliaferro, who completed his degree work in 1951, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

Even though he had dreamed of one day playing for his beloved Bears, Taliaferro had agreed to play for the Los Angeles Dons of the old All-America Football Conference before the 1949 NFL draft.

He had worked out diligently at Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side with 11 other pro football aspirants, including Illinois All-American halfback Buddy Young and Earl Banks.

One day after practicing, several of them stopped at a restaurant on 47th Street. Banks, who had blocked for Young at Phillips High School, joined the group later and said, “Guess who was drafted by the Bears?”

Taliaferro recalled the reaction of the assembled players:

“We all named white college football players that were known to us or that we played against. After we exhausted all of the names, Banks pulled out the Chicago Daily News, and across the front page of the entire paper was: ‘Taliaferro Drafted By Bears.’

“I almost choked,” Taliaferro said.

A man of his word, Taliaferro honored the contract he had agreed to with the Dons.

“As much as it was my fervent prayer to play for the Bears, I had given my word to play for the Los Angeles Dons, and that’s who I stuck with,” he said.

He later played in the NFL for Baltimore, Dallas, New York and Philadelphia and was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. Taliaferro retired after the ’55 season with the Eagles. In 1956, he respectfully rejected an offer from owner-coach George Halas to play for the Bears at the end of his career.

Said Taliaferro: “I told him, ‘Mr. Halas, I am nowhere near the football player that I used to be. I would be taking money under false pretenses. But I thank you.’ “