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George Taliaferro, pioneer and 1949 Bears draftee, passes away

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The All-American back at Indiana University was the first black player drafted by the NFL. He died Monday night at 91.

George Taliaferro, seen here at Indiana University, where he was a three-time All-American. The Bears selected him in the 13th round of the 1949 NFL draft, making him the first African-American player drafted by the NFL. (photo via iuhoosiers.com)

George Taliaferro, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the first black player drafted by the NFL, died Monday night at the age of 91.

The Bears selected Taliaferro out of Indiana University in the 13th round of the 1949 NFL draft, held in December of 1948, making him the first black player drafted by an NFL team. A native of Gary, Indiana, Taliaferro grew up a Bears fan, and was stunned to get the news that his favorite team had drafted him.

He recounted that story in 2008 to the Chicago Tribune’s Fred Mitchell, noting that while eating at a restaurant on 47th Street in Chicago after a football practice, football star Earl Banks joined Taliaferro’s group and asked, “Guess who was drafted by the Bears?”

“We all named white college football players that were known to us or that we played against,” Taliaferro told Mitchell. “After we exhausted all of the names, Banks pulled out (a newspaper), and across the front page of the entire paper was ‘TALIAFERRO DRAFTED BY BEARS.’ I almost choked.”

Had he come to the Bears, Taliaferro would have been the first black player in franchise history. But a week before the draft, he had signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dons of the All American Football Conference, where he began his career instead.

Taliaferro never played for the Bears — the first black player in franchise history instead was Eddie Macon, who the team drafted in the 2nd round in 1952 — but he did go on to a stellar professional career. After one year with the Dons, he joined the NFL in 1950 with the New York Yanks and played for the Yanks, Texans, Colts and Eagles in six NFL seasons. He was a Pro Bowler in ‘51, ‘52 and ‘53.

Though technically drafted as a halfback, Taliaferro’s other historic professional distinction is as the first black player drafted to the NFL with quarterback skills. According to Greg Howard’s tome on Deadspin “The Big Book of Black Quarterbacks,” Taliaferro was the third African American QB in NFL history, albeit in the position’s early deviations.

This versatility can be seen in his professional statistics. He rushed for 2,266 yards on 498 carries with 15 touchdowns, caught 95 passes for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns, passed for 1,633 yards on 284 attempts and 10 touchdowns, amassed a 37.5 yards per punt average on 169 punts, including a league-leading 76 in 1951, and gained 2,354 yards on 131 combined kick and punt returns with one touchdown.

Wrote Howard:

If you asked George Taliaferro, he’d probably say he doesn’t belong on this list. He didn’t consider himself just a quarterback, and he was drafted as a halfback. But he took snaps from the shotgun formation before the T-formation became fashionable, and he was called on to throw as well as run and punt. For our purposes, we’ll call him a quarterback, which would make him the first black player drafted into the NFL to play a quarterback-like position.

As Taliaferro told the New York Times’s William C. Rhoden in 2008, after watching the Miami Dolphins and Ronnie Brown effectively bring back the single-wing offense in the form of the Wildcat, “You see what this kid is doing? That was the fear of every defensive coordinator when I was in pro football: ‘You got to watch out for Taliaferro. You got to know where he is.’”

For more on Taliaferro, see The Undefeated’s interview with him last year, and this memorial from his alma mater Indiana University, where the above photo is from.

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Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.