Sports as a test of character
In addressing the question of the importance of sport at a university, I have regularly quoted the philosopher Matthew Beard. Beard writes: "All the way back to the ancient Greeks, the entire purpose of sport was to test character and practice overcoming challenges and struggles in a fictional, contrived environment. [That was] so that when we were faced with challenges in the real world, we would be able to overcome them there as well."1
The life and career of the alumnus we honor today is an excellent illustration of the accuracy of Beard’s description of the purpose of sports. For throughout his life, not only did George Taliaferro excel as an athlete, but he also overcame the real-world struggles of racism and prejudice, of segregation and oppression. And in the process, he demonstrated courage, determination, and perseverance, and earned a special place in the annals of our state and its flagship public university.
Honoring George Taliaferro
George was born in Tennessee, and his family moved to Gary, Indiana, when he was an infant.
He became a standout athlete at Gary Roosevelt High School, where he lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and track. At the all-black school, teams were not permitted to play against white schools in contact sports, which meant that the football team had to travel around the Midwest, and even as far as Tuskegee, Alabama, to compete against teams from black schools. It was, however, George’s outstanding performance in a hastily scheduled game against the state’s powerhouse, the undefeated all-white East Chicago Roosevelt team, that brought him to the attention of then-IU football coach Bo McMillian and to Indiana University.2
And, of course, he became one of the greatest players in IU football history. Before his career was finished, he led the Hoosiers in rushing, passing, and punting—and he accomplished all of this in what is now called the “iron man” era, when members of the football team played both offense and defense.
George helped lead the 1945 IU football team to the only undefeated Big Ten championship in Hoosier football history.
He was IU's first three-time All-American.
As a student-athlete at IU—at a time when segregation was prevalent across our state and nation, and in the face of tremendous obstacles—he fought to integrate the classrooms, cafeterias, movie theaters, and restaurants of Bloomington.
In the spring of 1947, when George was doing his student teaching at the University School, he had to quickly return to his boarding house to eat lunch because no nearby restaurants would serve him because of the color of his skin. But one day, instead of returning home for lunch, he went to see then-IU President Herman Wells. Their conversation led to a phone call between President Wells and the manager of The Gables restaurant on Indiana Avenue, which resulted in their ban on African American customers being lifted. And so, by standing up for what was right, George was responsible for one of the first major steps in desegregating the restaurants of Bloomington.
The "Jackie Robinson of football," George went on to become the first African-American player to be drafted by the National Football League, where he was the only player in the history of the league to play seven positions—running back, quarterback, punter, wide receiver, punt returner, kickoff returner and cornerback. And he excelled in all of these positions, earning Pro Bowl honors in three of his six seasons.
When he left IU for professional football, he pledged to his mother that he would not sever ties with the university, but that he would come back to finish his degree, which he did, earning his bachelor's degree in physical education from IU in 1951.
After his football career ended, George continued to be a champion for fairness, compassion, and equality. He devoted himself to social work positions in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. After earning a Master’s degree at Howard University, he taught at the University of Maryland and served as dean of students at Morgan State University.
In 1972, IU's 14th president, John Ryan, asked George to serve as a special assistant to the president. In this role, he was integrally involved in the development of one of IU’s first formal university-wide Affirmative Action plans, a plan that that would help to ensure more equitable treatment of minorities and women and ensure the university’s compliance with new federal regulations.
As assistant to President Ryan, George also helped to recruit and counsel minority students, and he advised the IUPUI Chancellor and the deans of the IU School of Social Work. He also served as an assistant professor in IU’s School of Social Work, and chaired the Big Ten Advisory Committee, which comprised one black athlete from each conference school.
George was also a tireless community activist, who helped establish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of South-Central Indiana, and served as chair of the board of directors of the Children's Organ Transplant Association, a national non-profit organization based in Bloomington that helps children and young adults who need life-saving transplants.
Reminders of the triumphs of IU Athletics
As the displays here, in the magnificent Henke Hall of Champions that honor the accomplishments of Indiana University's student athletes, remind us, the history of IU Athletics has been marked by many triumphs.
Among them are: 178 Big Ten regular season championships,19 Big Ten Tournament championships, 25 team national championships, 145 NCAA individual national championships, and 104 Olympic medals.
And now, in George Taliaferro Plaza and its centerpiece statue, every visitor to Indiana Memorial Stadium will be reminded of the enormous contributions George made to IU and to this community, as an outstanding athlete, as a champion of racial equality, as a dedicated educator and administrator, as a tireless community activist, and as a friend and mentor to many.
Indiana University will be forever grateful.
- Matthew Beard, as quoted in Phil Mercer, “Australia Cricket Scandal: A Body Blow to an Incredulous Nation,” BBC News, March 26, 2018, Web, Accessed October 29, 2019, URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-43537767.
- Dawn Knight, Taliaferro: Breaking Barriers from the NFL Draft to the Ivory Tower, (IU Press, 2007).