George Taliaferro's Legacy
The following is a guest blog post from writer Dawn Knight, author of Race and Football: The Life and Legacy of George Taliaferro, available wherever books are sold on July 1, 2019.
“All sickness ain’t death,” George Taliaferro wrote on the board before every exam in his Introduction to Social Work class, an elective I was taking at the urging of my roommate. Taliaferro was, I would later learn, the very embodiment of the phrase. At the time, however, I was unaware that almost fifty years earlier, in 1945, Taliaferro had himself been a student at Indiana University and that his experience had been markedly different from my own.
Although he had been recruited to play football for Indiana, Taliaferro had not been permitted to live on campus because of his skin color. He never told our Introduction to Social Work class this because “It had nothing to do with social work,” he told me later. He also didn’t tell us that he was a starter for the Hoosiers while other universities in Indiana, like Purdue and Notre Dame, had no black players; and at other universities black players were stacked behind their white counterparts. Likewise, we didn’t know he had helped desegregate the university or gone on to be a trailblazer in the NFL. What he did tell us was that all people have worth and dignity and deserve respect, and that everyone has a story.
I learned Taliaferro’s story a couple of years after graduation, having remained in touch with him and sometimes “breaking bread” with him, his wife, and their friends. It was at one such dinner that I learned from his friend that Taliaferro was the first black quarterback and first black man drafted by an NFL team. Shocked that I hadn’t known and curious to learn more, I peppered my former professor with questions then and whenever I saw him after that. When it occurred to me that others should know his story, too, I wrote his 2007 biography, Taliaferro: Breaking Barriers from the NFL Draft to the Ivory Tower. However, in the decade following its publication, Taliaferro continued regaling me with stories – including accounts of his interactions with Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X. It didn’t take long for me to realize I would have to write a new version, Race and Football in America: The Life and Legacy of George Taliaferro, the impetus for which came in 2016, as I witnessed the nation’s divisiveness over kneeling NFL players.
I spent subsequent months researching and interviewing Taliaferro before he passed away in October of 2018. The result is a book that, while still about Taliaferro’s life and legacy, goes beyond him, too, weaving in stories of other trailblazers and exploring issues of race and football in America. My hope is that it will be a vehicle for dialogue, a starting point for honest discourse that can help us move from a place of polarization to one of better understanding.
Dawn Knight is an English teacher at Westfield High School in Westfield, IN, where she lives on a small horse farm with her husband and three kids. Knight met Taliaferro when she took his social work class at Indiana University. Later, having heard Taliaferro's story of breaking racial barriers both on and off the football field, as a star on Indiana University's undefeated 1945 football team and as the first black man drafted by an NFL team, she knew his story had to be told. Her latest book, Race and Football: The Life and Legacy of George Taliaferro, is available wherever books are sold on July 1, 2019.