Sixty-five years have passed, but Gino Marchetti remembers first meeting George Taliaferro, then a Colts running back.
“I arrived late for a team banquet [in Baltimore], and I saw this black guy sitting at a table by himself,” Marchetti said. “I said, ‘Mind if I sit here?’ He said, ‘OK.’ ”
Afterward, Taliaferro turned to the big defensive end and said, “I want to thank you.”
For what, Marchetti asked.
“For sitting with me,” his teammate said.
“That was George,” said Marchetti, 92, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. “He was a quiet guy who didn’t make any noise — except on the field when he got the ball.”
Taliaferro, the first black player ever drafted by the NFL and a star for the Colts in 1953, died Monday in Mason, Ohio. He was 91. A three-time All American at Indiana, he was a 13th-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1949 but signed instead with the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All-America Football Conference. When that league failed, a year later, Taliaferro signed with the New York Yanks, who became the Dallas Texans, who became the Colts in 1953.
An elusive runner, he scored four touchdowns and led that fledgling team in total yards (1,398), earning the Colts Most Valuable Offensive Back award. Taliaferro rushed for 479 yards, caught 20 passes for 346 yards and passed for 211 more. He also punted 65 times (37.5-yard average) and returned punts and kickoffs for 364 yards. For three straight years, he was selected to the Pro Bowl.
“George can run with any of them,” said coach Weeb Ewbank, whose team went 3-9. Taliaferro scored two touchdowns in a 27-17 win over the Washington Redskins. On Nov. 22, pressed into duty at quarterback, he became the first black player to start at that position in the NFL. (One month earlier, Willie Thrower, of the Chicago Bears, had appeared in a game as the league’s first black quarterback.)
A thick fog hugged Baltimore Stadium that afternoon as the favored Los Angeles Rams defeated the Colts, 21-13. For his part, Taliaferro carried 16 times for 136 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown, and completed six of 21 passes for 53 yards, with two interceptions.
The following week, playing with two bruised fingers on his throwing hand, he passed for two touchdowns, rushed for 76 yards and caught two passes in a 38-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Off-season knee surgery hampered Taliaferro in 1954 and, after a trial at defensive back, the Colts released him in training camp the following season.
He settled in Baltimore to work with disadvantaged youths. With funding from Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, he established a recreation program at Lafayette Square Community Center, and did prisoner rehabilitation work at the Maryland State Penitentiary. In 1962, Taliaferro earned a master’s degree in social work at Howard, then served as field instructor to the Juvenile Court at the University of Maryland. He also worked for the Martin Marietta Corp., training urban black males for business careers.
In 1970, he was named Dean of Students at Morgan State College.
“It is impossible to go to any college or university campus in America today without concerning yourself with unrest and dissent, and the seeds from which they grow,” Taliaferro said then. “My primary aim is to impress upon Morgan’s students the importance of making positive use of their talents and the college.”
Two years later, he resigned to return to Indiana as special assistant to the president, to recruit and counsel minority students. On his departure, Dr. King V. Cheek, president of Morgan State College, paid tribute to Taliaferro.
“It has been his keen insight and understanding of youth that has kept our campus relatively free of disturbances in a troubled era,” King said.
In 1981, Taliaferro was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
“He was a hell of a football player,” Marchetti said, “and a hell of a nice guy.”