On a cool, foggy day in 1953, George Taliaferro stepped out of the mist and into history for the Baltimore Colts. When the team broke the huddle at the outset of a home game against the Los Angeles Rams, Taliaferro bent under center, becoming the first Black starting quarterback in modern NFL history.
Seventy years later, pro football is rich in African American quarterbacks. This season, a record 14 of the 32 teams began the year with a Black player calling signals. But before standouts like the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurt, there was Taliaferro. A fierce competitor, he played both offense and defense, and his appearance at quarterback on that gray Nov. 22 gave hope — and credence — to those of his race who would follow.
Long a stellar running back, Taliaferro was a three-time All-American at Indiana University and, in 1949, the first Black player to be drafted by an NFL team, by the Chicago Bears. He signed instead with the rival All-America Football Conference. When that league failed, at year’s end, Taliaferro joined the NFL’s New York Yankees, who became the Dallas Texans, who became the Colts in 1953.
Arriving in Baltimore as one of two African Americans on the team, Taliaferro was no stranger to local fans. In an earlier incarnation, the Colts had competed in the AAFC, where they gained notoriety as the league’s only all-white team. Meanwhile, the rival Los Angeles Dons boasted Taliaferro, who, in two victories that season over Baltimore, ran for two touchdowns and, from his tailback position, passed for two more.
By 1953, with the Colts, he was in his prime. Fans rallied behind the George-of-all-trades who led the fledgling NFL team that year in combined rushing, receiving, punt-return and kick-return yards (1,187). Taliaferro also punted and played cornerback, helping to meld an itinerant franchise that had moved to its third city in four years.
His best game came in a 27-17 October win over Washington, whose owner, George Preston Marshall, was an overt racist. Spurred by a pregame slur by Marshall — ”All [N-word] should be made to push wheelbarrows, and that’s all” — Taliaferro scored two touchdowns, on a 16-yard run and a 37-yard pass reception. Afterward, he hurried across the field to ask Marshall whether he had “pushed the wheelbarrow fast enough.”
(Taliaferro had long fought for social justice. While attending Indiana, unwilling to sit upstairs in the town’s segregated theater, he took a screwdriver, removed the “COLORED” sign from the balcony entrance and took a seat down below.)
In mid-November, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom met with the media and, despite the team’s dismal record (3-9 at year’s end), pledged an NFL championship one day for the city. One man’s play had raised the owner’s hopes.
“I’m a cynic,” Rosenbloom said, “but the sight of Taliaferro taking a pass … in the fading minutes of a losing ballgame, cutting down the sidelines and then running over two [opponents] when, and get this, he could have stepped out of bounds and saved himself from a possible injury, converted me.”
Four days later, with the Colts’ regular quarterbacks sidelined with injuries, Taliaferro made his historic debut at Memorial Stadium. On a field drenched in fog, he completed six of 21 passes for 53 yards and rushed for 136 yards, including both a 50-yard scramble and a 43-yard touchdown. Before a jubilant crowd of 27,268, The Sun reported, Taliaferro “swept around end, waved good-bye with his hip … and went over for the score.”
Though heavily favored, the Rams trailed 13-7 after three quarters before rallying for a 21-13 victory. The following week, against visiting San Francisco, Taliaferro started again at quarterback and, despite two badly bruised and bandaged fingers on his throwing hand, passed for two touchdowns in a 38-21 loss to the 49ers. In a third straight start, he hurt a knee early on and left the game. At year’s end, he was named to the Pro Bowl for a third time. But offseason knee surgery slowed him in 1954, and he retired from football.
Off the field, Taliaferro made a difference. He mentored at-risk youths in a Baltimore rec program and helped rehabilitate inmates at the Maryland Penitentiary. He earned a master’s degree in social work and worked at the Martin Marietta Corp., training Black residents for jobs in business.
In 1970, he was named dean of students at then-Morgan State College. Two years later, upon his return to Indiana University as assistant to the president, Taliaferro received praise from Dr. King V. Cheek, president of Morgan State.
“It has been his keen insight and understanding of youth that has kept our campus relatively free of disturbances in a troubled era,” Cheek said.
In 1981, Taliaferro earned a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. He died in 2018 at age 91.