Breaking News Emails
Their friendship was cemented with a handshake on a high-school football field in a segregated steel-mill town — a white player reaching across an invisible barrier to praise his black rival, who would go on to become the first African-American drafted by the NFL.
The lives of Carl Biesecker and George Taliaferro would align a number of times after that day in 1944: they both served in World War II, played football for Indiana University as undergraduates, and returned to the school for graduate studies.
But time and geography intervened, and before this week, the two old pals had not seen each other in six decades. That all changed a few days ago when, thanks to a program that grants wishes for the elderly, Biesecker and Taliaferro were reunited.
Tears and memories flowed like champagne after the Super Bowl as they laid eyes on each other in an Arizona nursing home.
"It can't be much better than this," said Taliaferro, 88, who played in the NFL for six years.
"God bless you," Biesecker said. "Been a long time, George."
The pair first met on a playground in Gary, Indiana, about 30 miles from Chicago, where a sign that ordered blacks to leave after dark illustrated the Jim Crow laws of the time.
"The black population lived in their part of town and we lived in our part of town. And when the sun started to set, he headed back to his area. I headed back to my area," Biesecker, 87, said. "And that's the way we grew up."
The city's color line extended to the high-school athletic fields. But in 1944, the black school Taliaferro attended, Roosevelt, was allowed to play against all-white Horace Mann, where Biesecker went.
Horace Mann won, and at the end of the game, with the fans watching, Biesecker extended his hand to Taliaferro to congratulate him for a game well played.
Seventy years later, Taliaferro can still remember Biesecker's exact words: "It was a pleasure playing against you with all that we have heard about what kind of a football player you are."
It was, he says, "a monumental gesture on Carl's part to congratulate me on the field of battle."
Biesecker's daughter, Madeline Yakubchak, says it was a great moment for both young men: "They broke the barriers."
It wasn't long before Taliaferro was breaking barriers again. As a student activist at Indiana University, he pushed to desegregate the Bloomington campus. And in 1949, he became the first black player drafted by an NFL club, although a handful of other African-Americans played in the league before him.
Sometimes called "the Jackie Robinson of the NFL," he went on to play for New York, Dallas, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
After retirement, he returned to Indiana University to study education and reconnected there with Biesecker. "It was then that we really became close," he recalled.
"Everything that I have attempted in my life, every opportunity that I have ever had stems back to him and a handshake."
After a few years, though, they were separated again. Biesecker moved to Phoenix, where he worked for the state Department of Education for 30 years, while Taliaferro stayed in Indiana. They earned doctorates, raised families and never quite carried through on plans to get together again.
In recent years, Biesecker was occupied with caring for his wife, Lucy, who suffered from Alzheimer's. But one day, about four years ago, he called his daughter, Angela Bowers, at work and said, "You remember George Taliaferro?.. I'd really like to talk to him."
Angela found a number, calling Bloomington and left a message. Two minutes later, Taliaferro called back and told her, "Your father was my friend when it was not politically correct to be my friend."
The two rekindled their friendship long-distance with regular phone calls. And when Biesecker, by then a widower, was recovering from a stroke in October, the first person he wanted to call was Taliaferro. "I've gotta hear his voice," he said.
The stroke wasn't catastrophic, but Biesecker did move to a Brookdale Senior Living facility in Peoria, Arizona. As his daughters filled out the paperwork, one of the questions was whether their father had a "lifetime wish" that wasn't fulfilled.
"And we both looked at each and we went, 'George,'" Angela said.
A history of the men's relationship piqued interest at the Wish of a Lifetime Foundation, which has a partnership with Brookdale, and they set in motion a plan to bring Taliaferro to his frailer friend. It happened in a room filled with warm recollections and grandkids.
"This is a lesson that you can't learn in a book," Angela said.
"How you doin', baby?" Taliaferro laughed when he spied his old high-school opponent.
It took about 10 seconds before they were reliving the glory days.
"I'm not afraid of you catching me," Taliaferro joked.
"Well," Biesecker shot back, "I used to catch you."
The talk soon turned to what happened after the game in 1944. Taliaferro said he can trace all the achievements in his life back to that interaction.
"That is the moment that I became a human being with worth and dignity because he showed me in one single gesture by a shake of hands that, 'You are all right with me.' And I took that symbol of friendship and ran with it," he said.
"And everything that I have attempted in my life, every opportunity that I have ever had stems back to him and a handshake."