BY MIKE LEONARD
It started with a handshake — a handshake that neither man could possibly know would turn into a friendship of more than 70 years and a story that will be told on national television Friday, January 30, as an NBC Today show exclusive.
The tale begins on a crisp, October evening in Gary, Indiana, where for the first time in history, all-white Horace Mann High School met all-black Gary Roosevelt High School in a varsity football game. Competition between segregated white and black schools had been prohibited until the Indiana High School Athletic Association lifted the ban for the 1944 season.
Horace Mann won the game. But afterwards, a Mann lineman named Carl Beisecker made his way across the field, seeking out star Roosevelt running back George Taliaferro. “He came over and extended his hand and said ‘It was a pleasure to play against you after all we heard about you,’” George recalls. “It touched me because none of the other white football players ever said anything to me or my teammates. It was segregated Gary in 1944. They were white and we were black, and never the twain shall meet.”
Both men wound up in the military service within 18 months. And both would find themselves enrolled as students at Indiana University near the end of the decade. The act of respect demonstrated on that Gary football field blossomed into a bond as both men became members of the IU football team and neighbors in the Woodlawn Courts trailer park that IU constructed to accommodate the influx of incoming GIs and their families.
The men lost track of each other after 1951. But recently, George got a call from the Wish of a Lifetime organization, telling him that the ailing Beisecker’s wish was to see his dear friend George Taliaferro again.
The organization arranged to fly George and his wife, Vi, to Phoenix last weekend. On Sunday, they were taken to the Freedom Plaza Care Center where they were greeted by what both Taliferros describe as “a huge crowd.” Flyers had been posted throughout the senior care facility that George, a “3-time Pro Bowler, and Indiana University great” would be there to reunite with his friend, Beisecker.
“The gentleman from the television show kept asking me how I was going to feel emotionally and, I have to admit, some tears were shed,” George says. “But there’s no way I can describe for you how joyous it was.”
“I thought it was hilarious,” says Vi. “They hadn’t seen each other since 1951, and they were almost immediately back on that football field, telling stories, like it was yesterday.”
“I call it telling lies,” George says. “Carl kept telling people he tackled me every time I touched the football, and I said the only thing Carl saw was the white bottoms of my cleats because I was running too fast for him to catch me.”
The Taliaferros spent most of three days with the extended Beisecker family before returning to Bloomington on Wednesday. “It was emotional,” Vi says. “When we left, no one said goodbye. We couldn’t use that word. We just couldn’t do it.”