September 25th, 2015

UK football's men of distinction

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Paul Najjar

Senior Writer


UK football's men of distinction
Kentucky's Nate Northington - the first African-American football player in the SEC / cover: UK Athletics; photo: kentucky.com

Courage begins in the heart. It comes from the Latin word cor, meaning heart. Courage is fortified by the mind; it is galvanized by the spirit.

It can be defined as the willingness to confront several forces, among them uncertainty or intimidation.

Thus was the climate in the late 1960’s for black student athletes all over the nation, particularly in the southern states. If you were a black athlete uncertainty and intimidation were constant forces gnawing at you from all directions: in the classroom; on the playing field; in the locker room; in social settings.

Louisville’s Nate Northington and Middlesboro, KY native Greg Page were pioneers who faced challenges unimaginable in today’s world. They broke through the SEC athletic color barrier with a confidence and courage that influenced more than they could imagine.

The two would have been forever remembered as the first African-American football players to play in the SEC. But Page, a giant of a man, suffered a broken neck in a practice just weeks before his sophomore season began and died a month later leaving Northington as the lone African-American varsity player (freshmen were ineligible to play at that time) on the roster.

And now these two giant men, these two men of significant character, will be inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame during festivities tonight and tomorrow.

Louisville native Wilbur Hackett, a Manual alum, and Houston Hogg were freshmen African-American players on that UK squad. They made their choice to attend UK in large part because of Northington and Page. And though they wanted to leave the school after that tragic, fatal injury to Page, it was Northington who convinced them to stay.

“Under the circumstances, as bitter and frustrated and hurt as we were, we all thought about leaving and we were all thinking that we need to leave,” Hackett said. “Nate encouraged us to stay, especially under the circumstances because none of us were happy.”

Northington would see his first action in a game on Sep. 30, 1967 against Ole Miss and played four games with the Cats until he suffered an injury and ended up leaving the team and the school. That didn’t deter him from advising young Hackett and Hogg.

“I specifically remember him taking us aside and telling us, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go. But you guys have to stay and finish this thing,’” Hackett said. “That took a heck of a person to say that. He wasn’t bitter; he never told us how much abuse he took or how isolated he was. He and Greg (Page) started it and he wanted us to finish it, to stick it out.”

Louisville native and St. Xavier alum Paul Karem was a reserve quarterback on that Kentucky team. He recalled the grace and class that Page, Northington, Hackett and Hogg showed in the face of the adversity heaped on them.

“These were incredible men of distinction,” Karem said. “I can’t tell you how much they had to deal with at the time, but they were great teammates, friends and outstanding men. What they went through was more than anyone should have dealt with, but that was the climate and culture in which we lived.”

Kentucky alum and documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner is putting this story on tape for all to see. His story will document how these men of distinction broke the color barrier in the SEC.

“I got to know Wilbur when he played at Manual and I played at St. X,” Karem said. “He wasn’t a big man, but he was so powerful and such a hard hitter. He was a terror on the field. As a leader, he was incredible. He was a figure to be respected. He was elected captain his junior year and everyone was cognizant of the cross he was bearing.

“A black man on a campus of 20,000 students with not enough black players to field team,” Karem said, letting that thought linger for a bit. “I could say so much more, but that says it all about his leadership ability.”

Through Karem’s prompting, Wagner—a Trinity alum—got involved and has taken up the charge to get the story told.

“I was watching the ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Conredge Holloway, the first African-American quarterback to play in the SEC for Tennessee,” Karem said. “And I thought about our guys and what they went through to break the color barrier and knew that their story needed told.”

Look for that documentary to be completed within the next year.

Northington was compelled to self-publish his autobiography in 2013 titled, “Still Running—The Autobiography of Kentucky’s Nate Northington, the First African-American Football Player in the Southeastern Conference,” is a fascinating tale of a humble, quiet, strong man navigating the rough waters of society in the years following the Civil Rights movement.

“He was from Newburg and I was from the West End,” Hackett said. “He was just a country bumpkin from Newburg (he laughed), but such a great athlete and a great man. I owe so much of what I became to Nate’s strength of character and leadership. He and Greg are getting what they deserve with their induction into the Athletics Hall of Fame.”

The legacies of Northington and Page still reach a long way in the hearts and minds of all they knew as teammates and classmates. Their proper place in UK athletic history is now secure.

And soon, those two men along with Hackett and Hogg will be memorialized in a very special way at Commonwealth Stadium. The memorial will be as strong and sturdy as the character and courage in their collective hearts. 

 

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