September 30th, 2015

St. X alum Paul Karem champions UK's courageous foursome

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Paul Najjar

Senior Writer


St. X alum Paul Karem champions UK's courageous foursome
Greg Page and Nate Northington broke the color barrier in SEC athletics; along with Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg, the foursome will be honored with a statue at UK's newly refurbished football complex in 2016

Countless times through the years lunch meetings with high school classmates and friends spark connections that reach far beyond the staple business tradition.

St. Xavier alum Paul Karem (class of ’68) had one such moment several months ago while dining with Tom Kute (’68), Eddie Mayer (’67) and Earl Reed (’69).

Karem was explaining to his St. X lunching mates that he had recently watched ESPN Film’s "30 for 30" titled “The Color Orange: The Condredge Holloway Story.” Holloway was the first black quarterback to play in the Southeastern Conference at the University of Tennessee from 1972-74.

What struck him immediately was that while Holloway’s story was a big part of the history of SEC football and a beacon for black athletes in the south, Karem knew of and was teammates with several African-American men who actually broke the color barrier in the SEC.

The idea of chronicling the courage and conviction of Kentucky football players Nate Northington, Greg Page and then his teammates Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg immediately had his mind churning.

“My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw that,” Karem said. “And while Condredge Holloway deserves an enormous amount of respect and attention for what he did, these Kentucky players and my teammates, Hackett and Hogg, played five years before Holloway.

"These UK players were the groundbreakers for the Holloways and other African-American players who followed their lead. What Northington, Page, Hackett and Hogg did was take some of the horror and make things a little easier for the African-American players that came after them.”

Karem’s idea was grand at first. He began to draw up a simple storyboard for a movie about the UK players who broke the SEC color barrier. He gave it a working title of “Black and Blue.”

“Eddie Mayer immediately jumped on the idea and said, ‘You have to meet my UK fraternity brother Paul Wagner,’ ” Karem said.

Paul Wagner, as fate would have it, is a Trinity alum and holds two degrees from UK. He’s also an award-winning documentary filmmaker with an Academy Award and two Emmys to his credit. Karem and Wagner had a three-hour discussion the first time they spoke.

"Considering the modern climate of race relations, this story is incredible," Karem said. "Mayer insisted I call Paul Wagner and the next day Wagner and I spoke for three hours. He was at UK when all of this took place and he's honored to be doing this film."

From there, Karem circulated his plan among his Kentucky teammates and when word came around to Northington, Hackett and Hogg — Page died before the 1967 Kentucky season due to a tragic and fatal neck injury suffered at practice — they were grateful beyond words.

At the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame banquet last weekend, it was announced that a statue honoring Northington, the first African American to play in an SEC game, Page, Hackett and Hogg will have a prominent place when the entire remodel of Commonwealth Stadium and the new football complex is completed in 2016.

“I went first to my UK teammates and wanted a statue for those courageous men, those pioneers in the SEC,” Karem said. “I can’t tell you enough how much support we received immediately from Mitch Barnhart (UK's athletic director). Mitch pushed hard for the statue and deserves so much credit for these men being honored.”

The statue will be unveiled before the opening game of 2016 to coincide with the completion of the building process as well as the premier of the documentary that Wagner is directing.

And it all goes back to that lunch with his St. Xavier brothers.

“I think it’s the way you’re reared at that school,” Karem said of the link between his admiration for his Kentucky teammates and what they had to face in the late ‘60’s. “You learn a great sense of right and wrong and that you have to respect everybody. Hackett and Hogg, my teammates, earned my respect every day. And Northington and Page, entering school a year ahead of those two, paved the way for so many under the most dire circumstances.

“These men are the perfect ambassadors for this honor,” he continued. “The most remarkable thing about them is the incredible dignity with which they carried themselves for the past 50 years in spite of the road they had to travel and the obstacles they faced.”

Wagner and his crew are halfway through the filming process and a trailer for the documentary should be available before Thanksgiving. The release for the film is targeted for the start of the 2016 college football season, with plans to premier it in both Lexington and Louisville. 

 

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