Jefferson County: They 'were our Jackie Robinsons'

Hackett recalls days as trailblazer at UK of 1960s

mstory@herald-leader.comJanuary 28, 2007 

  • Jefferson County Ten things to know about Jefferson County: * County's birth: May 1780 (created by the Virginia General Assembly as one of Kentucky's three original counties; Kentucky did not become a state until 1792). * Named for: Thomas Jefferson, who was governor of Virginia at the time the county was born. * Population: 701,817 (2005 U.S. Census Bureau estimate) * Demographics: 533,020 whites; 138,205 blacks; 16,598 Hispanics; 14,185 Asians; 14,101 Multi-race/Other; 2,173 American Indians/Alaska Natives; 125 Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders. * County seat: Louisville (78.1 miles west of Lexington). * 2004 U.S. presidential election: Kerry 170,114; Bush 164,547. * "Little Brother" all grown up: The University of Louisville -- long seen as Avis to the University of Kentucky's Hertz in the terms of in-state perception -- has built quite the athletics legacy. In men's basketball, U of L has made eight Final Four appearances (the most recently in 2005) and won two NCAA titles (1980 and 1986). In football, U of L has played in nine straight bowl games, won the Orange Bowl last season, and has finished ranked No. 6 in the country twice in the past two seasons. Among the all-time great athletes in U of L history: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Lyles, Tom Jackson, Frank Minnifield and recent stars Michael Bush and Brian Brohm in football; in men's basketball, Charlie Tyra, Wes Unseld, Darrell Griffith and Pervis Ellison. * The First Saturday in May: The Kentucky Derby, the most famous event in American horse racing, has been held at Churchill Downs in Louisville since 1875. It's been run on the first Saturday in May every year since 1938 except for one. In 1945, a World War II ban on horse racing was not lifted until May 9 and the Derby was not run until June 9. * Float Like a Butterfly: Muhammad Ali, three-time heavyweight champion of the world, symbol of 1960s social upheaval and, arguably, the most famous citizen in the world in the post-World War II era, was born in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942. Before converting to the Nation of Islam as an adult, he was known as Cassius Clay. * Don'cha: Nicole Scherzinger, 28, lead singer of the pop group The Pussycat Dolls, grew up in Louisville. She attended the Youth Performing Arts School at Manual High School. The Dolls are well known for the song Don'cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me).

This column was originally published on January 28, 2007.

LOUISVILLE -- There is a "wow factor" to making your first road trip as a big-time college athlete.

Think teenager riding in a chartered plane for the initial time.

For the first road trip Kentucky football player Wilbur Hackett would make as a member of the Wildcats varsity, his reaction was the polar opposite from wow.It was no. He and his roommate, Houston Hogg, decided they weren't going to the game.

"We really did not want to go," Hackett said. "Houston and I, we sat in our room and missed the team bus (to the airport) on purpose."

To understand, you need some additional facts.

It was 1968.

On Sept. 28 of that year, the Kentucky Wildcats were scheduled to be in Jackson, Miss., to face the Ole Miss Rebels.

With that trip, Hackett and Hogg would become the first black football players Kentucky had ever taken into the boiling cauldron of racist animosity that was Mississippi in the late 1960s.

"Houston and I decided we weren't going to go," Hackett said last week.

A team manager was sent to their dorm door.

C'mon, you all got to go.

Because of the historical significance of the University of Kentucky men's basketball program, reams have been written about Adolph Rupp and the attempts to integrate UK basketball in the 1960s.

But it was the Kentucky football program that broke the color line in SEC sports.

Under pressure from Kentucky Gov. Edward Breathitt and UK President John Oswald to integrate, Kentucky football coach Charlie Bradshaw signed two in-state, African-American standouts in his 1966 recruiting class.

Receiver Nat Northington came from Louisville, defensive end Greg Page from Middlesboro. The next year, UK added two more black signees, Hackett, a linebacker from Manual High in Louisville, and Hogg, a running back out of Owensboro.

When his recruitment started, Hackett says Michigan State and Indiana were his first choices. But based largely on what he was hearing about UK from Page and Northington, he became open to casting his lot with his home-state school.

"I became close with Nat and Greg, who I would say were part of the primary reason I went," Hackett says. "They never did discourage us from coming to UK."

Yet by the fall of 1967, it seemed that the black football players gutsy enough to choose being trailblazers at UK were tragically star-crossed.

In a pre-season practice drill not even conducted in full pads, Page suffered a freak neck injury. He was left paralyzed.

Thirty-eight days after the incident, Page died in a Lexington hospital.

The very next day, Northington played for Kentucky against visiting Mississippi at Stoll Field. He became the first black player ever to play in an SEC football game.

But any luster from that achievement was dimmed in the sadness over the death of Page.

Decades of mistrust of and exclusion by UK led many in the black community to wonder if Page's injury had been an accident.

"People felt like (what happened to) Greg had been intentional," says P.G. Peeples, now the president of the Lexington/Fayette Urban League but in 1967 a student at Kentucky. "That aura, that cloud, still hung heavy over UK."

Noting that during the same year UK lost a white player, Cecil New, to a broken neck (and paralysis), Hackett says of the Page injury, "I don't think it was done on purpose."

But he says he, too, heard from many who thought it was.

"It was all I heard," Hackett says. 'Are you gonna stay? They killed Greg Page up there.'"

Northington and Page had been rooming together and sharing the burden of racial pioneer. After Page's injury, Northington returned each night to a dorm room still filled with Page's things.

"As I think back on it, the sensitivity was not what it should have been," Peeples says. "Nat was still left in a room with Greg's belongings all still there. It had to affect him."

It did. In the same year in which he'd broken the color barrier in SEC football, Northington left UK and transferred to Western Kentucky.

Before he left, Northington called together the remaining black players on the Kentucky football team -- Hackett, Hogg and a player from Louisville, Albert Johnson (who never lettered at Kentucky).

"He brought me and Houston and Albert into the room and told us very specifically not to leave," Hackett says. "He said, 'I can't take it anymore,' because of his closeness to Greg. But he told us, 'You all have to tough it out. You have to stay and make this thing a reality.'"

Deciding to stay was not easy. Forget football players, there weren't many black faces at UK, period.

"I don't know if there were even a hundred," Hackett says.

A lawsuit by Louisville education and civil rights activist Lyman T. Johnson had led to the integration of the University of Kentucky in 1949.

But even in the late 1960s, "it was not unusual to be called the 'N' word," says Peeples of life for a black student at UK. "It was not unusual to be walking by fraternities and have guys shout epithets at you. It was not unusual for the fraternity guys, if they had dogs, to let them loose on you."

Hackett says there were many nights when he was on the verge of leaving.

"We had our bags packed more than once," Hackett says. "I remember (then-UK assistant) coach Duke Owen coming over and talking us out of leaving more than once.

"We made many phone calls back and forth. And my parents, and I'm sure Houston's parents, more than once said, 'No, you all need to stay.'"

Even allowing for the fact that people weren't as large four decades ago, what Hackett did on the football field was little short of amazing.

Not many 5-foot-9, 185-pounders play linebacker in the SEC. Hackett not only played -- he was a three-year starter.

Which also made him the first black, full-time starter in a major sport in UK history.

Even as a sophomore in 1968, Hackett was trusted by his coaches to call the defensive signals.

"You couldn't have chosen a better person to carry all that expectation and focus and the things that sort of go with being somebody put out front," says Jeff Van Note, a senior defensive end during Hackett's sophomore season. "The Hack is an A-1 person."

Cajoled out of their dorm room, Hackett and Hogg made that trip to Jackson to face Ole Miss in the second game of the '68 season.

There was talk in the air of death threats. His teammates tried to keep Hackett loose by joking.

"We were like, 'Hack, you don't have to be in the huddle to call the defensive signals,'" says Van Note. "'You can do that from outside the huddle.'"

By the time he got to the stadium, Hackett says he wasn't scared.

"I just remember looking at the crowd and the state troopers. They called us everything but the son of God," he says. "I remember looking into people's eyes and you realize, if they could, they would kill you in no time. I remember thinking, 'They really hate me.'"

The game went off without incident. In a 30-14 Mississippi victory, Hackett recalls the Rebels' sophomore quarterback -- Archie Manning -- being unusually solicitous of him. Helping up the black UK linebacker, saying nice play, good hit.

The next year in Lexington, Hackett was part of a UK defense that held Manning and Ole Miss to nine points in a 10-9 Kentucky upset of the No. 8 team in the country. Before that season started, there had been another milestone in UK sports history. Hackett's teammates voted him defensive captain.

At 57, Hackett looks like he's still ready for some football. A racquetball enthusiast, "I've always stayed in shape," he says.

He spends his week commuting from Louisville to Georgetown to work at the Toyota plant. In the autumn, he spends his weekends as a football referee in -- who would have believed this in Jackson in 1968 -- the SEC.

Hackett met and married his wife, Brenda, at UK. Both the couple's sons, Keith (Ball State) and Trey (Western), played college football. Wilbur Hackett now has five grandkids.

His only major regret, Hackett says, is that he didn't finish his degree at Kentucky. "Before I leave this earth, I'm going to do that," he says.

So, knowing what he knows now, would he have gone to UK at the time he did all over again?

"Probably if I had to make that decision, I would make the same decision," he says.

What if we'd asked two years after his playing career ended in 1970?

"I might not have said the same thing," Hackett says. "My mind-set would have been, 'I hated that place.'

"But as I look back, I made the choice that I thought was the best choice for me. Based on my relationship with my family, with what I've done, meeting my wife, I probably would have done the same thing. As I look back, that's the way it was supposed to be."

Hackett says his goal at the University of Kentucky was never to make any kind of historical statement.

"Talk about history, being the first, it never even occurred," Hackett said. "Even after we left. You don't think about those things."

Others do.

"Hack and those guys," says the Urban League's Peeples of the early black UK football players, "were our Jackie Robinsons."

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