Ex-Cats helped pave way for Phillips

UK's African-American pioneers appreciate Phillips' ascension

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 10, 2010 

The promotion of Joker Phillips to Kentucky head football coach last week had a special resonance in the households of two former UK players.

In the 1960s, Manual's Wilbur Hackett and Daviess County's Houston Hogg were the third and fourth black football players to sign scholarships with UK.

"If you'd asked me when I was there, I'd have said no way, no way," said Hogg, a former running back, of UK hiring a black man as its head football coach.

Hackett and Hogg hold a distinction in the history of University of Kentucky sports that has too often been overlooked. They were the first two black players in a major sport who played their full careers at UK.

The initial duo of black football signees at Kentucky, Nat Northington of Louisville and Greg Page of Middlesboro, had tragically star-crossed experiences in Lexington.

In the fall of 1967, in a pre-season drill not even conducted in full pads, Page suffered a freak neck injury that left him paralyzed.

Thirty-eight days later, the promising defensive end died in a Lexington hospital.

The very next day, Northington played for UK against Mississippi, becoming the first black player to play in an SEC vs. SEC football game.

Yet the death of Page, his roommate, deeply scarred Northington. In the same year when he broke the color barrier in UK football, he transferred to Western Kentucky.

Before Northington left, Hackett says, he gathered Hackett and Hogg and told them that they needed to stick it out at Kentucky.

And they did.

Undersized (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) for a linebacker, Hackett became the first black plater to be a regular starter (1968-70) in a major sport at UK.

In 1970, he was chosen Kentucky's defensive captain, making him the first black player to hold that distinction in Southeastern Conference football history.

Hogg, whose family moved from Hazard to Daviess County before his senior year of high school, lettered as a running back at UK in 1969 and '70.

Here is how much American society — and the South — has changed in the last 42 years.

Before their first road trip to Jackson, Miss., to face Mississippi as members of the Kentucky varsity football team in 1968, Hackett and Hogg received death threats.

They agreed among themselves several times that they would not make the trip. A UK team manager came to their dorm and told them they had to go.

And they did.

"I just remember looking at the crowd," Hackett said of the scene in Jackson. "I remember looking into people's eyes and you realize, if they could, they would kill you. I remember thinking, 'They really hate me.'"

The game went off without incident, the good citizens of Mississippi treated to the sight of a black linebacker, Hackett, calling the defensive signals for UK.

On the next road trip, to Baton Rouge to play LSU, Hogg says the restaurant where the UK team planned to eat refused to serve Hackett and him.

When their Kentucky teammates realized what was happening, "the white players got mad," Hogg said. "Words led to words and they called the police on us. We hightailed it back to the hotel." The environment inside Tiger Stadium was so hostile, "The week after we got back, Wilbur and I got a letter from the governor of Louisiana at the time for Hack and I apologizing for the treatment we got," Hogg said.

In a game against Georgia, Hogg says, "The whole game, from the Georgia players, they kept saying they were going to kill two n------. And the refs didn't say a word."

If you'd asked them in the years immediately after their college football careers ended, both Hackett and Hogg say they likely would have told you it hadn't been worth it.

So scarring was the experience, both had conflicted feelings toward UK.

In the last year, the University of Kentucky and its representatives have reached out to each in meaningful ways.

After years of advocacy on his behalf by his former Cats teammates, Hackett, a current SEC football referee, was inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame last October.

"I had mixed emotions about my whole experience there," said Hackett of UK. "But I have newfound respect for UK and what they've done. I really didn't think I would ever go into UK's Hall of Fame."

Hogg says he hadn't attended a Kentucky home football game since coming to see Georgia's Herschel Walker play in Commonwealth Stadium in the early 1980s.

But he came to see Hackett, his former college roommate and teammate, honored by UK on the weekend of the Louisiana-Monroe game.

It was then he says he met Phillips, who was a UK assistant and its head coach in waiting.

"I was really impressed," Hogg said. "Now, I guess, it's amazing how far we've come. And I told him that. He told me, 'We haven't seen you around here enough' and said if I ever wanted tickets, call."

Before Kentucky played Eastern Kentucky two weeks later, Hogg took Phillips up on that offer.

Joker left him four tickets. Among those Hogg brought to Lexington was his 9-year-old grandson, Taeron.

Before the game, Phillips got the Hoggs on the field. He also took them into the UK locker room and introduced them to Rich Brooks and to players like Randall Cobb and Micah Johnson.

"That was big for my grandson," Hogg says. "(After that weekend), we'd watch UK on TV, and they'd show Cobb or Micah and Taeron would say, 'I know them.'"

We've gotten to the point where black coaches such as Joker Phillips can be SEC head football coaches because, in the 1960s, there were those brave enough to face a brutal push-back to break racial barriers by simply playing a sport.

In a very real sense, Joker Phillips as Kentucky head football coach is standing on the shoulders of Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.

Said Hackett: "In the 1960s, you wouldn't have even thought such a day could be possible."

Says Hogg: "I do feel like a part of (Phillips' promotion). We broke a barrier."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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