On the night Kentucky Wildcats defensive back Nate Northington became the first black football player to play in an SEC football game, he ended up in the hospital.
And in tears.
A separated shoulder suffered after the Louisville product had played 3:17 of elapsed time in a 26-13 UK loss to Mississippi on Sept. 30, 1967, sent Northington to the hospital.
The tears were in grief over the death the prior night of Greg Page, a black UK defensive end from Middlesboro, who was going to change the complexion of football in the SEC with Northington.
Page had died from the lingering effects of a neck injury that had left him paralyzed. He had suffered the injury 38 days earlier in a non-contact “pursuit drill” in a UK preseason practice.
“It was devastating,” Northington has said.
On Thursday night, almost five decades after that melancholy evening, Northington and Page at last shared the Kentucky football stage for a gratifying reason.
In a ceremony that drew a large crowd in the hundreds outside Gate 12 of Commonwealth Stadium, UK dedicated larger-than-life bronze statues of its first four black football players —Northington and Page, linebacker Wilbur Hackett (Louisville) and running back Houston Hogg (Daviess County).
Included in the crowd were many current Kentucky football players, several ex-UK football players and the youth football team, the Douglas Dolphins.
“This is a tremendous, awesome, wonderful, magnificent, sensational, remarkable, incredible honor,” Northington said. “Where do you stop in trying to find the words to express the magnitude of this honor? This is huge.”
The statues are the work of Michigan-based sculptor J Brett Grill, the same artist who did the Joe B. Hall statue that sits outside the Wildcat Coal Lodge on the UK campus. They were officially unveiled in an early-evening ceremony that included UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and football coach Mark Stoops.
“As we walk by these statues from this day forward, let’s remember what it was like to walk in the shoes of these four men at a time of hatred and injustice,” Capilouto said.
Said Barnhart: “I’ve often tried to put myself in their shoes. They’re just no way to do it. To face what they faced, you can’t understand it.”
The Rev. C.B. Akin, pastor of the First Bracktown Baptist Church and chair of the UK Athletics Committee, and NBC sports broadcaster Tom Hammond also spoke Thursday night.
Only weeks after shattering the color barrier in SEC football, Northington, grieving over the death of his roommate, left UK and eventually transferred to Western Kentucky.
It was left to Hackett and Hogg to complete the integration of Kentucky Wildcats football.
That task required ample fortitude. Before a 1968 game vs. Mississippi in Jackson, there was talk of death threats directed at the two black sophomores if Kentucky played them in the game. Hackett and Hogg played and faced down some harsh words and hard stares but nothing more in a 30-14 Ole Miss win.
In 1969, Hackett became the first black team captain in SEC football history. The following year, Hogg and Hackett became the first black players to complete their eligibility at UK in a major team sport.
On Thursday night, UK embraced those stories in a manner that will endure.
“This has been 50 years in the making,” said Mel Page, Greg Page’s younger brother. “Very emotional.”
Noting that today, unlike in 1967, football games in the SEC are played by racially diverse teams and cheered on by multi-racial crowds, Northington said, “We made Saturday the most racially diverse day of the week. And all that, it started here.”