Fifty years ago this weekend, Kentucky Wildcats defensive back Nate Northington changed the complexion of SEC football.
On Sept. 30, 1967, Northington became the first black player to play in a Southeastern Conference football game when he logged 3:17 of playing time in Kentucky’s 26-13 loss to Mississippi at Stoll Field.
Yet rather than a sense of historic accomplishment, the Louisville product ended that night crying tears of grief.
Northington had planned to share the responsibility of integrating SEC football with Greg Page, a black defensive end from Middlesboro. Together, the two UK roommates were going to shatter that hateful barrier.
Instead, the night before Northington made history, Page died. He had been paralyzed 38 days before in a freak accident in a non-contact drill in a UK practice.
Page’s death essentially ended Northington’s UK career, too. Grief stricken and battling a shoulder injury, Northington soon left UK. He eventually finished his college career playing running back at Western Kentucky.
Before he left Kentucky, however, Northington called a meeting with two black freshmen, linebacker Wilbur Hackett from Louisville and running back Houston Hogg of Daviess County, who had followed he and Page to Kentucky.
Northington told them why he had to leave, but why they needed to stay and finish the job of integrating SEC football.
After decades in which UK did little to promote the fact it is the school that integrated SEC football, the university has fully embraced its pioneers. Last September, Kentucky dedicated a statue of Northington, Page, Hackett and Hogg on campus.
On Monday, Northington discussed with reporters what it was like to break the color barrier in SEC football:
Question one: With Greg Page’s death the night before you made history in that Ole Miss game, what were your emotions like?
Northington: “I can’t explain the grief we felt. It was just a real tragedy. I think our minds were not really on making history or even the ballgame at that stage. Greg’s parents wanted us to go ahead and play the game, so we went out there to do that. It was just a tough situation.”
Question two: In your book (“Still Running: The Autobiography of Kentucky’s Nate Northington”), you talked a lot about the role of (then-Kentucky Gov. Edward T. Breathitt) in your choosing UK?
Northington: “Personally, I was recruited pretty heavily by the Big Ten, Purdue University. At the time, they were a top-10 program with guys like Bob Griese being the quarterback (and) Leroy Keyes, an All-American as a running back. And, of course, they had been (racially) integrated for some time, the Big Ten.
“But the Governor invited myself and my family to the Governor’s Mansion for dinner. ... He was there to talk to me about integrating UK and the SEC. He was very, very active and involved with that. They had tried several times to integrate the basketball program with Wes Unseld and Butch Beard a couple of years previously.
“They had also tried to recruit a (black) football player as well. I think Garnett Phelps from Male High School had been approached about integrating (UK football) the year before.”
Question three: As you contemplated being the player that broke the color line in SEC football, what concerned you?
Northington: “When I met with the Governor, one of the things he told me was that I would not be alone (as the sole black player on the UK team). That was very, very important because it does help to have more than one person.
“I don’t think (Gov. Breathitt) mentioned Greg Page by name, but they had been in contact with Greg and knew he was likely going to sign with UK. That was important to me to have someone else to be there with me to help in those difficult times.”
Question four: As all this was going on with the Governor, what kind of discussions did you have with your parents? Were they afraid or worried about what you would be taking on?
Northington: “I didn’t have a lot of conversations with my parents about it. They pretty much always allowed us to make our own decisions, with guidance of course. They were excited about the opportunity for me to go to college and play football, get a scholarship, of course.
“In retrospect, I know that my mother was very, very apprehensive — because she’s from Mississippi, OK? She was, quite obviously, apprehensive about (the racial climate). But she was not going to try to persuade me one way or another. She knew the decision had to be mine.”
Question five: Just how hard was it being the first black SEC football player?
Northington: “A couple of things happened that made it more difficult than I anticipated. First was my own injury. I dislocated my shoulder in a freshman game against Vanderbilt. That would come back to be a factor the next year. In the fall of 1967, I dislocated my shoulder again. That restricted my playing time in practice.
“... Then Greg had his unfortunate accident. He and I were like brothers the year or so we were together (at UK), being roommates, doing most things together even outside (football) practice.
“His condition, being paralyzed, unable to move, that was a tremendous (impediment) in my even being able to get through the day-to-day activities of just going to practice and doing the things I needed to do. When Greg was injured, it all fell on me.”