When the University of Kentucky football program integrated Southeastern Conference sports in the mid-1960s, Paul Wagner was a UK student.
"Here's a time when there was literally history in the making one dorm over from where I was," Wagner said. "I guess I was aware of it, but I don't remember really being aware of the magnitude of what was going on."
Forty-nine years ago, in December 1965, Louisville's Nate Northington pledged to play football at Kentucky, becoming the first black player to sign with an SEC school. The next fall, Northington and Middlesboro's Greg Page became the first two black players to enroll at UK. On Sept. 30, 1967, Northington became the first black player to play in an SEC vs. SEC football game, taking snaps at safety in UK's 26-13 loss to Mississippi.
Now, almost five decades later, Wagner is at work on a project designed to make sure history does not overlook the significance his former UK classmates played in integrating Southeastern Conference sports. An Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Wagner is at work on a project tentatively titled Black In Blue: How Kentucky Integrated the SEC.
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The film will tell the story of the first four black players to sign with UK — Northington, Page, Wilbur Hackett (Louisville) and Houston Hogg (Daviess County), who came to Kentucky in 1967.
"In so many ways, it is an amazing story," said Wagner, 65, a Trinity High School and UK graduate who now lives in Charlottesville, Va. "Yet it is a story that, for whatever reason, seems to have always been overlooked."
Part of the reason is that the story is tinged with tragedy.
Before he ever played in a UK varsity game, Page was paralyzed by a neck injury caused when the defensive end fell awkwardly during a pre-season drill. After lying in intensive care for 38 days, Page died at 11:25 p.m. on Sept. 29, 1967.
The very next night, Northington played for Kentucky against Ole Miss.
Only weeks later, beset by grief over Page's death, Northington quit the Kentucky team. Although he has recently relented after self-publishing a book, Northington refused media requests for decades to tell the story of breaking the SEC color barrier.
It was left to Hackett, a linebacker, and Hogg, a running back, to become the first two black players to complete their eligibility (in 1970) at UK in football. In 1969, Hackett's Kentucky teammates elected him a team captain, the first black player to earn that status in the SEC.
Yet because Hackett and Hogg weren't the players who shattered the SEC's color barrier, their stories did not resonate in the media in the way Northington and Page's probably would have.
"With the tragedy with Greg, he never got the chance to tell his story," Hackett said. "Then for all those years, Nate did not want to tell the story. After what happened with Greg, it was just too painful."
A married father of four, Wagner has been working as an independent documentary filmmaker for more than 40 years. Several of his works have appeared on PBS, including Thoroughbred, an inside look at the horse racing industry.
In 1985, Wagner and a producing partner, Marjorie Hunt, won the Academy Award for best documentary short subject for The Stone Carvers. The film was about a group of Italian-American artisans who had spent their lives carving designs on the Washington Cathedral.
Wagner's involvement in making a film about Kentucky football's first four black players was initiated by Paul Karem, a former UK quarterback from Louisville.
Karem has long been an advocate for bringing attention to Kentucky's role in integrating SEC football. A film shown on ESPN about early-1970s Tennessee star Condredge Holloway, the first black quarterback to start in the SEC, lit a fire under Karem.
"All respect to Condredge Holloway, he deserves everything he gets — but our guys were first," Karem said. "Nate Northington was six years before Condredge."
Karem didn't know Wagner, but the two had a mutual friend in Louisville attorney Ed Mayer. When he first heard Karem's aspirations for a documentary about UK's first black football players, Mayer told him he needed to call Wagner.
"Three days later, we were on the phone," Karem said. "And, now, here we are."
When Northington, Hackett, Hogg and Page's brother Mel were recognized on the field at Commonwealth Stadium during Kentucky's game with Vanderbilt Sept. 27, Wagner was there to film. He said he hopes to have the documentary completed by next spring.
No deal has been struck, but Wagner said the SEC Network would be the perfect venue for Black In Blue.
"These are the guys who changed the face of the SEC," Wagner said. "They have a story that deserves to be told."