Mark Story: UK fully embraces a noble part of its sports history

The first black football player in the SEC, former Wildcat Nate Northington spoke at his UK Hall of Fame induction.
The first black football player in the SEC, former Wildcat Nate Northington spoke at his UK Hall of Fame induction.

Nate Northington — the first black football player in University of Kentucky and Southeastern Conference history — has spent the last week answering a question most of us will never face.

What does it feel like when you are told a life-sized statue of you is in the works?

"I've told some of my friends, I feel like I am dreaming," Northington, 67, said Friday, "and I won't know how to feel when I wake up."

It did not get the attention it deserved, but UK took an important step last weekend toward celebrating a vital part of its sports history.

At Kentucky's annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, it was announced that UK will place statues of its first four black football players — Northington and Greg Page (1966 recruits); Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg (1967) — outside the new football training facility under construction beside Commonwealth Stadium.

Artist J. Brett Grill, who did the Joe B. Hall statue at the Wildcat Coal Lodge, will produce the football sculptures as well.

Kentucky has certainly had more accomplished football players than Northington (Louisville), Page (Middlesboro), Hackett (Louisville) and Hogg (Daviess County), but it is doubtful it has ever had four more deserving of special recognition.

"There's no way to explain to people now what it was like then and what those four went through," says Paul Karem, a former Kentucky quarterback who has long championed UK doing more to honor its original black players.

On Sept. 30, 1967, Northington became the first black player to play in a SEC game when he clocked 3:17 of playing time for UK Coach Charlie Bradshaw at safety in a 26-13 loss to Mississippi.

Northington's "Jackie Robinson moment" was tinged in melancholy. The night before the game, Page — Northington's roommate — died from injuries that left him paralyzed 38 days before in an accident in a UK preseason practice.

(Given the racial climate of 1967, there were rumors that Page had not suffered an "accident" at all. From what I've been told by Page's former UK teammates, both black and white, it truly was a freak occurrence in a no-pads drill).

Mel Page, Greg's younger brother, has written a book manuscript about what his family went through. It includes a letter his mother wrote to Bradshaw and his wife.

"People don't know how close my parents got with the Bradshaws after the accident," Mel Page says.

Grief over what happened to Greg Page eventually overcame Northington. During the season he broke the SEC football color barrier, he left UK (ultimately transferring to Western Kentucky).

Before he departed, Northington called a meeting with younger teammates Hackett and Hogg to explain that while he had to go, they needed to stay.

Hogg and Hackett became the first black players to complete their eligibility in a major sport at UK.

An undersized linebacker, Hackett became the first black player to start for Kentucky in a major team sport and the first black player to be named a team captain in SEC history.

Don't for a minute think it was easy. In 1968, Kentucky was scheduled to face Ole Miss in what was then a boiling cauldron of racial animosity in Jackson, Miss. There was talk in the air of death threats directed at Hogg and Hackett.

"I remember looking at the crowd and the state troopers," Hackett said in 2007. "They called us everything but the Son of God."

Hogg recalled in a 2010 interview that, in a game against Georgia, "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."

Northington and Page, Hackett and Hogg opened the door for Condredge Holloway, Art Still, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Cam Newton and all the great black football players who have subsequently graced the SEC. Yet, for decades, UK did not do much to celebrate its role in integrating SEC football.

Current UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart deserves credit for changing that.

So what does it feel like when you find out there will be a statue built in your likeness?

"It's very, very special," Hackett, 65, said Friday.

"A great, great feeling, man," Hogg, 67, said.

For UK football's racial pioneers, it is very much a deserved feeling.