UK Football

For sculptor, the eyes tell story of UK football’s racial pioneers

Sculptor J Brett Grill with the statues he created of former Kentucky Wildcats Greg Page, left, and Nate Northington, the first two black football players to sign with a Southeastern Conference school.
Sculptor J Brett Grill with the statues he created of former Kentucky Wildcats Greg Page, left, and Nate Northington, the first two black football players to sign with a Southeastern Conference school. Photo submitted by J Brett Grill

When the University of Kentucky contracted with J Brett Grill to produce statues honoring the first four black football players in UK history, the sculptor faced a challenge.

He had never heard of Nate Northington and Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.

A defensive back from Louisville, Northington broke the color line in SEC football when he played for Kentucky against Mississippi on Sept. 30, 1967. The night before, Page, a defensive end from Middlesboro, had died. Thirty-eight days before, Page had been paralyzed following an injury in a non-contact “pursuit drill” during a UK preseason practice.

In 1969, Hackett, a linebacker from Louisville, became the first black team captain in SEC football history. The following year, Hogg, a running back from Daviess County, and Hackett became the first black athletes to complete their eligibility in a major team sport at UK.

“I wasn’t anticipating all the nuances to their stories,” Grill says. “There were so many things that went on in their individual stories.”

To further understand the challenge faced by the UK football players in integrating Southeastern Conference football, Grill studied photos of civil rights marches.

One thing in particular struck the sculptor: the eyes of the marchers.

“What’s great about a march is they are deliberate,” Grill says. “They’re not a sprint. They’re not even a brisk walk. They are a very deliberate and slow pace going toward a goal off in the distance. So there is a unity of vision. When you look at the pictures, no one is staring at the ground. Every one is staring off beyond the horizon.”

On Thursday at 7 p.m., in a ceremony between the new Kentucky Football Training Facility and Gate 12 of Commonwealth Stadium, Grill’s finished statues of Northington and Page, Hackett and Hogg, will be unveiled.

The larger-than-life sculptures will stand permanently on a lighted platform.

Grill, 37, is a Michigan native and former art professor at the University of Missouri.

A sculpture Grill did of former President Gerald R. Ford that stands in the rotunda of the U.S. Capital indirectly led to his becoming the go-to artist for Kentucky Wildcats sports statues.

When UK was looking for a sculptor to honor former men’s basketball coach Joe B. Hall, Joe Craft, both a major Republican donor and UK sports booster, remembered being impressed with Grill’s statue of President Ford in Washington and recommended him to Kentucky.

Positive reviews of Grill’s 2012 statue of Hall, which shows the former coach tensely leaning forward in a chair, are the reason the university tabbed him to produce the sculptures of the ex-football players.

“Mr. Grill earned the job based on our previous experience with him,” said UK publicist Tony Neely. “He did fine work on the Joe B. Hall statue, with excellent attention to detail.”

The most important judge of the Hall statue liked Grill’s work, too.

“I loved it,” Hall said. “I like that it shows me sitting, not standing and looming like (an) Abraham Lincoln (statue). I like that he depicted me as young and thin. And it actually looks like me coaching.”

In addition to Ford and Hall, Grill has produced sculptures of ex-Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler and former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, as well as Barry Goldwater, the late U.S. Senator from Arizona and 1964 Republican nominee for President.

“When you’ve done (sculptures of) coaches and Republicans,” Grill says, “the people who see your work tend to be sports people and Republicans. So those are the referrals you get.”

‘I can’t find the words’

Paul Karem, a former Kentucky quarterback, lobbied for years for UK to more fully embrace its role in integrating SEC football. He credits Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart for recognizing how important that period in Wildcats sports history was.

What UK is doing now in honoring Northington and Page, Hackett and Hogg, writes a happy ending for what was a trying experience.

After Page’s death, a grieving Northington left UK only weeks after he’d integrated SEC football and transferred to Western Kentucky.

Hackett and Hogg stuck it out, but can tell stories of racism — players from one opponent promising throughout a game to “kill two n------” — that will make your stomach turn.

Grill was moved hearing Northington speak of how lonely he felt in his first SEC road game at Auburn as he looked around the stadium and saw no one who looked like him — until he spotted a few black fans in an end zone.

“Nate assumes they worked for the university in some capacity so they got to come to the game,” Grill says. “But (SEC integration) was something he and Greg (Page) were going to do together. The thought of him facing it alone really moved me.”

The bronze statues that will be unveiled Thursday will weigh “about 400 to 500 pounds each,” Grill says. The statue of Page, the tallest of the four players in real life, will be “about 7-and-a-half feet tall.”

Of being recognized with a statue, Northington says “It’s unbelievable. Because of Greg, and what happened, all kinds of emotions are running through me. The closer we get to the actual ceremony, the more nervous I get.”

Mel Page, the younger brother of Greg, notes Kentucky’s rich basketball tradition. “You look at all the great basketball players that have been there, and they don’t have statues,” he said. “For UK to do this for my brother and the others, it is incredibly meaningful.”

Hackett says he hopes the statues “will keep alive a story, especially of Nate and Greg. It’s a story of sacrifice — for Greg, he made the ultimate sacrifice — to open the doors for all the (black) athletes that have come since at the University of Kentucky, in our state and in the SEC.”

Hogg says people keep asking him how he it feels to have a statue going up on the UK campus. “I just tell them I can’t find the words to describe how excited I am,” he says.

When the public views the statues, Grill says the eyes will tell the story.

“You will see the four looking over the horizon toward the world they were helping create,” he said.

If you go

What: Unveiling of statues honoring the first four black players in University of Kentucky football history

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: The plaza between the Kentucky Football Training Facility and Gate 12 of Commonwealth Stadium

Who: Ceremony is open to the public