Mark Story

Statues of Kentucky’s black football pioneers instant hit on campus

Stoops: That's the way this football team needs to play

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about the Wildcats' 17-10 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about the Wildcats' 17-10 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night.

Before Tracey Eades took his daughter, Brayden, inside Commonwealth Stadium for Kentucky’s pivotal Saturday night meeting with South Carolina, he made a stop first.

The Nicholasville resident wanted his daughter, 12, to see the new statues that were unveiled Thursday outside Gate 12 of the stadium of UK’s first four black football players.

“I wanted to make sure she knew the significance,” Eades said. “I told her UK was the first school that allowed African-Americans to play football in the SEC. And I was telling her about Greg Page, how he died before he even played a game.”

For the first football Saturday in which the statues, the work of sculptor J Brett Grill, were on display, a steady stream of Kentucky fans filed by. With cellphones drawn, they were shooting selfies, traditional pictures and videos.

There were fathers, like Eades, explaining the significance of the men in the statues to their children. There were those with a bit more gray in the hair who had been college classmates of the four honorees.

There were even a few stray South Carolina fans stopping by to see what the statues represented.

The statues honor Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.

Northington (Louisville) and Page (Middlesboro) were the first two black players to sign with Kentucky in 1966. Hackett (Louisville) and Hogg (Daviess County) were the third and fourth a year later.

On Sept. 30, 1967, Northington became the first black player to play in an SEC football game. In 1969, Hackett became the first black team captain in SEC history. In 1970, Hogg and Hackett became the first black players to complete their eligibility in a major sport at Kentucky.

Page gave his life in the cause of integrating SEC football.

The night before Northington broke the SEC football color barrier, Page died from the lingering effects of a neck injury he had suffered 38 days before in a non-contact “pursuit drill” in a UK preseason practice that had left him paralyzed.

For Jerry Murphy of Arcadia, Calif., the statues had special resonance. Murphy, a product of Arnold Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa., lettered as a “quick guard” for Kentucky coach Charlie Bradshaw in 1963, ’64 and ’65.

Because he had grown up in the racially integrated north, when the edict came down at UK to recruit black players and integrate SEC football, Murphy said Bradshaw asked him to help host recruiting visits for the black prospects.

Murphy said he decided on a radical approach to wooing black players.

“When (Page) came in, I remember, we just did the same things we would do for a white (recruit),” he said.

The beauty of monuments on college campuses is they can become ingrained into the life of a school in ways no one could have anticipated.

When he painted “The Word of Life” mural on a library tower at Notre Dame, it’s hard to imagine artist Millard Sheets ever dreamed his work would become known universally as “Touchdown Jesus.”

Who would have predicted that rubbing a rock (Clemson) or the foot of a statue of a 19th-century college president (Yale) would become cherished campus good-luck charms?

With time, maybe rubbing “Northington’s cleat” or touching “Hackett’s helmet” will become a time-honored good-luck ritual for generations of Kentucky Wildcats football players and fans.

UK gave a push Saturday to creating new traditions around the statues. Kentucky’s marching band came out before the game and serenaded the statues with “On, On U of K” and a rocking, up-tempo version of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The steady procession of fans taking selfies and other pictures with the statues never slowed down.

Watching it all with a special pride was Renee Kelsaw — whose father is Nate Northington.

“It’s a great honor to finally be recognized for what he did,” Kelsaw said. “It was very courageous, what he did.”

That was exactly the message Tracey Eades wanted daughter Brayden to take from their visit to the statues.

She thinks it is “really cool” that Kentucky was the first school to let black players play football in the SEC.

Had she ever heard the story before Saturday?

“No, not until Daddy brought me over here,” she said, “and I saw the statues.”

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