Mark Story

Mark Story: UK's Northington and Page: The friendship that changed the face of SEC football

UK's Nate Northington was the first black to play in an SEC game when the Cats faced Mississippi on Sept. 30, 1967.
UK's Nate Northington was the first black to play in an SEC game when the Cats faced Mississippi on Sept. 30, 1967. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — On the night Nate Northington became the first black football player to play in a Southeastern Conference game, the Kentucky safety felt no celebratory sense of accomplishment.

He ended the night in tears.

The sports history books reflect that Northington, then a sophomore from Louisville, became the first black player to play in an SEC vs. SEC contest on Sept. 30, 1967. Before separating his shoulder in what became a 26-13 Kentucky loss to the Mississippi Rebels, he logged 3:17 of playing time.

Striding alone as a racial pioneer into UK and SEC football history had not been Northington's plan. He and his UK roommate, Greg Page, a black defensive end from Middlesboro, were going to shatter those barriers side-by-side.

"We were in it together, absolutely together," Northington said.

The night before he and Northington could have made history together, Page died.

"It was devastating," Northington said.

* * * * *

Amid the upheaval of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, UK President John W. Oswald and Kentucky Gov. Edward T. Breathitt shared the belief that UK sports teams should be the leaders in integrating the Southeastern Conference.

In response, Adolph Rupp and UK basketball tried to woo in-state black stars like Louisville Seneca's Wes Unseld and Breckinridge County's Butch Beard but failed.

By 1965, Breathitt was no longer leaving the integration of Kentucky Wildcats sports up to the university's coaches.

Breathitt invited Northington, an All-State running back at Thomas Jefferson High School, his family and high school coach to a dinner with other prep football standouts in Frankfort. Right there in the Governor's Mansion, Breathitt pitched Northington on the benefits of being a barrier breaker at UK.

"He talked to me about what it would mean to integrate the SEC and UK, that ... it would be something that really needed to be done for the entire state, for the entire SEC, the South, the African-American players (yet to come)," Northington said.

At one point, Northington remembers the governor of Kentucky reaching into his suit pocket and pulling out football scholarship papers to UK and asking if he was ready to sign.

Closing the deal, Breathitt "mentioned that (UK) was also recruiting other African-American athletes," Northington said. "He felt that (UK) would be able to sign other (black) players to support my going there."

* * * * *

It turned out that Kentucky football coach Charlie Bradshaw's 1966 signing class included two black players, Northington and Page. (At the time, Northington was known by the nickname "Nat" which rhymes with "hat." Today, he prefers "Nate").

In terms of personality, the two UK football racial trailblazers could not have been more different.

"Nat was quiet, very nice, but a guy who really kept to himself," said Jeff Van Note, a UK defensive end in 1967. "Greg was a completely outgoing personality, always had a big smile on his face, talked to everybody."

In an era of freshman ineligibility, Page and Northington had to wait a year before they could make their UK varsity debuts. "They both had talent," Van Note said. "You could see that, they were both going to be good players at Kentucky."

As promised, Bradshaw's '67 recruiting class included two more black in-state standouts, Wilbur Hackett, an undersized linebacker from Manual in Louisville, and Houston Hogg, a running back from Daviess County.

"Besides my family, the only reason I picked (UK) was because of Nat and Greg," Hackett said. "They told us we had an opportunity to do a good thing, turn the football program around, and in doing that open doors for African-American athletes."

On Aug. 22, 1967, the Kentucky Wildcats were not practicing in full pads, were in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets. The "pursuit drill" in which Greg Page suffered the neck injury that first left him paralyzed and then led to his death was not supposed to involve contact.

Explaining what went so wrong, Dave Kindred wrote in the Sept. 30, 1967, edition of The Courier-Journal "the defensive line was to surround the quarterback, moving at half speed with no intentions of making a tackle. But Greg stumbled. Someone shoved the quarterback. They bumped together. And the instant Greg's neck was snapped back by the collision, he suffered a paralyzing injury to his spinal cord."

For 38 days, Page lay in intensive care at the University of Kentucky Medical Center unable to move. Northington was the only UK player allowed to see Page. "He was conscious, he was in traction with machines, a respirator," Northington said. "It was pretty devastating to see him there and (him) not be able to move."

At 11:25 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29, Page died.

The next night, after Page's parents asked UK not to cancel its game, Northington made history against Ole Miss. He had hardly broken a sweat before he re-injured his shoulder, which he had initially hurt in a freshman game the season before.

"With my shoulder, I had to go to the hospital," he said. "With Greg (dying the night before), it was all too much to take. I broke down."

On a UK campus where almost no one looked like him, without the roommate he had come to rely on, Northington felt lost. After the accident, Northington went back every night to the dorm room he and Page had shared. All of Greg's stuff was still in the room.

"All of a sudden, to be by yourself, alone, isolated. That's what it seemed like, isolation," Northington said. "I was going to practices, practicing, going through the motions, then going back to the room. I guess I didn't go to a lot of the classes during that time."

Northington's balky shoulder betrayed him again in a loss at Auburn. After the UK coaches found out about his lax class attendance, they told him they were going to pull his meal tickets as punishment.

It seems clear, in retrospect, that Northington was going through a grief-based depression. "At the time, if there was any type of counseling, grief counseling, no one made me aware of it," Northington said.

So only weeks after he became the first black player ever to play in an SEC football game, Nate Northington left UK. Before he went home to Louisville, Northington called a meeting of his younger black UK teammates.

"He just told us, with what happened with Greg, he couldn't take it anymore and he had to leave," Hogg recalled. "He told us, 'But you guys, you have to stay. You have to see this through.'"

* * * * *

For years, former UK quarterback Paul Karem has fretted that the historic roles of Northington and Page, Hackett and Hogg — of the University of Kentucky — in integrating SEC football have gotten lost in the mists of time. Karem and other former UK football players from the late 1960s are working to persuade the university to erect a monument to recognize those four as part of the planned renovation of Commonwealth Stadium.

"You want to know what made (racial integration) accepted in the South? More than anything, it was football," Karem said. "And that started at the University of Kentucky. Those guys should be remembered."

Of the first two black football players ever to sign SEC scholarships, Page never got to tell his story. For decades, Northington chose not to tell his.

After he left Kentucky, Northington transferred to Western Kentucky. He wound up the starting fullback on WKU's 1970 Ohio Valley Conference championship team.

Meanwhile, Hackett and Hogg did what Northington asked them to do. They stuck it out and were the first black players to finish their football careers at UK. In 1969, Hackett became the first black football team captain in SEC history.

Northington, now 65 and a grandfather, has had a long career as an administrator with the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. Yet across the decades, as media interest built in the story of the player who broke the color barrier in SEC football, he repeatedly declined interviews.

Given that history, it seemed surprising to learn that Northington has written and published a book, Still Running: The Autobiography of Kentucky's Nate Northington.

"There was a lot of pain with what transpired with Greg," he said, in explaining his long public silence. "For a long time, I just didn't want to go back to (relive) that. As I got older, I realized more the magnitude (of being the first black player in SEC history). I realized I really needed to share that with others."

Forty-six years after he became the first black player to compete in an SEC football game, Nate Northington has another aspiration for his book. He hopes it reminds people that there were two UK players who planned to take take that barrier-shattering journey together.

"I want people to remember," he said, his voice quavering, "Greg Page, as well."

If you go

Nate Northington has two signings in Lexington for his book, Still Running: The Autobiography of Kentucky's Nate Northington, the first African American Football Player in the Southeastern Conference:

Oct. 26: Barnes & Noble, Pavilion Way, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Nov. 9: Joseph-Beth in the Lexington Green, noon to 2 p.m.