Whether Kentucky wins its way to the Southeastern Conference football championship game in Atlanta, three Wildcats will be there – as honored guests. And another will be there in spirit.
Nate Northington and his three teammates (Wilbur Hackett, Houston Hogg and the late Greg Page) were immortalized last summer in bronze statues standing forever between the UK football practice facility and Kroger Field. They are the men recognized as the leaders in integrating SEC football. And Northington was the first.
They’ll be recognized again in Atlanta, where warm applause no doubt will wash over them, the way boos and catcalls did five decades ago when they played in stadiums where the only black faces belonged to the folks cleaning up after the games.
“We invite the UK football players to join us in honoring & celebrating what they helped change,” came the tweet from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. “The seeds of change planted by Northington, Stephen Martin, Perry Wallace & many others have blossomed into opportunities in each SEC sport,” he said, invoking the names of the SEC’s first African American baseball and basketball players as well.
On a September day 50 years past in Oxford, Mississippi, Northington took the field as a sophomore running back for the Wildcats, officially becoming the first African American to appear in an SEC game. His season would end abruptly.
Northington just couldn’t stick it out. Page, his friend and roommate, would die from an injury suffered in practice just before Nate made his debut. And an aggravated dislocated shoulder made it painful for Northington to take a blow.
Hurting on the outside and on the inside, he shut his season down early and left school, transferring to Western Kentucky, where he went on to be an all-conference performer. But he never turned his back on his first school, chosen after he nearly signed with Purdue.
“At the time they were a top-10 program with guys like Bob Griese at quarterback and some other guys – LeRoy Keyes, who was an All-American at running back,” Northington said. “And of course, they had been integrated for some time at the Big 10.”
That’s when Kentucky governor Ned Breathitt got involved. UK was late getting in on the recruitment of Northington, but a call from Frankfort went a long way. “As you know, he was very involved with open housing bill in Kentucky,” said Northington. “Kentucky was the first state in the south to have an open housing bill. He promoted that and pushed that, along with Dr. King.”
Breathitt invited the Northington family to the governor’s mansion for dinner. They were impressed, and not just with the china pattern. “[UK] knew it was time to [integrate] and it was going to happen and someone was going to do it,” Northington recalled. “The other schools in the SEC felt that Kentucky should be the first because they were the northernmost school in the conference.”
Breathitt also assured Nate that he would not be alone, mentioning Page, who would become his roommate. Eventually, Northington realized the enormity of the challenge he was about to undertake.
“I decided that I could not just be thinking about myself totally, but I had the opportunity to do something that could help the entire country,”
he explained. He referred to a newspaper column allowing that the four black players “changed the face of football in the SEC. That is what the governor had in mind. He was progressive and had a vision and I know he was right. It was time to make a change.”
And make it they did, which is why, whenever he’s in the mood, Nate Northington can pay a visit to the UK campus and stand before a larger-than-life-sized replica of himself and his three friends, one taken far too young. They made a difference – all of them.
“I chose to play football at the University of Kentucky so other African American athletes could later pursue their dreams here as well,” Northington says. “That is the greatest thing to me. We were able to change the face and culture of football in the south. I am not sure it would have changed as quickly as it did without our integration. I am grateful for the statue. It is amazing.”