If the younger generation had to look up or “Google” the name of Nate Northington, they’d find out that he is a former football player at the University of Kentucky who played a very significant role.
Northington made history on Sept. 30, 1967, in becoming the first African-American to play football in the Southeastern Conference as he appeared briefly before reinjuring his shoulder during the Kentucky-Ole Miss game at the old Stoll Field/McLean Stadium in Lexington. Coach Charlie Bradshaw’s Wildcats, though, lost the memorable contest to Mississippi by a 26-13 margin.
The mid-1960s was a very challenging time for Northington, a Louisville Thomas Jefferson High product who had to overcome racial barriers. It also took a couple of state leaders — Kentucky Gov. Ned Breathitt and UK president John Oswald — to encourage the youngster to sign with the Wildcats.
“The fact that Governor Breathitt and President Oswald were leading the way for the athletics department to integrate UK athletics was the final determining factor in my choosing UK,” recalled Northington. “Actually, my family and I went to dinner at the governor’s mansion, along with my high school coach (Jim Gray), several other Louisville recruits and their families and coaches.”
On Kentucky’s recruitment, Northington said the school even didn’t contact him until his senior year in high school. The all-state speedy running back had eyes on other schools, but was willing listen to UK.
“My high school coach asked me if I would be receptive to speaking with the UK recruiter, coach George Boone,” said Northington. “Purdue University, from the Big Ten, and the University of Louisville had been recruiting me since my junior year in high school, after I led the Louisville teams in scoring and made the all-state team.
“So, UK was a little late approaching me. I told coach Gray I would be open to speaking with UK. I felt there would be no harm in listening, although at that time I felt I would probably accept an offer from either (Louisville or) Purdue, who was ranked in the Top 10 nationally during the late ‘60s, with All-American and future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, and Hall of Fame coach Jack Mollenkopf. I had made a recruiting visit to Purdue during my junior year, and I was impressed with everything I saw.”
Not long after Northington inked with the Wildcats, Kentucky also signed another black player, Greg Page, a defensive end who starred at Middlesboro.
“Gov. Breathitt explained that I wouldn’t be alone and that UK would sign another African-American player as well — Greg Page,” Northington commented.
“My main goal was to go to college and play football in a major conference, and I knew the SEC was a great conference and that it would be an honor to play football for my home state and help them win in the SEC. I really felt that UK was only a few top players away from being a top team and top program in the SEC.”
As it turned out, Northington and Page became very close friends, but Page tragically died several weeks after a freak neck injury suffered in a preseason practice during their sophomore year. By the way, one of the UK campus apartments — Greg Page Apartments near the Commonwealth Stadium — are named in his honor
“Greg and I were very close,” said Northington. “As a matter of fact, we were practically inseparable during our too brief career at UK. We were roommates both our freshman and sophomore year, and we attended summer school and roomed together then as well. We got along very well and were like brothers. We were able to support each other and that made the journey of integrating UK and SEC football easier and less stressful than it would have been if either of us had to do it alone.
“Greg was very charismatic, a friendly guy who did not meet any stranger. He loved to joke around and he was just a good person. So that helped me adjust to my role much better because I’m by nature quieter and more reserved.
“So Greg’s tragic accident and death was devastating and something I couldn’t deal with for many years. Writing my book, “Still Running,” was very therapeutic for me and allowed me to bring some closure to that experience. One reason for writing my book was to help keep Greg’s memory and his role as a pioneer and trailblazer alive.”
While at UK, playing on the freshman and varsity teams, Northington sometimes didn’t feel all that safe, especially on road trips because of racial tensions.
“Obviously, I was very concerned about my safety when it came to playing away games in the Deep South — which no other African-American had done,” he said. “Remember this was a time of segregation and heightened unrest, the civil rights movement and the fight for desegregation were at its peak.
“So, my family and I were naturally concerned. One of the things Gov. Breathitt committed to my parents was that he and the university would do all they could to protect us, so that was reassuring and comforting. I’m grateful to my parents for their support in allowing me to make such a tough decision.”
Northington, who is a licensed church minister, said that 1967 matchup against Mississippi “to break the color barrier in the SEC was obviously the most memorable game I ever played, although not the most productive.”
He also added a little-known fact as he “became the first African American to play on an SEC team against a Big Ten team when I played against Indiana in Bloomington, Ind., (in the season opener on Sept. 23, 1967).”
Interestingly, that meant Northington had actually participated in two history-making events in two weeks.
“But, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of my friend Greg Page. Greg couldn’t run onto those fields but he was there ‘in my heart.’ “
For personal reason, Northington then moved on and transferred to Western Kentucky University. He eventually became a starter at fullback on WKU’s 1970 Ohio Valley Conference championship squad. He was asked about the UK-to-WKU move. What happened?
“The short answer is that just like it was destiny that allowed Greg and me to come to UK to play football and break the color barrier. It was destiny that orchestrated the events that lead to my transferring to WKU,” explained Northington. “Without the support of Greg Page because of his injury and subsequent death, and my shoulder injury which prevented me from being a contributor to our football team, I began a downward spiral that caused me to have a state of mind which lead to my missing classes, being disciplined by the coaches, losing my meal ticket and deciding to move on. Remember that during this time, there were no grief counselors to guide 19-year-old teens out of traumatic situations so I wasn’t able to get the help I needed to make a wise decision to stay.
“But before moving on, I had to encourage (African-American freshman teammates) Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg to stay at UK and complete what Greg Page and I had started. They stayed and completed the job, and UK (later) won the Peach Bowl in 1976, just nine years after Greg and I first stepped onto the UK campus. Our journey was successful. We accomplished what we started out to do.”
Last year, Northington was featured in a documentary, titled “Forward Progress: The Integration of SEC Football,” on CBS Sports Network. In addition to Northington, the documentary also showcased interviews with his teammates Hackett and Hogg, ex-UK basketball coach Joe B. Hall, NBA Hall of Famer and Louisville native Wes Unseld, among others.
And UK is honoring Northington, Page, Hackett and Hogg during the South Carolina football weekend in late September when the statute commemorating the four trailblazers will be officially unveiled at a ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 22. The statute is located outside the new Kentucky Football Training Facility near the Commonwealth Stadium.
As you may recall, these four pioneers also inspired the “Make A Stand” theme for this year’s UK football poster, paying a tribute to the way they paved the way for what UK football is today. The 2016 season also marks 50 years since Northington and Page first came to UK in 1966.
Northington had one word to describe the statue.
Wow! He said.
“I never could have dreamed this would happen,” said a very surprised Northington, who along with Hackett also signed autographs at UK’s annual Fan Day recently. “I’m so thankful, grateful and appreciative of what is taking place with the statue. I’m especially happy for Greg’s family. Words cannot express how proud I’m to be associated with the University of Kentucky and the SEC.
“I’m very grateful that a statue honoring him and the other three African Americans is being erected at Commonwealth Stadium, and we four young kids will be remembered. I’m thankful for our teammates who are a very integral part of this and for the work they did to support the statue. Also, I thank athletics director Mitch Barnhart, president Eli Capilouto, and everyone at UK who made this possible.
“Most of all, I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ because I know without him this would not have been possible.”
Needless to say, it sure has been a very remarkable journey for Northington and his pioneering teammates.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at [email protected]