LEXINGTON, Ky. >> Nate Northington feels satisfaction every time he watches a Southeastern Conference football game and sees African-Americans playing significant roles on the field, on the sidelines and as administrators.
He should: he played a major role in their success. Northington broke the SEC color barrier nearly 50 years ago.
He knew large-scale inclusion would take time but one of his goals when he took the field on Sept. 30, 1967 for Kentucky against Mississippi was to ensure others had opportunities. He and teammates Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg were the first black Wildcats.
“The more time goes by, that team becomes more amazing to me with the time that it happened,” said Northington, 69. “You had no idea of the magnitude of what we were able to do by integrating the SEC. It’s becoming more and more amazing to look back and think that we did that, to see all the great players that have come along.”
In July SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said the historic date is more than just a date on the calendar.
Sankey said in a lengthy speech during SEC media days that by playing in that football game, “Nate Northington affected us all. This network of mutuality involves more than the four football players at Kentucky, more than just one date, one sport, one team, or one university. …
“Within this list of names, there are stories of success and tragedy; achievement and disappointment; heartache and hurt; and yet, forgiveness and reconciliation, dignity, and grace. The contributions to change go well beyond football.”
In today’s political arena where civil discourse seems to be harder to find, SEC football continues to reap benefits from that day in 1967.
As the conference begins its 50th season of football since its landscape was forever changed, the SEC will take pride in players like Jalen Hurts (Alabama) and Stephen Jackson (Kentucky) starting at quarterback, and Derek Mason (Vanderbilt) and Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) in the coaching ranks on the sidelines. The SEC also has produced six black Heisman Trophy winners since 1980.
The SEC will recognize contributions by Northington and his teammates at its conference championship game on Dec. 2 in Atlanta. But it’s really been a 50-year celebration looking at how the league has prospered since that game, one that will continue all around the SEC this season.
Kentucky will celebrate the milestone before during a ceremony when the Wildcats host Eastern Michigan in a game on the same date Northington took the field against Ole Miss. Last September the school honored him, Page, Hackett and Hogg with a statue of the foursome that stands in front of the Wildcats’ training center. A road in front of the Wildcats’ home field is named for Page, Northington’s close friend and roommate who died on the eve of that seminal game from complications of a broken neck sustained in practice earlier that summer.
The statue of the foursome is Northington’s most tangible reminder of his achievement.
He knew his debut in an SEC conference game would raise eyebrows in a league where schools opposed admission to blacks as students. But having made history the previous year with Page as the league’s first minority signees, they devoted their freshman seasons preparing physically and mentally for the moment.
“We had known that it would take place, but we didn’t discuss it a lot,” Northington said of his debut in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “Our emphasis was being on the team, doing a good job and playing football just like any college athlete.”
Northington — a highly touted defensive back from Louisville who had played his first game with the Wildcats the previous week at Indiana — entered the game against the Rebels with a very heavy heart because of the loss of his friend. He left that 26-13 loss to Ole Miss with a shoulder injury that affected him the rest of the season, and later transferred to Western Kentucky.
Hackett and Hogg both stuck around and became lettermen. Hackett became the SEC’s first black team captain in any sport in 1969 and after his playing career, he officiated conference games.
Their achievements are noted on the statue that ironically stands a few miles away from two monuments honoring Confederate War figures near a former slave auction block in downtown Lexington. The city’s Urban Council recently voted to relocate those statues, a decision that comes amid ongoing national protests over their presence in public places.
As that national debate continues, Northington is grateful for the reminder of the impact that he and his teammates sought to make. As Kentucky prepares for the upcoming anniversary of Northington’s breakthrough, the statue also stands as inspiration for Wildcat players and coaches.
“What they went through, you can’t explain it,” said junior center Bunchy Stallings, from McComb, Mississippi. “They knew what they were getting themselves into, and for them to do that for me and my teammates is huge. Every time I walk by that statue, I can’t help but be thankful for those guys for everything they’ve done for me, the SEC and the NCAA.”