UK, Northington center stage as SEC marks 50th anniversary of integration

Jeff Drummond, Managing Editor
Cats Illustrated

Nate Northington became the first African-American player in an SEC football game on this weekend in 1967. 

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UK Athletics Photo

The Southeastern Conference will honor Kentucky alum Nate Northington on Saturday, marking the 50th anniversary of integration in the league.

Northington became the first African-American player to play in an SEC game on Sept. 30, 1967, when the Wildcats faced Ole Miss at Stoll Field in Lexington.

The SEC will commemorate the event with a video message that will air during every league game on CBS an all ESPN platforms on Saturday. The video, titled "Together, It Just Means More," will include a tribute to Northington as well as Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace, who broke the color barrier in men's basketball the same year.

"The seeds of change planted by these men and so many others have blossomed today into hundreds of opportunities in every SEC sport and in the academic programs of our universities," said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

"Those who endured in the early moments of change serve as reminders of our mutual responsibility to support opportunities for today’s young people, make certain we foster their education and graduation, and bring together our communities through our universities and athletics programs."

Said UK head coach Mark Stoops: "Just honored to be a part of it, to be a small piece of it, and to have Nate back and to recognize Nate and the other three gentlemen and that is wonderful for the University of Kentucky. I am proud just to be a small part of it. Our players love seeing them and having them around and being a part of our program."

Northington, a defensive back from Louisville, Ky., signed with UK and enrolled in 1966 along with fellow African-American Greg Page, a defensive end from Middlesboro, Ky. Northington had originally planned to sign with Purdue, but former Kentucky Gov. Ned Breathitt worked vigorously to convince him to lead the way toward integration at UK.

Both Northington and Page started for the Wildcats' freshman team in 1966, but Page suffered a neck injury during practice in August of 1967 and passed away on Sept. 29 prior to the Ole Miss game.

"That was a tremendously (tough day) and you cannot explain the grief that we felt – me personally and teammates and coaches. It was a real tragedy," Northington said. "I know that our minds were not even on making history or the ballgame at that stage. But Greg’s parents wanted us to go ahead and play the game and we went out there to do that.

"It was a tough situation. Once you get on the field, things kind of change and you know you have a job to do and that is what you are doing. But to get there, football is a game of a lot of being mentally prepared, and if you are not prepared mentally then you are not going to perform the way that you should. It was tough."

UK now has a bronze statue of Northington, Page, linebacker Wilbur Hackett and running back Houston Hogg outside of the new Joe Craft Football Training Center facing the Gate 12 entrance to Kroger Field.

"I came chose to play football at the University of Kentucky so other African American athletes could later pursue their dreams here as well," Northington said. "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."

The first African-American to play in an SEC varsity contest in any sport was Stephen Martin, who played baseball with former league member Tulane in the spring of 1966.

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UK Athletics Photo

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