Posted: 6:29 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, 2013
By Hank Rippetoe
A week or so ago, Kentucky Sports Radio made an attempt to celebrate Kentucky's role in bringing black football players to the SEC. They pointed out that "Nate" Northington was the first black player to sign with Kentucky, making him the groundbreaker for Kentucky and the SEC. In the UK's UK's Media Guides, Northington is called Nat.
I received an e-mail from former UK player Gerard Murphy asking me to set the record straight regarding Northington's nickname. I promised him that I would in some form. I have linked all my sources of information at the end of the article. They are well worth reading.
Murphy attended UK from 1962 - 1965 and was a graduate assistant coach in 1966 before joining the Army. He helped with the freshman team in 1966. As a freshman, he was part of The Thin Thirty legacy as was the rest of the seniors on the 1965 team. That season ended, unfortunately, with Rick Norton's injury.
Larry Vaught has published a piece on the first black players at UK and he initially called Northington "Nate." He also refers to Northington as Nat.
Nat (Nate) Northington, played football at Louisville's Thomas Jefferson High School (Thomas Jefferson was an all black school that was closed during the integration of Louisville's school system). Northington's story is one filled with courage and sadness because his life changed with the death of his friend and compatriot Greg Page.
Greg Page also was the first black player to sign with Kentucky. Page played for Middlesboro High School and was an all-state defensive end. While Northington was the first black to actually play for Kentucky and the first black to play in an SEC game, Page never got the chance. He was injured in practice his sophomore season and died 38 days later. Page's death had a profound effect on the Kentucky team in general and Northington in particular. He left Kentucky shortly after his friend's death and transferred to Western Kentucky University.
Were it not for Page and Northington, Kentucky may not have signed players such as Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg and the many others who followed. Charlie Bradshaw, UK President John Oswald and Kentucky Governor Ned Breathett all were involved in recruiting Page and Northington. In 1966, the UK administration decided it was time for the University of Kentucky to integrate its athletic program and the SEC.
At the time Louisiana and Mississippi still had laws on the books prohibiting their universities from participating in any athletic event involving black players. The SEC, you see, was the last conference to integrate. Blacks, in the 1960s, were judged by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character. It took real courage to break the color barriers in the Deep South and the SEC. Two events, however, forced the coming changes in the SEC. Kentucky's loss to Texas Western in the NCAA basketball championship and Alabama's home loss to Southern Cal in football forced a change in thinking.
Oddly enough, Mississippi State was the first SEC school to hire a black coach. In 2004, Mississippi State hired former Alabama player Sylvester Croom as its head coach. The L.A, Times celebrated Croom's hiring in 2004 which you can read in the links below. A significant portion of the article tells the story of Greg Page and Nate Northington. You can also read about Croom in the links below.
The L.A, Times (2004)
Sylvester Croom (Wikipedia)
Cn2 Documentary (a three part documentary which Includes a rare interview with Nate Northington)