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By LARRY VAUGHT
Nate Northington says he “appreciates the support” former University of Kentucky football teammates, and now UK, are showing him and three other former black teammates who were pioneers in racial integration in the Southeastern Conference almost 50 years ago.
“I know that Greg Page would be thrilled with the efforts as well. I have faith that it will come to fruition and I am grateful to know a group of guys with this kind of class,” said Northington.
Northington, a Louisville native, became the first black football player to play in a SEC game on Sept. 30, 1967. Northington, a safety, had planned to make history with his roommate, Greg Page, a black defensive from Middlesboro. But the night before the Mississippi game, Page died from a neck injury suffered 38 days earlier in practice.
Page’s parents asked UK not to cancel the game, so Northington got to play against Ole Miss. However, he injured his shoulder early in the game. Northington had trouble coping with his friend’s death daily. He hurt his shoulder again against Auburn, didn’t always go to class and decided to leave UK just weeks after Page’s death.
He transferred to Western Kentucky and was the starting fullback on Western’s 1970 Ohio Valley Conference championship team.
Now teammate Paul Karem is heading a drive to have Northington and Page along with Houston Hogg and Wilbur Hackett — two black players who arrived at UK one year after Page and Northington — honored by UK for their historic roles in integrating the SEC.
Northington kept silent for years about his fate but now his book — Still Running: The Autobiography of Kentucky’s Nate Northington, the first African American Football Player in the Southeastern Conference — is available. He will have a book signing Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Lexington and Nov. 9 from noon to 2 p.m. at Joseph-Beth in Lexington Green. The book can also be ordered online at natenorthingtonsr.com.
“I think over the years as more and more black players started to come into the SEC, what we did lost its significance,” Northington said. “It’s just one of those things that if information is not out there, people forget. I saw on TV during a football game a few years ago that I was the first African-American to do this in the SEC, but before that there was not a lot said about it. It just faded away.
“I think we should be embraced. We never got the same attention that some other black players did. The school should be proud of what we did and the school did and embrace this recognition.”
Karem and other former lettermen believe UK should erect a statue honoring the four pioneers during the Commonwealth Stadium renovation. If not, at least find a way to prominently recognize the four.
Northington said he was not aware of Karem’s push until recently.
“But he is so determined to see something done and make sure people do not forget us,” Northington said. “It was just amazing to learn what he has done and shows the character he has and type of person he is. He is just a terrific person.”
Northington said the book helped him “accept a lot of things” he had not before.
“Prior to the book, I didn’t want to talk about it or if I did, I got very emotional. Going through that has been sort of like therapy for me. It has helped me a lot,” Northington said. “Still, at times when I think about it, it kind of swells up inside me even now. Time does heal things. Writing the book helped me connect to Mel Page, Greg’s brother, and that was a blessing as well. There is still pain, but I’ve come to realize that is just the way life is and some things you have no control over.”
Northington, 65, has not been to a UK football game since 2010 when UK invited him, Hogg, Hackett and Page’s family to attend the UK-Western Kentucky game.
However, in his office at the Louisville Metro Housing Authority he has two pictures — one of him in his UK uniform and another one of him with then Gov. Edward Breathitt, his mother and his high school coach signing his UK scholarship.
“I brought the pictures in when I was being interviewed for a story a few years ago, and just kept them up. They were always on the wall in my basement, or man cave, at home. But I like having them in the office now,” he said.
Northington was invited by Breathitt to a dinner with other high school standouts at the Governor’s Mansion when Breathitt sold him on attending UK.
“Nowadays there would be a scandal if the governor did something like that,” Northington laughed and said.
However, that dinner helped lead Northington to becoming the first African-American player to play in a SEC football game.
“Sports Illustrated did a story at the time and I was quite aware of the civil rights movement and all that was going on,” Northington said. “I was the kind of person that wanted to go to college and play football. I was recruited by Purdue, Louisville and then Kentucky stepped in. I was not aware of the total impact that it was going to have at the time I went there. I had no idea it would be such a significant thing. I just thought I would go to school, be the first (African-American) and that would be it. I never dreamed we would still be talking about it now.”
That’s why he says he never thought about the possibility of a statue honoring him and his three teammates.
“I don’t know even now if we deserve it, but the recognition would be great and I think really good for the university,” Northington said. “I would say anything would be definitely appreciated. A statue would be awesome, just fabulous. That would be the ultimate recognition, but a plaque or whatever would be appreciated, too.”