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Nate Northington, the first black football player in the SEC, finally understands his place in history

Kentucky to celebrate the man who integrated the conference 50 years ago

Two things stood out for Nate Northington on the day he played in his first college football game for Kentucky 50 years ago.

His heart was heavy, with the death on the eve of the game of his good friend and teammate, Greg Page, who had suffered a severe spinal injury in practice. And Northington was in physical pain, too, after aggravating an injury to a shoulder he had dislocated the previous season.

What he didn’t comprehend on that day — Sept. 30, 1967 — was the social significance of the three minutes he spent on the field during that home game in Lexington, Kentucky, against Mississippi.

“The years going by have made me more aware,” Northington said. “It’s something I couldn’t grasp as an 18-year-old, but now I can fully understand the importance of what was taking place.”

What took place when Northington stepped on the field was history, as he became the first African-American player to play in a Southeastern Conference football game. On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of integrating the SEC, Northington will be recognized while serving as an honorary captain when Kentucky hosts Eastern Michigan.

The SEC will commemorate the integration of the league by showing a one-minute video titled Together, It Just Means More during all conference games airing on CBS and ESPN. The video will also honor Perry Wallace, the Vanderbilt basketball player who broke the color barrier in that sport the same year.

The years that have passed allowed Northington to understand his place in college sports history.

“Honestly, I feel a bit overwhelmed,” Northington said. “Over the years you really appreciate what I was able to do in making a difference in society. I couldn’t grasp that as a late teenager. It’s taken me 50 years to realize what we did.”

It took the part of Kentucky officials and the governor of the state for history to be made. The South, in the 1960s, continued to be racially divided and African-Americans were not extended opportunities to play at SEC schools. With schools in the Big Ten becoming more prominent with African-American players (such as George Taliaferro, who was a three-time All-America selection at Indiana in the 1940s), the SEC knew it had to change.

Northington was an all-state defensive end at Thomas Jefferson High School in Louisville, with opportunities to play at several major schools, including Purdue, where Bob Griese was the quarterback. After Kentucky began recruiting him during his senior year, Northington and his family were invited to dinner by Gov. Ned Breathitt at the governor’s mansion.

“I had been there previously [for a dinner with the top players in the state], but this was different,” Northington said. “He asked me about integrating UK and the SEC.”

Breathitt had tried earlier to integrate the league in basketball, trying to persuade Wes Unseld and Butch Beard to play at Kentucky. For the SEC to integrate, Kentucky was considered the place to start since it was the school that was the farthest north.

Promised that he wouldn’t be alone at Kentucky, Northington accepted. In 1966, Northington and Page were African-American teammates on the freshman football team. The next season they were to integrate the SEC in football together.

That didn’t happen. Just a month before the 1967 season, Page hurt his neck in practice, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. On Sept. 29, 1967, the day before the team’s second game of the season, Page died.

“It was a tough day for everybody,” Northington said. “I wasn’t even thinking about football because Greg was a good friend. But his parents wanted us to play.”

So as Northington made history, he grieved. And he was in pain from his injury. As the weeks went on, Northington felt isolated on campus without his best friend. Five games into the season, Northington left Kentucky. He later transferred to Western Kentucky.

“Greg and I were like brothers,” Northington said. “We were roommates and did a lot of things together, so it was tough for me.”

In September 2016, the University of Kentucky unveiled a statue of Northington, Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg outside of its football facility. Hackett and Hogg were on the freshman team at Kentucky when Northington played his first game.

“The moment they unveiled it, I was speechless,” Northington said. “The sun was going down and the light hit them in a certain way, and it was amazing how they glowed. To have that there representing what we accomplished for society is incredible.”

Northington, who wrote the 2014 book Still Running: The Autobiography of Kentucky’s Nate Northington, the First African American Football Player in the Southeastern Conference, and his family will walk by that statue on Saturday on the way to the football game where he will be honored.

“For the younger people in my family, it gives them a sense of pride of what we accomplished,” Northington said. “They’ve heard the stories, and now they’re able to see the statue and to be there at this ceremony. Being there speaks volumes about the way people connect, and a lot of my family will be at the game on Saturday.”

As the moment gets closer, Northington finds himself getting more emotional about his contribution to the university and the SEC. Those feelings of accomplishment were nonexistent 50 years ago.

“Sports brings people together, and I’m glad, although I didn’t understand it then, that I was able to help bring people together,” Northington said. “Fifty years later, this is exciting because now I can understand the impact.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.