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UK’s Northington overcame injury, loss of friend to break color barrier in the SEC

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Nate Northington didn’t make an immediate impact at the University of Kentucky. Instead, he made a historic contribution that changed the landscape of college football, especially in the Southeastern Conference, forever.

It will be 50 years ago Saturday when Northington broke the color barrier in the league when the Wildcats played Ole Miss at Stoll Field in Lexington. Kentucky suffered a 26-13 setback to the Rebels, but it was a contest Northington or the conference hasn’t forgotten.

It will be 50 years ago Saturday when Kentucky’s Nate Northington broke the color barrier and became the first African American to play in a Southeastern Conference football game. (Keith Taylor/Kentucky Today)

Although an otherwise exciting time, Northington’s roommate and best friend Greg Page was paralyzed from the neck down during fall workouts and passed away on the eve of the historic contest between the two conference foes. For Northington, it was a time filled with mixed emotions. He was mourning the loss of his friend, who was “like a brother.”

“That was a tremendously (tough day) and you cannot explain the grief that we felt – me personally and teammates and coaches,” said Northington, who will be honored on the 50th anniversary of the feat during Kentucky’s game against Eastern Michigan Saturday at Kroger Field. “It was a real tragedy. 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.”

Although he came the first African-American to play a down in the SEC, Northington said his “objective was to play football” and wasn’t focused on making history at the time.

“We know the climate and what was going on at that time and everything, but we had support here at UK from the Governor’s office, the president (of UK), coaches and other players. I guess personally, I don’t really try to get too involved in (social issues),” he said. “We were socially aware and conscious of it. We just felt like playing football and integrating the SEC was a way we could contribute.”

Aside from breaking the racial barrier, Northington also had to overcome shoulder issues, along with the loss of his best friend in order to play in his first collegiate game.

“The biggest factor beside my injury was his condition – being paralyzed and unable to move,” he said. “That was a tremendous factor in my being able to handle day to day activities of going to practice and doing the things that I needed to do.”

Northington said the current Kentucky team has embraced his return to campus this week and said the response “has been very positive.”

“Obviously they had no idea before it came to their attention just recently within the last year or so,” he said. “They had no idea what the history was and what had transpired and I think that’s a little unfortunate. I think that this is something that should’ve happened a long time ago with the players. … The players here were not as aware about what Kentucky had done and how we were actually the first ones to do it. “

In front of the Joe Craft football practice facility is a statue featuring his likeness and Northington said “it still feels unbelievable” to see his image enshrined more than a year after the statue was unveiled.

“Who could ever dream that something like that would take place and inspire others?” Northington said. “I never would have thought something like that would happen. I am very grateful and appreciative of the university and all of those that a had a part in making it happen.”

Gametracker: Eastern Michigan at Kentucky, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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