By LARRY VAUGHT
Before the 2017 football season ends, University of Kentucky football players are going to get a preview of “Black in Blue,” the documentary about the four UK football players who broke the color barrier in the Southeastern Conference 50 years ago.
Every athlete in every SEC sport was white until the fall of 1967 when Nate Northington played for UK in a football game against Ole Miss. Nord and UK teammates Greg Page, Houston Hogg and Wilbur Hackett changed the scope of athletics in the South and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner wanted to tell this story.
Former UK quarterback Paul Karem of Louisville is involved with the documentary and was the driving force behind a statue that was unveiled about a year ago at the UK football complex honoring the four Kentucky pioneers. Karem helped put together a petition in 2012 from the (former UK coach Charles) Bradshaw Boys asking for recognition for their four former teammates.
With the notoriety nationwide now about the removal of Confederate statues, including two in Lexington, Karem wishes more attention was being paid to the statue that UK put up honoring the integration pioneers. The players hope the statue tells a story not about them, but about what they represented.
“We could have premiered the movie in September due to our great sponsors in Louisville Gas & Electric, Woodford Reserve and Brown-Foreman,” Karem said. “We opted not to premier the film on the SEC Network, ESPN, possibly Disney, or a lot of education channels in the south. We opted not to do that because our Academy Award winning filmmaker Paul Wagner thinks it good enough — and he has won awards — to take to the major film festivals next year.
“The great part about that is that what a blast of goodwill in this time of statue hysteria to talk about the whole story and shed light on Kentucky and the university when we were so unfairly portrayed in the Texas Western story (when an all white UK basketball team lost to an all black Texas Western in the 1966 national title game) . It was a great historical event but Nate and Greg signed letters of intent to play football at UK before that (championship) game was played. We are somewhat better than some people have portrayed the university.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey plans to honor Northington, Hackett and Hogg at the SEC Championship Game in December along with members of Page’s family. Page was injured in practice, laid paralyzed in a hospital room for 38 days and died the day before Northington became the first African-American to play in a SEC game. The players were not in favor of even playing the game but did because Page’s parents wanted the game to still be played. Northington transferred just a few weeks after breaking the color barrier because of his grief but encouraged Hackett and Hogg to stay the course. Hackett later became the first African-American team captain in any sport in the SEC.
Karem said his former teammates remain “fairly swept away” by the statue they hope will help unite fans of any race.
“But however it is that they feel, they are the perfect guys to feel it,” Karem said. “This thing was laying dead in the water for 50 years. I think the Lord works in mysterious ways. If this had been done 30 years ago, I am not sure it would have been this impactful. I am not sure it would be what it is.
“Now 50 years later … I don’t know what it is like to be an African-American but I have learned a lot from Wilbur and the guys. I just don’t think it could have had a better impact than right now for a lot of strange reasons.”
I agree. My only disappointment is that it has not been more of a national story. These men faced racism with courage and helped change history. The University of Kentucky was the leader of integration in the SEC despite the picture many have tried to paint of UK because of one basketball game in 1966.
So why has this recognition at UK not caused even more of a national buzz?
“I think that is the University of Kentucky’s job. Who would not want to latch on to this lightning rod of goodwill? It’s public relations. They (UK) are doing what they think they can but they can do more. But they built the statue, so we really can’t complain. We are thrilled that was done,” Karem said. “These guys are heroes and hopefully our film will show that and educate a lot about what they had to endure to be the leaders in integration in the SEC. It’s a remarkable story of courage.”
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