Greg Page and Nate Northington were about to become the SEC’s first two black football players in 1967 at Kentucky when tragedy marred the process, Here are excerpts from Remember Henry Harris about Page’s death and Northington’s extraordinary life:
Time and need snatched Greg Page out of Middlesboro, Kentucky, a hilly town in the mountainous confluence of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. He was the son of a coal miner, Robert Page, a proud man who had survived growing up as one of ten black children in Depression-starved Mississippi and then gone to war for America. For two years he fought through the jungles of the Pacific to finally reach Japan, only to return home to a land of restricted freedom. His son, Greg, courageously helped integrate Middlesboro High School and appeared bound for football-proud Oklahoma when the governor of Kentucky came calling, asking Greg to help give black Americans a chance to represent their state university. For his dad, it was a powerful, humbling moment, making the long wait for redemption seem worth it. It was the American dream.
As a meeting ground of the South and North, Kentucky was a decade ahead of other SEC states in integrating high school athletics, and Governor Ned Breathitt thought Kentucky should have the distinction of integrating the SEC because its athletes were accustomed to integrated competition. It was something Kentucky could do for the league, he thought, and as chairman of the university’s board of trustees, he was determined to make it happen.
By late 1965, with seventeen years having passed since the integration of the university, Breathitt was frustrated with Kentucky’s lack of progress. For two years, the school had claimed it was trying to recruit black athletes. In 1964, it had gone after Louisville’s Wes Unseld, possibly the best high school basketball player in America, but Unseld received death threats when word of his recruitment leaked out and doubted the sincerity of longtime coach Adolph Rupp. The following year Rupp put more effort in recruiting Butch Beard, again the best player in the state, and again the player’s family doubted Rupp’s sincerity, so Beard joined Unseld at the University of Louisville, where blacks had played since the mid-1950s.
With Rupp continuing to strike out, university president John W. Oswald, chosen partly because of his willingness to integrate athletics, began putting pressure on football coach Charlie Bradshaw, an unlikely candidate for a morality play. An Alabamian, Bradshaw was a Marine drill instructor during World War II who also fought in the Pacific. Afterward, he played on Bear Bryant’s first three Kentucky teams and was one of his top assistants at Alabama before being hired by Kentucky following Bryant’s first national title in 1961. A disciple of Bryant’s hard-nosed style of play, Bradshaw quickly got in trouble with the NCAA for his offseason training program—his first Kentucky team being dubbed “The Thin Thirty” after fifty-eight players surrendered their scholarships rather than endure Bradshaw’s brutal regimen.
Eventually, Oswald came up with an offer so enticing it rendered Bradshaw color-blind: If he would integrate his team, he could have lifetime employment with the university. Following a 6-4 season in 1965, Bradshaw signed a “contract of indeterminate length after the season,” guaranteeing him “a position of equal standing if and when he decided to quit coaching,” according to Russell Rice, then Kentucky’s sports information director.
When Kentucky failed to sign any blacks in December 1965 during the SEC’s early signing period, Governor Breathitt promised an “immediate all-out effort” to integrate the university athletically. Within a week, Kentucky brought Nate Northington, a black halfback from Louisville, to campus for an initial visit. The son of a domestic who had moved from Mississippi at fourteen, Northington was pictured in Kentucky newspapers the following day signing a scholarship, surrounded by three powerful white men—Breathitt, Oswald, and Bradshaw. After signing, he left a fancy lunch at the governor’s mansion with a promise from the three that he would not be alone.
Two months later, Kentucky began to recruit Page, a defensive end, ostensibly to provide Northington a black roommate and help shoulder the pressure. A chiseled 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Page was urged by local fans in Middlesboro, as well as Governor Breathitt, to attend Kentucky. It was an arduous decision, though, as he could go to Oklahoma and not worry about integration. But, like his father, Page became a patriot. He would do something for his state and country.
After starring on the freshman team, Page and Northington were both competing for playing time on the 1967 varsity when preseason practice started. On the third day with players still not even in full pads—wearing shorts, shoulder pads, and helmets—the team was running a half-speed, seven-on-seven defensive reaction drill. The offense would snap the football, and the defense would move toward the ball carrier and stop his momentum by surrounding him and bumping him around rather than tackling him. Page was the defensive end on the side away from the flow of the play, so he was trailing the ball carrier. When the other defensive end stopped the ball carrier, he knocked him back into Page. Although the drill was usually run with no one ending up on the ground, this time it resulted in a pileup of players. And Page was on the bottom of it. He didn’t get up. He was unconscious and not moving. Practice quickly stopped, and a large group of white players, coaches, and trainers surrounded a strong black man lying on the ground. Page was having difficulty breathing.
Trainers performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and carried him to the training room. An ambulance was called and took Page to the emergency room, where a tracheotomy was performed to help him breathe. He was paralyzed “at least temporarily.”
A week into practice, Page was still in intensive care, paralyzed from the neck down, and breathing by machine. His father and mother, a head nurse in Middlesboro, were at his side constantly. Bradshaw came to visit nearly daily, and if he didn’t, Page asked where he was. Robert Page even went to practice and spoke to his son’s teammates, magnanimously telling them not to feel bad about the injury, to play all the harder because of it. If he had any bitterness, he refused to show it, accepting what everyone told him, that it was a freak accident, that his son’s head had been “up,” in the wrong position for contact.
“Greg was coming from the back side [of the play],” Bradshaw recounted in 1980, “and when the combined weights came back through him, his face was up and it just went right back through him. The irony of it was it was just kind of a half-speed situation. It was a complete freak accident.”
Robert Page believed Greg—when he regained consciousness—would have somehow communicated with him if he felt someone had tried to hurt him. “He told us he didn’t know what happened, and he didn’t,” Robert Page said. Because X-rays showed no fracture and the exact location of the injury was not determined, doctors were never certain if the injury was a bruise to the spine or a partly cut or completely severed spinal cord.
Thirty-eight days after a pileup that wasn’t supposed to happen, Page died at University of Kentucky Medical Center, still unable to breathe on his own. It was late Friday night, September 29, the eve of the first integrated SEC football game, between Kentucky and Ole Miss in Lexington. The Pages told Bradshaw to go on with the game, that’s what Greg would’ve wanted. The next day Northington integrated the SEC in a game preceded by the playing of Dixie, a Kentucky gameday staple. On Sunday, in a memorial service at Stoll Field, Page was called a “credit to his race.” His funeral two days later at the white First Baptist Church in Middlesboro drew seven hundred people, including the governor. Some 1,200 people signed the guest book, and Page was buried in the University of Kentucky travel blazer he never got to wear.
Three weeks after the death of Greg Page, Nate Northington packed his bags, told teammate Phil Thompson, “I can’t take this shit anymore,” and slipped out of Lexington in the gloom of night. His guilt almost palpable, he told a reporter he could not live up to everyone’s expectations: “I just couldn’t make it. . . . I know I’m letting a lot of people down.”
Before Northington left, though, he found Wilbur Hackett, Houston Hogg, and Albert Johnson, Kentucky’s three black freshman football players. He told them he was packing up but they couldn’t leave, that integration had to work. So they stayed, even on nights they wanted to leave. “Houston, Albert, and I had our bags packed more than once. On many nights. But we told Nate we would stay. He was fervent about it,” Hackett said.
Hackett and Hogg did not see Page’s injury occur and often wondered what had really happened. “I don’t believe anyone tried to kill Greg, but I’m not sure someone didn’t try to hurt Greg,” Hackett said. “We did have some mean-spirited players that did not want us to play. You can tell when people don’t like you.”
“I don’t know if it was an accident or someone did it on purpose,” Hogg said, “but it shouldn’t have happened. It was a non-contact drill—shorts, shoulder pads, and helmets.” Neither player ever heard anyone talk much about Page’s death. “To me, it was kind of hush-hush,” Hogg said.
Chris Patrick asked about Page’s death when he became Kentucky’s new trainer the following season (1968). “Nobody would ever talk about it. I’d bring it up a couple of times for a learning experience for myself. It fell on deaf ears,” said Patrick, who would go on to serve forty-two years as Florida’s trainer.
The media accepted Kentucky’s explanation that it was a freak accident, an account the administration had to repeat often because of Coach Charlie Bradshaw’s reputation for brutality and Kentucky’s legacy of racism. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s David Kindred reported the most widely held account: “The defensive line was to surround the quarterback, moving at half-speed with no intentions of making a tackle. But Greg stumbled. Someone shoved the quarterback. They bumped together. And the instant Greg’s neck was snapped back by the collision, he suffered a paralyzing injury to his spinal cord.”
Northington’s departure from Kentucky came a dozen days after his [second SEC] game at Auburn. He was depressed and discouraged, living with no roommate and Page’s clothes still in his room. Even playing football reminded him of his roommate, and if any counseling was available, no one told him. Northington skipped some classes out of his despair. As a result, assistant coach Charley Pell took Northington’s meal ticket away and suggested he eat at friends’ homes, inferring that any African American would know other blacks in town.
But Northington’s greatest emotional wound came the evening after Page’s funeral in Middlesboro. He and the other twenty-six sophomores served as honorary pallbearers, but when their bus returned to campus, they learned they would pay for missing practice. They were put through a three-hour practice under the lights of Stoll Field that was classic Bradshaw and Pell, also a Bear Bryant protégé. By the time it was over, two starters and a third player had quit, and a fourth had gotten in a fistfight with a coach.
Three weeks later, having counted every block on the walls of his dorm room more than once, Northington became the eleventh player to leave the team in two and a half months. He would transfer to Western Kentucky and not talk publicly about his days at Kentucky for the next forty-five years. They were just too painful.
For forty-five years, Nate Northington refused to talk about being the SEC’s first black football player at Kentucky. It was just too painful. He dodged interviews or if a reporter caught him unaware on the phone, he would hang up. He just couldn’t reopen that wound.
Northington and Greg Page signed scholarships with Kentucky and were roommates, but then Page died in a non-contact practice drill and Northington had to integrate the league by himself. He played against Ole Miss and Auburn, but it all eventually became too much—the grief, the loneliness, the empty room, the constant reminders Page was not there, the lack of understanding by coaches. Northington left Lexington, transferred to Western Kentucky, graduated, and became a longtime administrator for the Louisville Housing Authority. In the late 1990s, he was called to the ministry.
With age, Northington began to appreciate the magnitude of what he and Page had achieved. “I realized I needed to share that with others,” he said. In 2013, he finally told his story in Still Running, his autobiography. “There was a lot of pain with what transpired with Greg,” he explained in the introduction. “For a long time I just didn’t want to go back to that.” Talking about those dark days made him sad and revisited the shame he had felt for so long about leaving Kentucky. The headline on October 23, 1967 blared “Northington Quits UK, Football Team,” but the article omitted the back story—the meal ticket taken away, the loneliness of a single room, the shoulder not repaired, the punishing nighttime practice after Page’s funeral.
As Northington began telling his story, he saw it as a way for people “to remember Greg Page.” He grew convinced that “God wants it told.”
In 2017—the fiftieth anniversary of Page’s death and Northington’s SEC debut—the University of Kentucky unveiled a statue of Page, Northington, Houston Hogg, and Wilbur Hackett. Hogg and Hackett were two of the black players that Northington told not to leave. Hackett, a fireplug of a linebacker, was Kentucky’s defensive captain within two years of Page’s death and eventually an SEC referee fifteen seasons. The energy behind the monument came from one of their white teammates—Paul Karem.
Robert Page, author interview, May 23, 1980
Charlie Bradshaw, author interview, circa Spring 1980
Wilbur Hackett, author interview, October 14, 2016
Houston Hogg, author interview, October 17, 2016
Chris Patrick, author interview, June 21, 2017
Morton Sharnik, “The New Rage to Win,” SI, October 8, 1962
“UK Signs…,” Lexington Herald, December 20, 1965
Rick Bailey, “Page in Critical Condition…,” Lexington Herald, August 23, 1967
Bill Pugh, “Early Reports…,” Lexington Leader, August 23, 1967
Rick Bailey, “Football Injury…,” Lexington Herald, September 30, 1967
“Fund Set…,” Lexington Leader, October 2, 1967
John McGill, “Mourners Bestow…,” Lexington Herald, October 4, 1967
John McGill, “Time Out,” Lexington Herald, October 4, 1967
Rick Bailey, “Northington Quits UK…,” Lexington Herald, October 23, 1967
Mike Sullivan, “UK’s Past…,” Louisville Courier-Journal, December 20, 1976
Mike Littwin, “Playing in Pain…,” LA Times, March 13, 1983
David Wharton, “Great Barrier,” LA Times, September 3, 2004
Russell Rice, “Bradshaw Resigned…,” Cats’ Pause, December 15, 2007
Turning the Page, documentary, 2013
Mark Story, “UK’s Northington and Page…,” Lexington Herald-Leader, October 5, 2013
Sarah M. Kazadi, “SEC Integrated,” cbssports.com, February 17, 2015
Nathaniel Northington, Still Running, 2013
Russell Rice, Kentucky Football, 2013
Michael Oriard, Bowled Over, 2009
Andrew Maraniss, Strong Inside, 2014
Frank Fitzpatrick, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1999