Fifty years ago, Nate Northington set foot on the campus of the University of Kentucky. He was preparing to play football. He was from the state’s largest city. None of which was out of the ordinary for a young man at that time, but when you put those things together and add in that Mr. Northington is African-American, one word comes to mind: pioneer. And I, for one, feel bad that I didn’t know his story until very recently.
Growing up black in Louisville meant that you had one perception of the University of Kentucky. It was always spoken of as being not only a place that wasn’t welcoming of blacks, it was always hinted at that it was openly hostile toward minorities. When I grew up in the 1980s, it was hard to believe that any black kid would go to UK at all, let alone willingly to play a sport. Even though there were black players on all Wildcat sports teams during that time, it was something hard to process. The main reason was one of those things every single Wildcat fan has heard before: “Adolph Rupp was a racist.”
The narrative of Rupp being a racist has gone from rumor to somehow becoming an established fact. The movie Glory Road solidified that storyline when it chronicled the 1966 NCAA title game between Kentucky and the all-black starting five of Texas Western. If Rupp was indeed racist, then somehow that proved that UK as an institution was racist. And that became the thought of a lot of people, particularly black people within the city of Louisville. But wait… if, in fact, the university itself was purely racist, what about Nate Northington and the other trailblazers in the football program?
This isn’t to say that Mr. Northington (Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett or Houston Hogg) had it easy in Lexington. This also isn’t to say that Kentucky was any more or less uninviting for African-American players than anywhere else. In Oxford, Mississippi, the National Guard had to forcibly integrate Ole Miss and it was the governor of Alabama, not Kentucky, that declared there would be “segregation now, segregation forever.” So while Coach Rupp and the intrinsically racist University of Kentucky played basketball, head football coach Charlie Bradshaw was working to integrate SEC football, preparing to take black players to the places where integration faced it’s most staunchest opponents.
Fifty years later, with a statue outside of the Kentucky football training complex and right outside of Kroger Field, Mr. Northington was honored before, during and after the Wildcat’s 24-20 win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday. There was a plaque given to him. Football players and other student-athletes wore T-shirts with his number, 23, and his name on them. Between the first and second quarters, athletes came out and told Mr. Northington and to everyone at the game what his sacrifice meant to and for them. It was an honor a long time in coming and an honor that was much deserved.
When we look back on the Civil Rights Movement, we remember Martin Luther King Jr and other leaders, but we have to keep in mind there are pioneers that had to put in the work at the local level. There are firsts for just about every facet of American life. And there had to be a first African-American athlete in the SEC. I’m thankful that person wore Blue and White. I’m thankful that person was Nate Northington. He is a pioneer. He is a trailblazer and he is a Wildcat.