(One year ago this week, the University of Kentucky unveiled a collection of statues of the four men credited for leading the way in the integration of Southeastern Conference football. I was never so proud of my alma mater. Here is what I wrote.)
They stand, tall and proud, between the UK football practice facility and Commonwealth Stadium. Maybe they’re walking from their locker room to the field on Game Day. Maybe practice is done and they’re heading over to sneak a peek at the place where they’ll be playing on Saturday. Like all works of art, your interpretation is yours to keep.
But it’s so much more.
The statues, like a football team, represent a sum greater than the whole of its parts. It is four men, but it’s one: Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett, Houston Hogg. Each made their own decision but together they’ll stand forever, or at least as long as bronze can battle the elements, on the campus where they got a chance, which is all they ever wanted.
The University of Kentucky Thursday night unveiled the artwork created by sculptor Brett Grill. That was him beaming as current UK players released the cover, allowing several hundred fans, university administrators and friends and relatives of the four, to finally see what’s been in the works for more than three years.
It’s a monument to the men who made possible what’s now as routine as the green grass and blue skies on a lovely football Saturday: people of all colors playing the sport they love on campuses sprinkled throughout the Southeastern Conference.
It now seems impossible to fathom any other way. But it was, once upon a sad and evil time.
Jim Crow laws prohibited blacks and whites from playing sports together in the deep south, which for too long prevented UK from inviting blacks to play football on a campus that had desegregated in 1948. It wasn’t until 1966, two years after national civil rights legislation took hold that university administrators decided, enough is enough. The nation is moving on. UK offered. Northington and Page signed.
You know the incredibly sad story by now, Page suffering a spinal injury in practice, in a drill that wasn’t even designed for full contact. It left him paralyzed, unable to breathe on his own. And it left Northington without his roommate, his friend, the only other person in the world who knew exactly what he was going through.
Page died on September 29, 1967. Northington, carrying his grief as well as the eyes of the nation, the next day became the first African American ever to play a sport of any kind in the SEC. And he was wearing Kentucky blue.
An ESPN “30 for 30” documentary rightly and adroitly celebrated the college career of Tennessee’s Conredge Holloway, the grandson of a slave, who became the first black to play quarterback in the SEC. But there was little or no mention of the school in Lexington that already had smashed the color barrier five years before.
It was Northington who, at the urging of then-governor Ned Breathitt, decided to take a step he couldn’t possibly have known at the time would be so gigantic, agreeing to play in Lexington. It was time, Northington said.
Page made a similar choice. Tragedy robbed him of his rightful place in history. A year later, Houston Hogg and Wilbur Hackett showed the same kind of courage, knowing full well what lay ahead. Growing up they’d already experienced the bitter ugliness of bigotry. It helped prepare them for the taunts and barbs they would hear on the football field.
Their teammates stood with them and one stood taller through the years. Paul Karem, a quarterback in his playing days, was one of the signal-callers on the project designed to recognize The Four. He enlisted the aid of as many media members as he could and when he got the chance, he cornered athletics director Mitch Barnhart, who remembers Karem telling him, “Let me tell you a story…”
It was a story of love, of courage, of desire that wouldn’t be denied. Black athletes simply wanted to play with, and against, their white friends and peers, just as they did in high school and on the sandlots. They wanted to compete while they were getting a college education, just like the others. And they wanted to do it in Lexington and Knoxville and Oxford and Athens…
For too long, too many had decreed that it would never happen. And now, well, try to imagine sports in the SEC without African Americans. It’s not even worth the time.
The statues are there – four figures, one work of art. Football players, booted and suited, but they’re not running or throwing or tackling. They’re walking together.
Maybe that’s where they’re going. Two of them, and then two more, with the help of their school, crossing the line from never, to forever.