CBS Sports documentary shows how SEC integrated football

CBS Sports documentary shows how  SEC integrated football
February 12
00:00 2015

When Nate Northington signed to play at the University of Kentucky nearly 50 years ago, he became the game-changer for college football in the Deep South. Since that time, the Southeastern Conference, of which Kentucky is a member, has evolved as arguably the best in the college game today.

Over the years, black athletes have contributed heavily to the conference’s success. That hasn’t always been the case. To commemorate Northington being the first black person to play football in the SEC, the documentary “Forward Progress: The Integration of SEC Football” will air during Black History Month on Monday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. on the CBS Sports network.

There’s a bit of irony about the airing of “Forward Progress.” The SEC was the last major conference in the country to recruit and sign black football players. Today, that same conference might be the most integrated in college football.

“I’m thrilled about the documentary and the story that it tells,” said Northington, author of “Still Running,” an autobiography that tells about his time at Kentucky. “As an 18-year old, I didn’t know how the signing might relate to what would happen in the future. There was a lot of media attention when I signed, so that let me know about the magnitude of it all.”

Northington, a running back, was supposed to have a partner in making history. He signed in December 1965. A month later, Kentucky brought another black athlete into the fold, defensive end Greg Page. Both were honor students and All-State players.

Neither would finish their careers at Kentucky. Both played on UK’s freshman team and were being counted on to emerge as key contributors as sophomores in 1967.  During pre-season practice that year, Page suffered a neck injury during a half-speed drill and was paralyzed from the nose down. Less than six weeks later, Page died on the night before Kentucky’s home opener against the University of Mississippi.

Northington played defensive back against Ole Miss for about three minutes before being forced to leave the game with a dislocated shoulder. He broke the color barrier that day. But none of that mattered in the wake of losing Page, his roommate and best friend who was like a brother. Northington reflects on that day in his book.

“I cannot even tell you what all transpired that day,” he wrote. “It is like a fog in my mind. I tried to eat the pre-game meal but it was no use…. For history and the record books, it was a day filled with excitement and significance. For me, it turned out to be a day filled with mixed emotions and one that left me feeling extremely sad.”

There were several factors in Northington’s decision to leave UK. There was the difficulty of coping with Page’s death, coupled with the recurring shoulder injury that drastically limited his playing time. The final factor was having his meal ticket taken away by the coaches because he had missed so much class time during the 5½ weeks that he visited Page in the hospital. Northington transferred to Western Kentucky and was the star running back on the 1970 team that won the Ohio Valley Conference championship.

Jack Ford, the executive producer of “Forward Progress,” is a student of college football. During his research, he’s discovered a number of compelling stories about the pioneers who blazed new trails for others to follow.

What Ford learned was that the integration of the SEC didn’t occur the way most people think it did. The common presumption is that Alabama made the first move in the year after the Crimson Tide took a big-league whipping from an integrated Southern California squad in a nationally-televised game in 1970.

Alabama signed its first black football player, Wilbur Jackson, in 1970, but that was half a decade after Northington and Page signed with Kentucky. It didn’t take long for Ford to understand that even among the most die-hard college football fans, most were clueless about which school shattered the race barrier in the SEC.

“I took a personal survey of about 20 people,” he said. “Since all are huge college fans, especially the SEC, I figured some would know. Not one person picked Kentucky. That’s when I realized that what Nate Northington and Greg Page did all those years ago was a major event in history and there are only a few people who know anything about it. This ushered in a change, not only in sports, but in the nation’s cultural landscape as well.”

It’s Ford’s hope that viewers will learn more than a history lesson as they watch “Forward Progress.” The significance of Northington’s and Page’s contributions, he explained, transcends college football. Considering the racial climate of the Deep South in the 1960s, there’s no doubt that Kentucky took a bold step in signing two black players at a time in which no other school in the conference would dare to do so.

“This story is about heroism,” said Ford. “The University of Kentucky was fully aware of the enormous risk it took in signing Northington and Page. When you stop to consider what they were asked to do, you come to understand that these men were true heroes. Even though they suffered personal attacks, they handled all of it with enormous character and grace.”

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Craig Greenlee

Craig Greenlee

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