PHOTO: Kentucky honored its four pioneering Black players that dragged the Southeastern Conference into the 20th century with a statue in 2016 of Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg. The statue was crafted by J. Brett Grill of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
Kentucky’s Paul Karem and fellow alums believed the time was overdue for their alma mater to recognize four pioneering Wildcats, Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.
The foursome formed the first Black football players in the Southeastern Conference, dragging the Jim Crow league into the 20th century. In 1966, Northington and Page signed Kentucky scholarship offers. A year later, Hackett and Hogg joined them.
Their historic moments, though, had gone largely unappreciated for a half-century.
Blame the 1960s sports media and its practice of avoiding race for the forgotten history. The scholarship signings were reported, but subsequent milestones such as Hackett as the SEC’s first Black team captain in 1969 were overlooked. Same with SEC neighbor Tennessee following Kentucky’s lead in 1967 by signing Lester McClain. A year later McClain was the SEC’s first Black player to score a touchdown. Few people in the SEC know that history.
Without appreciation of those milestones, the magnitude of what the pioneers accomplished was lost. Decades of Kentucky alums had cycled through to graduation unaware of their school’s history. Same with fans stepping on to campus for games.
By the late 1990s, Karem, who played football at Kentucky in the same era, wanted to shine a light. He proposed a statue honoring the pioneers, but he was met by indifference. Kentucky “powers that be” also didn’t understand their school’s history.
The statue project remained on a backburner until one night in 2013 while Karem watched ESPN. The cable network promoted an upcoming 30-for-30 documentary, “The Color Orange.” The film featured Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway, the SEC’s first Black quarterback. Holloway had signed in 1971 out of Huntsville, Alabama, and grew into a Tennessee icon as three-year starter, 1972-74.
Karem eagerly settled into his easy chair to watch the 30-for-30 produced by Kenny Chesney, the country music star that grew up a Tennessee fan.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, Condredge was five years after our guys. This is great! Because there is no way they can tell their story without saying the names of our guys and the University of Kentucky’ … they never said a word.”
Karem seethed. He had overestimated the media. As historian Ken Burns has often said, telling a full story requires sifting through past media stories that settled for a convenient narrative tied into a bow.
“I was so mad after watching that show. I said, ‘What if the families of our guys watched that?’”
Karem went to work, enlisting help from influential Kentucky alums, including two of his UK football teammates, Bob Finnell and Mark Lane. All three men were teammates of the Kentucky trailblazers. Karem is a customer service author and trainer and the Vice President for Business Development at South Central Bank in Kentucky. Finnell is successful attorney in Rome, Georgia. Lane is an international businessman with over 50 Kentucky athletes hired as employees.
I told the people I met with this would be a major public relations coup for our school.”— Former Kentucky football player Paul Karem.
They made another round of pitches.
“I told the people I met with this would be a major public relations coup for our school,” said Karem.
This time the historical context resonated.
The statues were approved in 2014 and unveiled in 2016. Kentucky paid a debt of gratitude to four players with the courage to defy the South’s bigots. Their statues educated unaware students, fans, alums, professors, coaches and administrators now and into the future.
“When they were planning it, I thought, ‘It’s been 50 years without recognition, so if they do it, great; if not, that’s fine,’” Hackett said. “But when they unveiled it, I was so excited and proud for all of us. But mostly I was happy for Greg and his family. He was a part of this, too. He gave his life to this. He deserved the recognition.”
Page suffered a neck injury in a 1967 preseason practice, lapsed into a coma and later died. Northington played only in the 1967 season, but Hackett and Hogg finished their careers through 1970 to further establish Kentucky’s place in history.
Kentucky’s pioneering football role, though, has been long overshadowed by Kentucky basketball’s notorious role in the 1966 NCAA championship game.
Kentucky basketball was infamous for its all-white 1966 team losing to Texas Western (now UTEP) with its five Black starters. The game inspired the 2006 film Glory Road. Jon Voight was cast in the role of the racist villain, playing Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp.
“They don’t tell you in the film Kentucky had signed Nate Northington and Greg Page to play football before that basketball game was played,” Karem said of the 1966 winter football recruiting class. “Our school first recruited them in 1965 when they were in high school. But we’re known for that basketball game.”
Karem, who lives in Louisville, has noticed a new appreciation, particularly in the West End of Louisville, the Black section of town. Muhammad Ali grew up in the neighborhood.
Louisville’s Black fans historically resent Kentucky basketball for more than the traditional rivalry reasons. Kentucky fans called the Louisville Cardinals the Blackbirds for signing Black basketball players as early as 1962. Wes Unseld, a two-time All-American pick and NBA legend, signed in 1964.
“You never used to see Kentucky shirts on Black kids in Louisville,” Karem said. “Sports heals.”
THE 1960s VACUUM FILLED BY 1970 USC-ALABAMA MYTHS
Karem’s hope now is more people will understand Kentucky — not Alabama and coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and his 1970 game against USC — led SEC integration.
“They make a big deal about the Alabama game with Southern Cal winning that it was Bryant’s way of showing Alabama’s fans it was time to recruit Black athletes,” Karem said. “That was five years after Kentucky started recruiting Nate Northington and Greg Page in high school.”
In addition to Kentucky and other southern schools, an primary example of progress underway long before 1970 was Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1960s teams as college football’s first fully integrated rosters. College football integration can’t be fully understood without recognizing the 1970 USC-Alabama myths and fiction pushed the true 1960s pioneers into the shadows.
In reality, there was no overnight awakening to USC routing Alabama, 41-21. By then, integration in the South was fait accompli. Ninety percent of the South’s major programs (28 of 31), including Alabama, had recruited a Black player before the game was played.
The myths and fiction weren’t crafted until the late 1980s and didn’t spread nationally until the 1990s. But when they did spread, a vacuum existed from the negligence of the 1960s sports media failing to record a timeline of progress. The tall tales from the 1970 USC-Alabama game filled the vacuum, sucking in a gullible writers, editors, filmmakers and fans.
By 1971, Alabama was one of the last four southern schools to desegregate. At the same time, integrated programs such as USC abandoned unwritten quotas of a half-dozen or so Black players. USC’s 1962 national championship team had only five Black players and its 1967 national title roster only seven. USC was still shedding the residue of its quota years when it showed up in 1970 at Alabama with only five Black starters despite the population and diversity of Los Angeles.
Documentaries on the 1970 USC-Alabama game cherry pick facts to fit their convenient narrative. The guilty include HBO’s Breaking the Huddle, 2008; Showtime’s Against the Tide, 2013; and ESPN films in 2019 and 2020.
Alabama author Keith Dunnavant is quoted in the films with latitude to obfuscate Bryant’s dismal integration record. The misleading books include “Turning the Tide” by Don Yaeger with John Papadakis.
Papakakis, a 1970 USC linebacker, may have done well in USC’s Cinematic Arts program, but it’s doubtful he passed a journalism and history research class. Papadakis wrote a movie script with a fictional scene of Bryant inviting USC’s Sam Cunningham, a Black fullback, into his locker room to show his players what a “football player looked like.”
The perceived humor of the scene propelled it into college football lore. Not even Cunningham admitting in 2003 it never happened killed the myth. A 2020 ESPN’s E60 feature, narrated by Jeremy Schaap, simply omitted the Cunningham story. Cunningham and the locker room is the linchpin to the whole myth.
In reality, history’s timeline shows six SEC schools (Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi State, Auburn and Vanderbilt) in a then-10-team league had integrated by 1970. Schools in the other two major southern conferences, the Atlantic Coast (5 of 8) and defunct Southwest (all nine), were also ahead of Alabama. Major southern schools that were independents made it 28 of 31.
Papadakis apparently didn’t understand the South’s timeline of progress when he wrote his movie script.
He also didn’t understand in the early to mid-1960s, African-Americans in Los Angeles criticized USC coach John McKay for his lack of Black athletes. He offered a feeble excuse other schools were the same, even though USC had played Michigan State in 1963 and 1964, winning the 1963 game and losing to the Spartans in 1964. In the 1962 season, the Associated Press reported Michigan State’s 17 Black athletes was the most in major college football history.
Major media platforms, however, apparently prefer the convenient story that gilds Bryant’s image and aggrandizes USC’s role. They continue to regurgitate the myths and fiction, trotting out Dunnavant and Papadakis on film, without studying the facts.
The 1970 USC-Alabama myths don’t sit well with McClain and Hackett as well as other 1960s true pioneers.
“There is more fiction in those 1970 USC-Alabama stories than anything,” said McClain, who scored six touchdowns in 1968. “You’d think that’s when the SEC began recruiting Black athletes. I was almost out of school by 1970.”
Hackett added, “I was very disappointed with the way they portrayed Bryant. I have the utmost respect for him as a football coach, but what they showed was totally wrong. They wrote it as if Bear Bryant desegregated the Southeastern Conference.”
McClain, Hackett and other true 1960s pioneers should be known more for desegregating southern football than the credit Sam Cunningham unjustly receives over them.
MICHIGAN STATE NEEDS TO UNDERSTAND ITS OWN HISTORY
Michigan State can learn from Kentucky’s statues shining a light on its history.
The Duffy Daugherty/Skandalaris Football Center honors its College Football Hall of Fame coach for his 19-year career as a national championship coach, but decades of students have cycled through to graduation without understanding their school was on the right side of history. Same with fans attending games at Spartan Stadium.
Daugherty combined Michigan State’s long history of Midwest-based integrated rosters with talent recruited from the segregated South. Michigan State’s leadership gained wider national attention with its 1965 and 1966 national championship teams playing before vast TV audiences.
There have been past discussions of a Daugherty statue, but, similar to Kentucky’s administrators, the idea was met with indifference. And forgotten. A statue of representing only Daugherty, though, misses the point.
Daugherty didn’t do it alone. Such a monument on campus should recognize the 1960s teams and the southern Black high school coaches that steered talent to East Lansing. It should highlight the 1965 and 1966 national championship teams as a tipping point.
And don’t forget the 1966 Game of the Century matching Notre Dame and Michigan State on Nov. 19, 1966 at Spartan Stadium. There should be a plaque recognizing the seminal moment in college football. A record TV audience of 33 million tuned in.
The Spartans lined up 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains, College Football Hall of Famers George Webster and Clinton Jones, voted by their teammates and the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C.
By contrast, Notre Dame had only one Black player, Alan Page.
For more than a half-century, Michigan State has failed to celebrate its own history.
MICHIGAN STATE BELONGS ON THIS LIST
In recent years, some college football programs have honored their true 1960s pioneers.
Grand Valley State professor Louis Moore believes it helps educate the campus. Moore is the author of two book on Black athletes: “I Fight for a Living” and “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.” Moore and Kentucky professor Dr. Derrick White also host a podcast, “The Black Athlete.”
“These are great opportunities for schools to wrestle with the past,” Moore said. “We can celebrate the guys and look internally at what happened, but then I think the worry is it dissipates. Everybody pats themselves on the back, but we move on.
“A school may have integrated, but there are continuous problems on campuses. It’s good to recognize what happened, but we have to continue to work on problems.
However, Michigan State, the school that led the way to fully integrated rosters, is egregiously missing from this list of college football pioneers.
— TENNESSEE, 2021. The Volunteers unveiled four statues of pioneers prior to their 2021 season opener on Sept. 2 against Bowling Green. The statues were of Lester McClain, the school’s first Black player and the SEC’s first Black player to score a touchdown; Jackie Walker, the SEC’s first Black all-conference pick in 1969 and first Black All-American in 1970 and 1971; Condredge Holloway, the SEC’s first Black starting quarterback, 1972-74; and Tee Martin, the SEC’s first Black quarterback to win a national title while leading the Vols in 1998.
— IOWA, 2021 – “Duke Slater Field” now graces Kinnick Stadium. Iowa named the field for Slater to honor the 100th anniversary of the Iowa Black lineman who earned All-American honors on the Hawkeyes’ 1921 national championship team. Iowa had previously recognized the 1921 team in 2019 with a bronze relief that includes Slater in the stadium North end zone wall.
— WAKE FOREST, 2021: The school established the “Trailblazer Award” and named Bob Grant and Kenneth “Butch” Hery the first recipients. Grant and Henry were the first Black football players recruited out of high school by a school in a major southern conference, the ACC.
— TEXAS, 2020: A statue of Julius Whitaker was unveiled on Nov. 21, 2020. Whitaker was the Longhorns’ first Black football player signed in the 1969 recruiting class. The statue was erected in just seven months after a group of Longhorns athletes protested social injustice on campus and a lack of recognition for African-Americans students.
— KENTUCKY, 2016: The Wildcats unveiled statues of the school’s first four Black players. Nate Northington and Greg Page were signed as the Southeastern Conference’s first two Black players in 1966. Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg were signed a year later.
— HOUSTON, 2015: The Cougars honored Bill Yeoman with a statue outside TDECU Stadium. Ironically, that means Yeoman, a Michigan State assistant coach under Daugherty, has been honored with a statue for his pioneering role before his mentor. Yeoman arrived at Houston in 1962 and recruited Warren McVea in 1964 as the Cougars’ first Black athlete. The Cougars’ success under Yeoman, a College Football Hall of Famer, led to the school’s admission to the Southwest Conference. He won four SWC titles.
— UCLA, 2014: Jackie Robinson first arrived at UCLA in 1939 as a football star, although history remembers him most for breaking the Major League Baseball color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. UCLA retired Robinson’s iconic baseball No. 42 in all sports. Robinson also starred for the Bruins in basketball, baseball and track and field. UCLA, in 1981, named its new campus baseball field, “Jackie Robinson Stadium.”
— AUBURN, 2012: The Tigers inaugurated the James Owens Courage Award to honor its first Black football player, signed in 1969. Each year the award is presented to a current or former Auburn player for his courage in the face of adversity. Owens’ career was one year ahead of Wilbur Jackson as Alabama’s first Black athlete, although the media tends to celebrate fabled Alabama coach Bear Bryant over Owens and coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.
— SYRACUSE, 2009: The school unveiled a statue of Ernie Davis on the University Quad. Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, in the 1961 season. Prior to Davis, the highest finish by a Black athlete in the voting was Syracuse’s Jim Brown, fifth in 1956. After Davis, Minnesota’s Bobby Bell was third in 1962 and Michigan State’s Sherman Lewis third in 1963. The second Black Heisman winner was USC’s Mike Garrett in 1965.
— SOUTHERN METHODIST, 2009: Each year the Mustangs designate a player that best represents Jerry LeVias’ ground-breaking career with the honor of wearing his jersey, No. 23. LeVias was the Southwest’s Conference first Black scholarship player when SMU coach Hayden Fry brought him to the Dallas campus. The All-American receiver was a six-year NFL veteran and named to the College Football Hall of Fame, in 2001.
— DRAKE, 2006: Drake Stadium’s turf was named Johnny Bright Field for the school’s quarterback/halfback, 1949-51. In a 1951 game against segregated Oklahoma A&M, Bright was attacked on the field with dirty hits that broke his jaw and sent him to the hospital. A photographic sequence of the assault published in the Des Moines Register won a Pulitzer Prize.
— SYRACUSE, 2005: Wilmeth Sidat-Singh’s No. 19 jersey as a football and basketball star was retired and hangs in the Carrier Dome. In 1937, Sidat-Singh was forced to sit out a game at Maryland due to the “gentleman’s agreement” that required northern schools to bench their African-American players. Syracuse lost 13-0, but the next year, with Sidat-Singh playing quarterback, the Orange won 53-0. Sidat-Singh died in 1943 while on a training mission as a Tuskegee Airman. His plane’s engine failed and he crashed into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. When Maryland honored Sidat-Singh during a 2013 Syracuse-Maryland game at Maryland, among the awards Sidat-Singh’s family members accepted was recognition from the Wounded Warrior Project.
— WYOMING, 2002: The school dedicated the “Black 14” sculpture, placing it on display in Wyoming Union. The sculpture was funded by the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming as a step to apologize to the 14 Black players who were unfairly dismissed from the team in the 1969 season. The players wanted to wear Black armbands in the upcoming game against Brigham Young, a school owned by the Mormon Church. The players want to protest the Mormon Church’s policy against Blacks. Wyoming coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed them from the team without discussion.
— MISSOURI, 2001: The Tigers dedicated the Norris Stevenson Plaza of Champions in 2001, the same year the school also inducted the running back into its athletics Hall of Fame. Stevenson was Missouri’s first Black scholarship recruit, in 1957. He was a three-year running back (1958-60) for head coach Dan Devine, a former Michigan State assistant. As a senior in 1960, Stevenson ran for 169 yards to lead No. 2-ranked Missouri past Oklahoma, 41-19. The Tigers jumped to No. 1 in the next poll, although they finished the year No. 4.
— IOWA STATE, 1997: Ohio State athletic Gene Smith was Iowa State’s AD when Cyclones renamed their stadium Jack Trice Stadium, in 1997. A statue of Trice also was unveiled outside the stadium. In 1923, Trice died from internal injuries suffered in a game against Minnesota. Iowa State canceled future games with Minnesota due to the deadly cheap shots Trice suffered on the field.
I will put up my research on the 1970 USC-Alabama myths and fiction versus the true 1960s pioneers against anybody, anytime, anywhere. My research dates to 2012 while writing “Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the integration of college football.”
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055.