I remember when I first met Nate Northington.
We were at a book fair, and Mr. Northington was surrounded by family and friends. I noticed that from the looks of it, he kept in shape. He was trim, dressed in a smart brown suit, with an electric blue shirt. He had salt-and-pepper hair, a warm smile and kind eyes hidden behind glasses. I noticed he was careful to talk with everyone, to answer their questions and listen to their stories. His voice was soft, and he used it sparingly. But when he said something, I learned it usually was something important.
Earlier this year, Mr. Northington was the subject of a documentary. Earlier this summer, Larry Vaught told us that Mr. Northington would be inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame. I remember I was happy when I heard that.
You see, Mr. Northington was the first African-American football player in the SEC. He came up from Louisville’s Thomas Jefferson High and was asked personally, by then-University of Kentucky president Dr. John W. Oswald, to accept a scholarship to UK. He was even invited to dinner in Frankfort, where then-Governor Ned Breathitt Jr. campaigned on behalf of UK. That’s what did it.
In 1965, Mr. Northington signed to become a Wildcat. A month later, standout African-American player Greg Page did the same. The duo would break the SEC color barrier together at UK.
But his tale only begins there.
In 2013, he wrote an excellent book, Still Running, about his life and his struggles while at UK.
Originally, Mr. Northington wanted to go to Purdue, or – dare we say it – possibly Louisville, but it was that recruiting pitch – “The Governor of the state asked me to dinner – that’s an important thing,” he told me, laughing – that sold him on wearing blue.
At UK, he and Page roomed together, and eventually played as sophomores, when tragedy struck: Page was injured in practice. It was so severe he died a little more than a month later. Distraught, Mr. Northington transferred to Western Kentucky, where he played football and earned his degree.
It’s no exaggeration to compare Mr. Northington to other pioneers in sports. To pave the way for every other successful African-American football player in the SEC is no small feat. And Mr. Northington has carried himself with dignity and grace ever since.
In his book, he describes his first game, which would come against Indiana, and how then-Coach Charlie Bradshaw predicted Northington would be the best defensive back in the history of the school. “That was a lot of pressure for a young man who hadn’t played his first varsity game yet,” he wrote.
When he decided to leave UK and transfer to WKU, he still felt pride for what was accomplished in Lexington: “History had been made, the ‘color barrier’ had been broken, the door had been opened and the SEC would never be the same,” he wrote.
At WKU he helped the Hilltoppers win the 1970 Ohio Valley Conference championship. He married his high school sweetheart, and he became a successful sales representative and manager for several Fortune 500 companies. He went on to serve as the Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Bowling Green, then the regional director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. Mr. Northington is also a minister. Fittingly, he will be inducted into the UK Hall of Fame (with our KSR friend Jared Lorenzen) just after football season begins in September.
“If we can honor some people with this book, I would like to do that,” he said when asked why he wrote it. “And if we can inspire some people, I would like that, too.”
I would guess he has already accomplished both. Go get this book.
Ever been inspired by the performance of a UK player? How about a one-armed Billy Jack Haskins taking on Tennessee by himself in 1995? Leave your comments below and let us know. Or email me at [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter: @rhinoKSR or my website: ForRyanOutLoud.com and maybe I’ll share them.