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COLLEGE FOOTBALL '04

The Great Barrier

Kentucky was the first to integrate the SEC, where Croom makes milestone debut this week

September 03, 2004|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. — It took a while for Greg Page to die, lying in that hospital bed more than a month, hooked to a machine.

The kid from a small mining town in eastern Kentucky was so strong, bigger than life, no one could quite fathom what had happened.

A simple pursuit drill at football practice, players in shoulder pads and shorts, running three-quarter speed. Maybe someone tripped him from behind and he hit the ballcarrier funny. Maybe he slipped and someone fell on him at just the wrong angle.

After he finally stopped breathing, his best friend Nat Northington went back to the dorms and packed a suitcase. It was 1967. Page and Northington were the only blacks on the University of Kentucky varsity, the only blacks in all of the Southeastern Conference.

Most teams around the country had integrated. But the SEC was different, a bastion of college football with campuses in places such as Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Baton Rouge, La., where the sport was religion. A conference bound by tradition. Many called it flat-out racist.

The burden of change fell upon two sophomores. Through loneliness and awkward moments, slurs yelled by fans during freshman games, it had been Page who kept laughing, kept things light. Northington, the quiet one, could not abide that weight alone.

"I can tell you every brick in my room," a former teammate recalls him saying. "All I do is talk to the walls."

Then he said: "I'm going home."

*

The start of another college season brings a historic moment in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday. Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State will become the first black man to coach an SEC football team.

The game against Tulane -- both teams are mediocre, coming off losing seasons -- will be broadcast on national television. Countless sportscasters and columnists, radio talk show hosts and their guests, have dissected the significance of the moment.

Look how far football in the Deep South has come, they have said. Or, more often, how could this have taken so long?

There have been references to a 1970 game in Birmingham, Ala., where USC fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham bowled over an all-white Alabama team, which supposedly prompted legendary Crimson Tide Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant to start recruiting blacks.

People forget that Alabama, ruler of the SEC, already had a black freshman on the roster. They forget about Page and Northington, who had quietly braved the color barrier years earlier.

"It's been a long time," says Jeff Van Note, who played on that Kentucky team. "The memory dims."

Another thing. Kentucky's grand experiment ended almost as soon as it began -- one player dead, the other gone home after a few games -- so people might have figured it was a bust.

If so, they figured wrong.

*

By the fall of 1965, there were whispers that the SEC would have to desegregate sooner or later. If nothing else, its teams were getting beat by integrated squads from across the nation.

Kentucky, the conference's northernmost campus, was a logical place to start. Blacks had been attending the school for more than a decade. The president, John Oswald, was Minnesota-born and California-educated, an outsider.

Still, Oswald realized the first step would be risky.

The Ku Klux Klan had murdered three civil rights workers in Mississippi the previous June. In March 1965, police attacked a voting rights march in Selma, Ala., beating scores of protesters.

Within the SEC, several of the member schools were holding out for segregation, says Russell Rice, who worked two decades for the Kentucky athletic department.

"You can't imagine how it was in those days," Rice says. "It was rough."

So rough that, as Rice tells it, Oswald made an unusual offer to his football coach: If Charlie Bradshaw would recruit black players, the university would guarantee him employment for life, even if he was fired as coach.

Bradshaw, an Alabama native who played for Bear Bryant in the late 1940s, had further incentive.

"He was losing a lot of games," Rice says. "We're talking about [recruiting] good ballplayers ... they couldn't do anything but help the team."

The players he chose would find themselves under a microscope. They would have to be good students and model citizens, able to withstand the pressure.

By December 1965, Bradshaw had found two candidates.

The arrival of Page and Northington at summer camp in 1966 was a jolt. No one was hostile, at least not openly, but some on the team had come from segregated high schools, had never played alongside blacks.

Page helped ease the tension.

An all-state defensive end from Middlesboro, down in the Cumberland Gap, he was "a very good athlete ... you could tell he was going to be a good football player," recalls Van Note, the team's leader on defense.

There was also his personality, even larger than his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame. "Just a good old mountain boy from east Kentucky," Rice says. "A pretty down-to-Earth fella, he fit in real well."

Northington was different, smaller, an "A" student from up the highway in Louisville.

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