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Ground Breakers
ALEXANDER WOLFF
November 07, 2005
Long after Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier in baseball, these Southern college football pioneers desegregated a more violent sport, in a more violent place, at a more violent time
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November 07, 2005

Ground Breakers

Long after Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier in baseball, these Southern college football pioneers desegregated a more violent sport, in a more violent place, at a more violent time

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Today Wilbur Hackett is 56, an assembly-line supervisor at a Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., who spends fall weekends working as an SEC official. He played his four years in Lexington on a whipsaw. After George Wallace spoke on campus, Hackett got into a fistfight with students who called him a nigger. No blacks enrolled at Kentucky in the year after Page's death, in part because Hackett and Hogg warned them off. "It was tough," Hackett says. " Houston and I packed our bags more than once."

Yet, before his junior and senior seasons, teammates elected Hackett defensive captain, in recognition of the effort he invested in every play. "I felt if I didn't do that, I wouldn't make it," he says. "And with Greg and Nat gone, I had to make it."

Hackett is speaking on a glorious fall day in downtown Louisville. "We could walk from here to where Nat works," he says of Northington, who works for the Louisville Housing Authority, "but he won't talk." Not, Hackett says, because his old friend is carrying around some incriminating secret about what happened during that fatal drill, but because he has never wanted to revisit his brief, agonizing transit of the SEC. "It was a freak accident," Hackett says, pointing out that during the same 1967 season a white Wildcat, Cecil New, suffered a spinal injury in practice and has been a paraplegic ever since. "Even to this day there's a cloud over UK football."

Now, on Saturdays, Hackett positions himself on Southern playing fields filled with more black players than white. "The players, they don't know who I am, and I don't want them to know," he says. "But I'm giving them the best that I've got because I've been where they've been."

In fact, it's more likely that Hackett gives them the best that he's got because he has been somewhere no one will ever have to go again. It's a place evoked by an athletic department questionnaire, filled out in Greg Page's long-since-cold hand, that rests in a filing cabinet in Memorial Coliseum on the Kentucky campus. Page answered it in May 1966, when he was still a high school senior down in the Cumberland Gap, and it might as well be a testament. It includes his response to the question, Why did you choose UK?

"I wanted to play football for UK and to help open the way for more Negro athletes to play ball here."

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