- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
THE UNIVERSITY of Mississippi didn't lose a thing in the fall of 1962. Oh, the history books might say something different, telling as they do of a black man named James Meredith and the failed, violent efforts to keep him from enrolling at the school, and the beginning of the end of segregation in the depths of the South. But posterity also records that after the gun smoke and tear gas had blown from the campus, the Ole Miss football team went 10--0, even as it shared its practice field with the federal troops bivouacked there. It was no small balm to white Mississippians, who watched what they called "our way of life" come forcefully to a close. In his autobiography the coach of that undefeated team, John Vaught, described the effect in a chapter titled "Football Saves a School."
But for most white Southerners it was one thing to integrate their classrooms and quite another to desegregate their football teams. In the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Southwest conferences, and at such major independents as Houston, Florida State and Georgia Tech, to do so was to mess with the sacraments. To be sure, in the late '50s coach Bud Wilkinson had brought a black receiver named Prentice Gautt to Oklahoma; Abner Haynes, a black running back, had starred at predominantly white North Texas State; and Leford Fant had briefly caught passes for Texas Western. But the Sooners played a largely Midwestern schedule, and North Texas and Texas Western cut only mid-major profiles on the regional margins. That left an unbroken swath of the South playing segregated football well into the 1960s, James Meredith be damned.
Not that most people put their defiance quite so indelicately. "What we need is a team that will work and pull and fight together and really get a feeling of oneness," Texas A&M coach Gene Stallings said in 1965, 27 years before he would win a national title at Alabama with a team on which every defensive starter was black. "I don't believe we could accomplish this with a Negro on the squad."
Meanwhile, blacks weren't exactly lining up for outrider duty. Those who'd heard tales from other parts of the country knew how Fritz Pollard, the black All-America at Brown during World War I, had learned to spin on his back and thrust his cleats in the air when tackled, to protect himself from late hits; how Iowa State's Jack Trice was trampled to death during a 1923 game against Minnesota; and how in 1951, on the first play from scrimmage, an Oklahoma A&M player broke the jaw of Drake running back Johnny Bright, forcing Bright to abandon football and causing his school to withdraw in protest from the Missouri Valley Conference.
So it was that the color barrier remained intact for SEC football until 1966. Logically enough, the task of breaking it fell to Kentucky, a border state that had desegregated its public schools in 1948. The Wildcats recruited defensive end Greg Page and receiver Nat Northington, and in those days of freshman ineligibility, the two spent a year patiently waiting for their breakthrough.
It was a high August afternoon in 1967 when Kentucky ran a pursuit drill, a staple of its preseason practices that was prejudiced against no one but the ballcarrier. In it, all 11 Wildcats defenders were to converge on the ball and get in a pop or a butt before dispersing. But this time Page fell to the turf and failed to rise. Something terrible had happened in that clattering of strong young men in helmets and pads and shorts, something that left Page paralyzed from the nose down.
At first events unspooled quickly: mouth-to-mouth, hospitalization, a tracheotomy, a respirator. And then agonizingly slowly, until, 38 days later, as the pastor at the memorial service put it, "the rudest of all constables whisked him away." Greg Page died on a Friday night. The next afternoon his roommate, Northington, became the first African-American to play in an SEC varsity football game, logging several minutes as a wideout in a home loss to Ole Miss. But within weeks he fled Lexington in a fog of distress and loneliness, leaving the Kentucky varsity all-white once more. "Nat said he'd just sit in his room and talk to the bricks in the wall," remembers Wilbur Hackett, a black linebacker who had been practicing with the freshman team on an adjacent field when Page went down. "Nat didn't feel close enough to anyone else, and nobody came to him. And the only reason I was at the school was because of Nat and Greg." Only Northington's pleas with Hackett and the other black freshman, Houston Hogg, to stay--urgings as resolute as his own decision to go--kept the two freshmen at Kentucky.
When Hackett told friends back in Louisville's West End that he would be returning to Kentucky for his sophomore year, they looked at him cross-eyed. "It was like, 'Man, you gonna stay where they killed Greg Page?'" he remembers. "That's what the feeling was."
Trailblazers at major universities all over the South endured on-field cheap shots, racial slurs from fans, and hate mail and abusive phone calls in their dorms. Many fielded death threats. Most had been plucked from the honor roll at segregated high schools as a result of Rickey-esque quests for prospects with the emotional armor to take any licking, physical or psychological. Yet back home friends often regarded them as Uncle Toms and wondered why historically black colleges like Grambling, Prairie View and Florida A&M suddenly weren't good enough. (Big Southern universities were passing up so much talent in the name of segregation that in the 1968 draft, NFL teams chose 11 players from Jackson State.) Time and again one of these forerunners would make a play to advance the ball near the goal line, only to be substituted for, lest he score a touchdown that might otherwise go to a white teammate--if, that is, the black player hadn't already been moved to defensive back.
By asking Wake Forest freshman coach Joe Madden to stop calling him "Willie," running back William Smith ensured that he'd be called nothing but for all of the 1964 season--and because Smith refused to answer to the name, every communication between coach and player had to pass through an assistant. A freshman game against Clemson, near his hometown of Greenville, S.C., sealed the end of Smith's brief career. Members of Smith's racially mixed Baha'i congregation had driven over for the game, and before kickoff Smith fixed them all with hugs. Furious, Madden refused to play Smith for weeks.