LEXINGTON, Ky. — Destiny subtracts decision from a matter.
It’s no longer right from wrong or a personal choice. That’s the way Wilbur Hackett talks.
Destiny led four men — he, Nate Northington, Houston Hogg and Greg Page — to break the college football color barrier in the SEC.
It’s been 50 years since Northington and Page first arrived to Kentucky’s campus. Hackett and Hogg followed a year later. Three were back on campus Thursday night to witness the unveiling of a 3,500-pound bronze statue depicting their younger selves: Hackett, Northington, Hogg and Page standing side by side just as they always did.
The man missing was Page. He stood on the far left of the stone base, the setting sun catching his No. 82 across the right shoulder pad. But he wasn’t with his teammates, all in their late 60s, during the ceremony.
Hackett has been on the wrong end of bottles, and once, bullets. He’s sat in the balcony of a movie theatre because the cushioned seats below were reserved for white people. He’s drank from different fountains and been to restaurants where he had to order his food to go instead of being seated.
He played in stadiums where he looked around, not seeing one person who looked like him other than a teammate. Not on the sidelines, not among the thousands of spectators in the stands.
But when he enrolled at Kentucky, he was ready for the racism. He expected it. He had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Louisville. He had demonstrated in the same downtown where that restaurant refused to serve him.
“I was a 17-year-old, full of piss and vinegar, ready to take on the world,” Hackett says.
But none of it prepared him to lose Greg Page.
When Nate Northington entered the home ballgame against Ole Miss on Sept. 30, 1967, he became the first black man to play in an SEC vs. SEC football game.
If not for the accident, it would’ve been Page and Northington out there together.
It wasn’t even a full-contact drill. The Wildcats had just reported to camp in late July. Northington and Page were sophomores. Hogg and Hackett had just arrived.
“Shorts and shoulder pads, no full speed,” Hackett remembers. “But you know the aggressiveness of a football player, sometimes we get a little aggressive.”
It was a pursuit drill. Everyone ran to the ball with Page first to the spot. Someone ran into him from behind, and that was it. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
Machines kept him alive for 38 days. He died one day before Northington broke the color barrier.
Hackett thinks it was an accident. Page’s family wasn’t suspicious of foul play, but others were. Four black players on the team and one is paralyzed in a non-contact drill. Some thought it fit too perfectly. Some thought Page was targeted.
Weeks later there was another terrible accident. Another broken neck, this time a white player. That didn’t stop the questions.
“I have no answer,” Hackett says. “But especially because of the times, because racism was so rampant, a lot of people said, ‘Yeah, they killed that brother on purpose.’”
Teammates weren’t allowed to see Page while he was hooked up in the hospital. Hackett knew he needed to. Page, a year older, was the person who welcomed Hackett on his visit to the school. He, along with Hackett’s family, convinced Hackett to join he and Northington.
Their personalities matched. Northington was quiet, but Page was Hackett’s kind of guy. The two would leave campus, “there wasn’t anything for us there,” Hackett says, and go to Louisville to a juke joint they liked.
So Hackett wanted to see his friend. He and Hogg sneaked into the hospital to see Page.
“That was the last time we did that,” Hackett says. “I couldn’t bear it.”
Northington ended up leaving the school, but Hackett and Hogg stayed to continue the fight. They were dealing with the typical troubles facing any college freshman, but the loss of one of their friends and the racism they met in the South put them in unchartered territory.
“You didn’t know what was gonna happen, you know?” Hogg says. “The way the fans were hollering at you and stuff like that, you didn’t know if one of them had something up there. You had your mind on more than football. I’ll put it that way.”
Hogg lives in Owensboro, Ky., and Hackett lives in Louisville. Hogg is restricted to a motorized chair but Hackett makes the two-hour drive to visit every once in awhile. There’s a good BBQ spot they like to go to.
Hackett took the racism that met he and Hogg head on. He says he wasn’t cocky, but he was a “pretty good little football player.”
“When we were playing in the South, my first year, my sophomore year, I guarantee you I had a bullseye on my back,” Hackett says. “Those redneck southern white boys did not want me on that field. I guarantee you there was an effort made to get me out the game. I never missed a game, I never missed a practice in my four years.”
The cheap shots he might take on the field were nothing compared to what he had faced during the 1968 Louisville riots. Once, instead of bottles coming toward he and other marchers, there were bullets. He dropped to the ground. The guy next to him was shot in the leg.
“I actually fed on that hostile crowd,” Hackett says. “As a matter of fact, the more they hated me, the harder I played. When my opponent called me the n-word, I’d say, ‘you’re about to get your ass kicked white boy.’ I gave it back to them.
“That was me. I was not afraid.”
The race pioneers of the SEC have transformed from young to old men. They each looked up at the statue, seeing themselves from 50 years ago. They paved the way of progress, yet know the road isn’t close to completion.
“As long as we’re on this earth, we’re gonna have differences,” Hackett says. “But it’s how we resolve our differences.”
Members of the Douglass Dolphins, a youth football team, were at the ceremony. They were mostly young African-American boys.
“You know why we’re here, right?” one of their coaches asked.
The boys gathered at the bottom of the statue, looking up at figures of men they had likely never met.
It took a group of men like Northington and Page, Hackett and Hogg to change the course of history.
“It brings to light that the efforts I made have not gone in vain,” Hackett says. “They were for something.”
He pauses. Always pivoting the conversation back to the friend he dearly misses.
“Greg’s death was for something.”