Nate Northington, 65 years old, white at the temples, still graceful, walked onto the football field at the University of Mississippi.
Where once he would not have been welcome, he was an honored guest. He was on a VIP tour. He stopped at the statue of James Meredith raised to commemorate a moment in Mississippi's changing. He was escorted through athletic facilities once off-limits to people of his color.
Nathaniel Northington. There is good reason to know his name. Still, the chances are you've never heard of him.
On the Ole Miss field last month, the team's head coach, Hugh Freeze, a Mississippi native, thanked Northington for what he had done.
Then, best of everything that happened that day, Freeze asked Northington to speak to the nearly 100 players gathered there.
What does a man from yesterday say to today? Here's what a running back from the 1960s said to the Ole Miss players of 2013.
He said they had "a tremendous opportunity, playing in the greatest league in the country, the SEC."
He urged them to "focus not only on sports, but on education." They would make themselves more than football players. They would be "whole men, spiritually, and character-wise."
"I told them some tough roads had been traveled for their benefit," Northington said. "And I told them that one of my best friends, Greg Page, a man who was like a brother to me, had given his life for the game he loved to play. I told them that Greg gave his life to open doors for more African-Americans."
Live long enough, you have a story. That's why Northington came to Oxford. He told his story as part of a university-sponsored event known as Racial Reconciliation Week. Nate Northington's story neither begins nor ends with Greg Page, but it cannot be told without him.
Northington was the first African-American to play in a Southeastern Conference athletic contest. All-State out of Louisville's Thomas Jefferson High School, he was recruited for the University of Kentucky by the school president, by the state's governor and, almost incidentally, by the school's football coach, a Bear Bryant disciple named Charlie Bradshaw.
Northington then was 6 feet and 175 pounds. He had what coaches call "sudden speed;" here this instant, gone the next. After Northington signed with Kentucky, so did Page. He, too, was an All-Stater and African-American. He was a man among children, 6-2, 220, quick and strong, a defensive end from the mountains of eastern Kentucky. For a year, Northington and Page were roommates. They made unlikely partners, Northington so quiet as to be invisible, Page so boisterous he seemed to be everywhere.
They had in common a mission: They would be the SEC's first black athletes. That became clear to Northington during a dinner at the governor's mansion in the winter of 1965. He heard Gov. Ned Breathitt's recruiting pitch and came away thinking: "Integrating the athletic programs in the SEC would remove one of the last vestiges of segregation in the South and move the country forward." The governor pulled a scholarship offer sheet from his coat pocket. Northington signed it.
"Destiny," Northington said of his first SEC game. It was played in Lexington on Sept. 30, 1967. Kentucky's opponent that day was Mississippi. Northington's mother had moved from near Tupelo to Kentucky when she was 14. About the same time, the boy who became Page's father made the same trip north from haunted, burning Mississippi.
Northington played only three minutes that day in September. He reinjured a shoulder first dislocated in his freshman season. Of the game, a 26-13 defeat, he remembers almost nothing. Whatever significance the game might have had for Northington was lost in his sorrow. Greg Page had not played. The night before that game, Page died.
Page had been paralyzed for 38 days. It happened during a half-speed defensive drill. Page stumbled as someone shoved a runner off-balance. The players bumped together. Page's spinal cord was severed. He was rendered a quadriplegic.
For those 38 days in the hospital, Kentucky's athletic officials allowed only one player, Northington, to visit Page. "It was very difficult to see Greg in that condition," he said. "I was young and I'd never been in a situation where a person was unable to speak, to do anything, to even move. We talked some and he knew his fate was in the Lord's hands."
The team went to Page's funeral, a 3 1/2-hour bus ride both ways. Another roommate of Northington and Page, wide receiver Phil Thompson, was a pallbearer. He said, "We got back home about 9 and Bradshaw put us through a brutal practice, three hours, almost to midnight. One of the worst days of my life. The whole week was horrific."
Northington remembers "all those wounds and pain." He was a teenager, 19, living away from home for the first time. He had the bad shoulder. His best friend had died. He was the team's only African-American and he thought Kentucky's coaches had gone back on a promise to recruit more black players. They had signed only two freshmen, both Kentuckians, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.
Increasingly, Northington felt alone. Worse, he felt abandoned.
Then came Kentucky's first trip of the season into the Deep South, to Auburn University. Phil Thompson says Alabama state troopers behind the Kentucky bench carried small Confederate flags tucked under their belts and in their gun holsters. Thompson says he heard no racial taunts from Auburn's players or coaches directed toward Northington, the only black player on the field. He heard them from fans.
"They were calling out the n-word," Thompson said, "and they were saying, 'Put LeRoy in,' 'Give LeRoy the ball,' 'Kill LeRoy, shoot LeRoy.'"
Northington says he heard nothing. "Maybe I've blocked it out as bad memories," he said. In his autobiography, Still Running, Northington wrote that he was proud to be an African-American on Auburn's field and proud to see "a small number" of black fans in the 44,500-seat stadium, even if allowed only into worn-out wooden bleachers in an end zone. "I felt bad about how shabbily they were treated," he wrote, "but I was still really thrilled and comforted just to see them there."
After five games -- all losses -- Northington's sense of being abandoned had become fact. Because he had missed classes, most of them during Page's hospitalization, coaches took away his meal ticket and said he'd have to make his own arrangements for meals, with a friend maybe, with someone somewhere else. "Now I was not even with the team," he said.
So he went to the African-American freshmen, Hackett and Hogg. He told them to stay at Kentucky and finish what he and Page had started. (Both stayed four years, Hackett becoming the first black captain of an SEC team.) "But I had had enough," Northington said, "and I couldn't take any more." He transferred to Western Kentucky.
Northington is now the regional director of the Louisville Metropolitan Housing Authority. He is also a minister at his local church. There is no bitterness in his tone when recalling his trials at Kentucky. "I'm only sorry it didn't work out," he said. At Western Kentucky, he was a star running back on the 1970 Ohio Valley Conference champions.
Teammates respect what Northington, Page, Hackett and Hogg did. They have petitioned the university to commemorate the efforts of the four African-Americans. They also have an idea how it could be done.
Kentucky plans a $110 million stadium renovation. "We're thinking," Phil Thompson said, "it would be nice to include in the renovation, right outside Gate One, a statue."
Paul Karem, a quarterback on those late-1960s teams, said, "Government programs didn't break down the barriers of race in the South. Neither did busing. Military intervention didn't do it and social engineering didn't do it. As much as anything or anybody, football did it. And who was first to do it? We were."
Here's hoping Kentucky's football people understand history's weight. If they do, they will raise a statue of the four African-Americans who came first. They will dedicate it the first time an SEC team comes to town.