Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pioneer Reflects on His Role Little-Known Kentucky Player Was First Black in Game between Sec Teams

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pioneer Reflects on His Role Little-Known Kentucky Player Was First Black in Game between Sec Teams

Article excerpt

We can rattle off, with ease, the names of those who went first: Rosa Parks wouldn't give up her seat on the bus, James Meredith registered for classes at the Lyceum, Thurgood Marshall was first to wear a Supreme Court justice's robe.

Same with the pioneers in sports. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby come to mind.

But what of the man who integrated that most-high Southern cultural institution, Southeastern Conference football?

He is Nathaniel Northington, who -- on Sept. 30, 1967, in a Kentucky-Ole Miss game at Lexington's old Stoll Field -- became the first black man to play in a game between two SEC teams.

It's just that his name isn't top of mind, doesn't roll off the tongue as easily when the topic is broached. For most of his life, that's just the way Northington wanted it.

For the past 26 years, in his job managing property for the public housing authority in his native Louisville, Ky., the revelation has even come as a surprise to some longtime co-workers.

"I don't really talk about it," Northington said. "If someone mentions it, well -- I've got a good friend I work with, he mentions it all the time to some people. I guess I've really downplayed it. It's just my personality, I guess."

Northington said this recently in Oxford, Miss., where he watched the Ole Miss-Texas A&M football game. He went at the invitation of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

He spoke to the Ole Miss team before a practice.

He told them why he was standing there and said a few words of encouragement.

More than anything, he made certain they knew just how significant it was that they were there staring back at him.

"They have a great opportunity," he said.

And he would know more than most.

"They're in the SEC. It's the greatest league in the country. To be able to play on that level, it's amazing, and [they should] just appreciate that while they're here."

At least as it pertains to the playing field, Northington's story is not the glorious one of a Jackie Robinson or even of Ben Williams, the first Ole Miss black player, who became an All- American. …

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