LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The story of Nate Northington, Greg Page, Houston Hogg and Wilbur Hackett, their courageously successful push to integrate Southeastern Conference football at the University of Kentucky has been told many times.
It cannot be told enough.
The story is a complicated and wonderful tale, a prime American history lesson, one that should be shared as many times as possible.
But this is a different story. This is a story of telling that story.
It, too, is a story of determination, vision, optimism and friendship.
It is a story told by Northington, Hogg and Hackett, the three surviving men who were the first African-American players at UK and in the SEC in 1967 and 1968.
But it is also the story of Paul Karem and Paul Wagner, a pair of Kentucky graduates, who have celebrated the story by taking it to film.
Their 75-minute documentary, titled, “Black in Blue,” will premiere Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in the Worsham Theater at the UK Gatton Student Center in Lexington.
The film received encouraging reviews at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville last fall. I watched it. Learned from it. Was provoked by it.
I believe it should be a Must See for anybody interested in expanding their understanding of history, sociology and race relations.
Wagner, a filmmaker with Emmy and Oscar credits in his 40 years of work, did a masterful job of collecting archived films, photographs and letters from the Sixties.
By blending that material with interviews of Northington, Hackett, Hogg and friends and family members of Page, who died after suffering an injury on the practice field, the film brings the story into current culture.
But the quarterback of entire production is, of course, a former quarterback — Louisville mortgage broker Paul Karem.
"Any way you cut it, these guys had as much to do with integration in the South as politicians, teachers, social engineering or buses," said Karem, who is 68.
"Any way you cut it, especially if you look at the diversity in an SEC football stadium today."
"It’s important because it is American history and African-American history, for sure," said Northington, 71. "It really catapulted the integration of the SEC, football in the South.
"Of course, the SEC was the last major conference in the country that had not integrated. So what we did was pretty astonishing for that particular time."
What motivated Karem was another movie he watched about the integration of SEC football — "The Color Orange."
That movie told the story of Condredge Holloway, the former Tennessee star who was the first black quarterback in the league.
Karem knew that story. Appreciated it. Believed that Holloway deserved recognition.
But when Karem watched the film, he was motivated by another thought: Shouldn't there be more recognition for the four Kentucky players who preceded Holloway?
"It occurred to me this is a better story," Karem said. "It’s a bigger story. This is the story of triumph …
"The push to have the story told will never come from these men because as courageous as they were to step out in front of 60,000 white people in a night game in Mississippi, as courageous as they were to accomplish this, they were equally humble.
"They don’t have any interest in having laudatory praise thrown at them. They know exactly who they are and it's not important to them. So somebody else had to do it. So we did it, the former UK players."
Karem had a connection to Northington, Hackett, Page and Hogg. He played at UK for coach Charlie Bradshaw. At one of the annual reunions of the Bradshaw Boys, Karem circulated a petition that encouraged UK to recognize the achievements of the African-American pioneers,.
That resulted in the ceremony and statues of the four players that was dedicated outside Gate 12 of Kroger Field in 2016.
Karem wanted to do more.
He wanted a film.
Let me remind you that he is a successful mortgage broker, not the next Steven Spielberg.
"Being a professional idiot, I get on Google and Google, 'how to write a professional story board for a film,'" Karem said.
"That doesn’t go too well."
Here is what did go well: One of Karem's friends from UK and St. Xavier High School, connected him with Wagner, a UK grad who lives in Virginia.
Their first conversation about making a film lasted four hours. The project was a Go — if Karem could generate the money that the project required.
Mission accomplished. Karem said 70 percent of the money was contributed by businesses based in Louisville, including many University of Louisville fans.
"Some of whom wouldn’t cheer for UK if you put a gun to their heads," Karem said. "The story is what got them to commit."
The story is what should get everybody to commit, pay attention and share.
The archived clips capture the historical contrasts with the SEC football that captivates America today. The interviews pull the story into the future. The story-telling recognizes former Kentucky Gov. Ned Breathitt and Bradshaw. Linkin’ Bridge created a moving musical score.
A letter from Greg Page's mother to the head coach provides the necessary context to the circumstances surrounding the tragedy that resulted in a practice field neck injury that paralyzed and later killed Page.
And, starting Thursday in Lexington, everybody can enjoy the film and the story. Karem said he plans for a showing in Louisville. He said KET will air the film within the next 90 days. He has spoken with representatives of several national networks.
The DVD is available to purchase for $24.95 at blackinblue.org.
"I hope this film could accomplish (something) in this day and time when we're so separated in our society, maybe like never before, socially, politically, racially," Karem said.
"And I think the University of Kentucky gets a nod here."
"Just talking about it every day it brings back those memories," Northington said. "It brings back the emotions. It's something that I never get away from every day. I think about something every day that relates to that particular time period so I know the film is going to be difficult to watch.
"I hope (the audience) is able to learn and appreciate the people that made things better for society, that they can see that, recognize that and appreciate that.
"And also it will maybe improve what's on today, situations that are happening in our country today. Where we have come from. We've come a long way. There's been tremendous improvement over the years on social issues, race relations and all that.
"But we’ve got a long way to go."
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