Compared to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, CBS Sports doesn’t stack up in sheer quantity, but as the documentaries on Verne Lundquist and the first Army-Navy game after John F. Kennedy’s assassination show, quality is not an issue.
After “Marching On” aired, CBS Sports asked executive producer Jack Ford if he had any other ideas for another documentary. He told them the story of Kentucky football player Nate Northington.
“Forward Progress: The Integration of SEC Football” tells the story of Northington, the first African-American football player to play in the SEC, and Greg Page, his best friend who was tragically paralyzed during practice before he could play a down for Kentucky and died weeks later.
The documentary explains that Kentucky, the northernmost state in the Southeastern Conference, was the first school in the conference to integrate in 1949, which probably explains how it was also the first college football team in the conference to integrate its football team as well. “Forward Progress” outlines how the state of Kentucky was able to move things forward with integration, led by the state’s progressive Governor Edward Breathitt and incoming UK school president from the University of California system John Oswald. After failing to convince Kentucky basketball head coach Adolph Rupp to reliably recruit black players, Breathitt and Oswald turned their efforts toward the football team.
Northington and Page joined the Wildcats in 1965, but only one of them saw the field for the team. Page was paralyzed from the neck down during a routine drill, and died 38 days later, the night before the team’s SEC opener against Ole Miss. Northington played in the game and officially broke the color barrier in the conference, but it didn’t feel like a monumental event for the team. There was no announcement over the PA or a standing ovation, Northington simply took the field and played three minutes until dislocating his shoulder and being forced to leave the game. After the game, the entire team went to Page’s funeral and then were subjected to a three-hour practice immediately following.
With Page’s death, Northington was aimless, eventually transferring from Kentucky after only playing five games for the Wildcats.
Although he did not go on to star at Kentucky and on to bigger and brighter athletic successes, Northington opened the door to black athletes at Kentucky — like Wilbur Hackett and the greats that followed him — and in the SEC in general. Five years after Northington stepped onto the field for Kentucky, every SEC school had African-American players on the field.
“The message of the film is that great things start with small steps,” Ford said. “Nothing great in history has taken place without first a sense of hope and second some people who had the courage to take those first steps.”
The hardest part of the documentary process, according to Emilie Deutsch, Vice President of Features and Programming for CBS Sports, was finding the footage of Northington and especially Page, but she said Kentucky, Auburn, Ole Miss and many other sources were very gracious and cooperative in the process of putting the film together.
The setup and the style of the documentary is similar to other CBS documentaries. It isn’t stylish or sleek, but the stories and sources effectively tell the story. It relies upon a central interview with Northington, but the crew did more than 20 interviews for the film including college football writer Tony Barnhart, an African-American studies professor from Kentucky, and multiple teammates and classmates of Northington and Page.
The key to producing a worthwhile documentary is to tell a story that hasn’t been told, or shed new light on something old, which “Forward Progress” achieves. The film is an homage to Page, while also celebrating Northington’s achievement in the triumph and tragedy he endured paving the way for countless athletes that followed him. While the story may not be common knowledge to many college football fans, it soon will be.
“It’s not just a sports documentary,” Ford said. “It’s about history.”
Forward Progress airs on CBS Sports Network on Feb. 16 at 8 p.m.