By Guy Ramsey
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Among the 76 Wildcat student-athletes who graduated last week, 35 did so with honors. Graduates this spring won three team national championships, seven conference championships and a pair of bowl championships. Among the 76 are seven All-Americans and 18 All-Southeastern Conference performers.
It’s an accomplished group by any measure, but one member of UK Athletics’ Class of 2020 stands out from the rest.
That’s Wilbur Hackett, who earned his degree last week — five decades after finishing his Kentucky football career.
“Since I left UK in 1971, it’s always been my dream,” Hackett said. “My goal was to graduate from UK. For the last 50 years, I’ve thought about it more than once.”
Hackett’s playing career was certainly notable — he was named sophomore All-SEC in 1968 and UK’s team co-MVP as a senior in 1969 — but his impact extends well beyond the tackles he made as a three-year starter at linebacker. The Winchester, Kentucky, native was one of four trailblazers — along with Nate Northington, Greg Page and Houston Hogg, who died in January — to break the color barrier in the SEC and who are now commemorated with a statue outside Kroger Field and the Joe Craft Football Training Center.
Hackett, the first African American captain in any sport in the SEC, graduated with a degree in liberal arts from the university where he made history .
“I’m really trying to not be too overly emotional about it, but it’s just like a weight or load lifted off my shoulders because it’s important,” Hackett said. “It’s very important. I’ve stressed and emphasized so much to my children and grandchildren the importance of education.”
Hackett, who has had a successful career at Toyota and as a college football official, didn’t need a degree to have a lasting legacy, but it was always on his mind anyway. Over the years, he made multiple attempts to finish up, but a busy schedule with work and family continually intervened.
Then, last year, Hackett — now a community advisory member for the University Athletics Committee of the UK Board of Trustees — mentioned in passing to University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto that none of the four trailblazers had earned a degree from the university where they made history together. Little did he know he was starting a chain of events that would lead him to change that this week.
“The next thing I know, I got a call from the admissions office, I got a call from Mitch Barnhart’s office, and they told me they would pay for me going back to school,” Hackett said. “A year-and-a-half ago up until now and here I am. I’m graduating. All I did was mention to the president and things started happening. I’m just so thankful for the men that they are and the university being the school that it is, because it’s just meant a lot to me and my family over these many years.”
Hackett, who now lives in Louisville, re-enrolled as part of the Cawood Ledford Post-Eligibility Program, which pays for tuition and books for any UK student-athlete who returns to school. He also had plenty of resources at his disposal on campus as he adjusted to online classes.
“The opportunities that UK has given me to finish school is confirmation I made the right decision,” Hackett said. “That’s the reason that I chose UK, because of the people that were in the university community and because of the leadership that I felt came from the leadership to the coach to the administration.”
Though Hackett, who along with his parents was a UK fan even before African Americans were able to attend games, has always believed he made the right decision to come to UK, it didn’t come without hardship. Early in Hackett’s freshman year and just before Northington officially broke the color barrier during a game against Ole Miss, Page — who was instrumental in recruiting Hackett — died as a result of an injury suffered in practice.
That left Hackett without a close friend with whom he could share the burdens that came with being a young black man in his position, but not without the best reason he could imagine to keep going.
“A lot of the things I did, I did because I wanted to make sure that Greg’s death was not in vain,” Hackett said. “That’s why I didn’t leave. I thought about it. I often thought about leaving UK, but I couldn’t do it because I wanted to finish this thing out. That’s what makes this moment so special, because of all the things we went through, all the sacrifices that were made for me to be here today.”
Indeed, Hackett’s perseverance has helped pave the way for thousands to follow in his footsteps.
Fittingly, Hackett is among 21 black graduates among the 76 student-athletes who earned degrees last week. His 20 black classmates, thanks in part to his sacrifice, have had an opportunity to do more than just survive; they have been able to thrive.
“I don’t really think I can describe how it makes me feel to be a part of the success that the athletic community or even the academic community has had at UK,” Hackett said. “As a former student and player on the UK football team 50 years ago, I really can’t tell you how good it makes you feel that I was part of the success that we’re achieving today.”
In something that feels like a little more than a coincidence, one of the 20 is a relative of Hackett’s.
Nazr Mohammed, a two-time national champion with the Kentucky men’s basketball team, will also graduate through the Cawood Ledford Post-Eligibility Program.
“It means so much to me to be able to graduate with Wilbur Hackett,” Mohammed said. “He’s my wife’s uncle, so we call him Uncle Hackett. He’s my uncle. Just the fact that he’s the first black captain in the SEC and how he paved the way for people like me.
“We joke, we’re like, ‘Who would have ever thought this?’ We’re so many years apart and now we will be finishing at the University of Kentucky, where it all started, in the same class. We’re both Class of 2020. That’s amazing.”
Hackett’s graduation came as a pleasant surprise to Mohammed because the only person Hackett told about his return to school until recently was his wife, whom he married after his sophomore year at UK. With his past attempts to finish his degree, he didn’t want to let anyone down. This time, however, was different.
“This is something that I’ve wanted to achieve for many years,” Hackett said. “I just made up my mind. I’m not getting younger and the opportunities are not going to get any better than now. I just felt like now’s the right time to do it.”
True to his character, when he resolved to graduate before his impending retirement, Hackett got it done. Now, a man who is a role model for so many has set yet another powerful example.
During his four years at UK, Hackett survived so others after him could thrive. Set to graduate 50 years later and retire from Toyota next month, Hackett has more than earned the right to just live.
“It’s time for me to kick back,” Hackett said.