Courage to play: UK pioneer remembers



by Lindsey Austin

They threatened him before he even stepped on campus. His friends told him not to go, that kids there hurt black people. But none of this stopped him.

A once unwanted figure at UK, Wilbur Hackett Jr. is now one of the groundbreaking players of  UK history. Both on and off the field, he has broken boundaries to accomplish things nobody dreamed possible.

“Wilbur Hackett is a true pioneer,” said UK football head coach Joker Phillips. “He opened huge doors that allowed me to be in the position I’m in. He’s truly been a blessing.”

As a high school athlete at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Hackett made All-State, All-City and All-County teams as a junior. His talent as a linebacker and fullback earned him enough recognition to grab the attention of multiple colleges. His senior year, he made the All-City and All-State team once again, as well as the High School All-Southern team and was named a Parade Magazine All-American.

Although he wasn’t really considering college, Hackett soon received offers from colleges like Notre Dame, Indiana University, Oklahoma State, Purdue, Kansas, Michigan State, Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky University and UK.

In the spring of 1967, he signed with UK. Then the nerves set in.

“I wasn’t sure about going there,” Hackett explained. “I was conscious of society and how things were at southern schools.”

One of only three black players on the team, Hackett  felt he had a lot to prove and faced many social obstacles because of his race.

“I didn’t really have to work hard to stand out on campus, but I did have to prove myself on the field to my peers and everyone else who didn’t think I should be there,” Hackett said.

During his sophomore and junior years, Hackett made the All-SEC team. In his junior year he became the first black football captain in the SEC and was one of the first to play all four years of his college career.

Even after he stepped off the football field, Hackett continued to make his mark on history. He next pursued a career as an umpire. He was inducted into the Jefferson County and DuPont Manual Hall of Fame, the Kentuckiana Football Officials Association Hall of Fame for his skill as an umpire, the UK Hall of Fame and , this year, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

Hackett started officiating football in 1984 with the Kentuckiana Football Officials Association. After spending 14 years in various smaller conferences, Hackett was once again invited to partake in SEC athletics, this time as an umpire.

“It’s like a vacation every weekend and I get to see the best football in the country,” he said. “To get paid is almost unfair.” Bobby Gaston, former SEC Supervisor of Officials, was the man who hired Wilbur in 1998.

“We were looking to hire more minorities to the staff,” said Gaston. “Wilbur was one of the most qualified because he had played at Kentucky and he was a linebacker which made him ideal for the position of umpire because he was comfortable right next to the other linebackers and knew how to deal with the trash talk.”

Gaston believes he made the right choice.

“Wilbur is now one of our very very best officials in the SEC and he is a great person beyond all that,” Gaston said.

This is Wilbur’s thirteenth season in the SEC. During his time in the SEC, he has been invited to officiate many of the most prestigious bowl games, such as the Rose Bowl, the Champs Bowl, the Champs Sports Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Las Vegas Bowl and the Insight Bowl, as well as two SEC Championship Games.

Hacket said he has enjoyed officiated for the SEC.

“I just love being part of such a great institution,” Hackett said. “Officiating is my love and my passion and it’s like a dream come true to see [the SEC] develop into the conference it has become. It makes everything I went through worth it to see Joker Phillips become the first African American head football coach at UK.”

This is Wilbur Hackett’s last year in the SEC, as he will be retiring after this season.   He is optimistic about his  future, though he does not know exactly what he will do next.

“I hope it’s just as much fun as [officiating] has been,” Hackett said. “I’m sure it will be. It’s all about morning on and moving forward. I’ll cherish the memories I’ve had, and I’ll find something fun to do next year.”