Giants of the gridiron: Pro football once lived in Athens

Ervin Cosby, right, with his son, two-time Athens High School all-stater Adolph Cosby, founded the Athens Giants semi-professional football team, which played for three years in the 1960s.

(The controversy in Decatur involving misspelled names on a plaque honoring the Decatur Rough Riders, a 1960s-era semi-professional football team, jogged my memory and caused me to reminisce about a professional football team in the city of Athens called the Athens Giants.)

Believe it or not, there was once a semi-professional football team in Athens. The Athens Giants, comprised of those who were then called Negroes, enjoyed three successful seasons representing the city.

The driving force behind the team was a then-21-year-old entrepreneur named Ervin Cosby. He would later own a grocery store and billiard parlor, but in 1963 his mind was on football.

Cosby attended Trinity High School and was a member of the undefeated 1958 football team. In a memorable game against Huntsville’s Council High School, a team that always gave the Panthers trouble, Cosby caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Arthur “Redbone” Kirby that proved to be the winning score.

Cosby resided on Roberts Street in Athens and worked primarily in the dental lab of Dr. Owen Lloyd, but he always had his hands in some outside endeavor. In 1963, he decided he had not played enough football.

He contacted Andy Nelson, a former Athens High School and Florence State University great who by then was a defensive back with the NFL's Baltimore Colts, and inquired about playing for the team. Nelson informed him the Colts were always looking for good players but the roster was currently filled with defensive backs and receivers, the positions that Cosby wanted to play.

Frustrated from attempts to latch onto a professional roster, Cosby decided to start a professional football team of his own. He started buying jerseys and pads from a company in New York, ordered cleats from a company in Atlanta, and by the summer of 1964 had stockpiled enough equipment to field a team.

Cosby persuaded H.B. Provience, the long time coach at Trinity, to coach the team, and he began recruiting players from all over North Alabama. Cosby named the team the Athens Giants, in honor of his favorite NFL team, the New York Giants.

In the fall of 1964, the Giants began playing semi-professional teams from North Alabama and southern Tennessee.

While the team was named after the New York Giants, it sure didn't have the same amenities, as local resident and former Athens Giants player Charles Horton explained.

“I played every game during the three years the Giants existed,” Horton said. “I remember one time we went to Tennessee to play a game and they had not secured the stadium, so we had to play in a cow pasture. I was looking for cow patties but Ervin told me they had removed all of those. Then I ran up on one and I hollered over to him, 'Hey! There is one over here that y’all missed!' After they removed all the cow patties, we played the game and won it, too. We didn’t play for money, we played cause we loved the game.”

The Giants traditionally played home games at the old Athens High School stadium, which is located behind the old Athens Middle School on Forrest Street. Though the crowds were small, the games were competitive and the teams went after each other in a spirited professional way.

By 1965, Cosby’s team was playing a full slate of games. There were games against the Decatur Rough Riders, Chattanooga Lookouts, McMinnville Tigers and the Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, team. Wearing red and white uniforms, the Giants were a team to be reckoned with. Though the Rough Riders were the class of the league, winning 66 of the 68 games they played, the Giants always played competitively against them.

Throughout 1965 and into 1966, the team continued to play at Athens Stadium and even expanded to playing games at present day Rip Swanner Stadium in Tanner.

“I remember playing quarterback against a tough McMinnville team at the stadium in Tanner,” said Limestone County Sports Hall of Fame member Robert Malone.

When Provience could no longer coach, Cosby took on the dual role of player and coach.

In 1967, the Vietnam War began to heat up, and several of the players were drafted into the Army.

Those losses, coupled with the cost of running a professional enterprise in small town Alabama, caused Cosby to have to disband the team. With a heavy heart, he closed the door on professional football in Athens but remained proud of the fact he was one of only a few people to have founded a professional team in the state of Alabama.

Sam Hardy and Charles Horton, members of the Athens Giants, recalled one of the team’s rosters.

Left end……………………Annaise Cosby;

Left tackle…………………Bobby Mahaley;

Left guard………………....Richard Carthen;

Center……………………..David “Big Cat” Kirby;

Right guard………………..Sam Hardy;

Right tackle………………..Eugene Carthen;

Right end…………………..Ervin Cosby;

Quarterback………………..Morris “Snag” Malone;

Fullback……………………"Big” Josh Hardy;

Left halfback………………Moses Gray; and

Right halfback…………….Charles Horton

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