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Ask Rufus: Mississippi's first pro football team: The Columbus Warriors

 

Courtesy of Ed Atkins
The program for the Columbus Warriors — Jacksonville (Fla.) Robins professional football game at Columbus’ Magnolia Bowl on Aug. 8, 1964. The Warriors were Mississippi’s first professional football team.

Courtesy of Ed Atkins The program for the Columbus Warriors — Jacksonville (Fla.) Robins professional football game at Columbus’ Magnolia Bowl on Aug. 8, 1964. The Warriors were Mississippi’s first professional football team. Photo by: Courtesy of Ed Atkins

 

Drawing by Uncle Bunky
The story goes that the Columbus Warriors of the Southern Professional Football League folded in the fall of 1964 after an owner disappeared with the team’s money and the gate receipts during a game at Magnolia Bowl in Columbus. Ed Atkins of Columbus played guard on the team during its short life.

 

Rufus Ward

 

It's Super bowl time and conversations turn to professional football. While Mississippi has never had an NFL team, there have been pro football teams from minor or indoor leagues. If you look for information on those teams you learn of the Biloxi Fire Dogs and the Tupelo Fire Ants or Mud Cats, but there is no mention of Mississippi's first professional team, the Columbus Warriors. 

 

In May 1964 the Tuscaloosa Warriors of the Southern Professional Football League announced that because of lagging attendance at their games in Tuscaloosa they would be moving to Columbus. Officials in Columbus had offered the use of the Magnolia Bowl football stadium and had projected attendance of over 5,000 people for each game. Columbus' S. D. Lee High School was drawing huge crowds to its games and, according to Tuscaloosa news reports, its head football coach, Billy Brewer, was to help in signing players for the Warriors. It was also reported that Commercial Dispatch Sports Editor Eddie Dean had agreed to serve as a business manager for the team. 

 

The Tuscaloosa Warriors became the Columbus Warriors of the Southern Professional Football League on July 1, 1964, joining teams in Jacksonville, Fla., Orlando, Fla., Daytona, Fla., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Mobile, Ala., Gadsden, Ala., Huntsville, Ala.  

 

The schedule was a home and an away game between each team. The first home game for Columbus was against Gadsden on July 25, followed by a road game in Orlando. The team's roster was a mix of local former college players, former NFL players and even some college players from area college teams playing under made-up names in order to make some money on the side.  

 

The Warrior's player- head coach was quarterback Bobby Jackson. Jackson had been the quarterback on Bear Bryant's first Alabama team. He had a short but storybook professional career.  

 

His first year in the pros had been with the Green Bay Packers in Vince Lombardi's first season there. In 1960 he played defensive back on the Philadelphia Eagles' NFL championship team and tackled his former teammate. Jim Taylor of the Packers, on the championship game's last play. He ended his NFL career with the Chicago Bears. 

 

Ed Atkins of Columbus played guard for the Warriors and remembers the long year he played for the team one summer. The team had started practice in mid-July at Red Bird Park in Columbus. Ed recalled that. "Dog gone it was hot when we played." The roster for home games was 29 players and they received $75 to $100 for games, which were played on Thursday nights.  

 

A newspaper article refers to a traveling squad of 25 and Ed said they drove to the out-of-town games in their own cars. The uniforms were gold with white and black trim.  

 

There were several area players for the Warriors that Ed remembers: John Thompson, a guard from New Hope, "would make sounds like a grizzly bear while blocking." Jessie Sparkman, a tackle from Macon, would "run over anyone who didn't get out of his way." Larry Cohen, a back from Columbus, was so neat that "every time he would hit the ground he would have to brush himself off as soon as he got up."  

 

Then there was Macon's James Barnett. He had played for the Minnesota Vikings and "could run that ball. If he ever got outside, he was gone." In addition to area players on the Columbus Warriors, Charles Poundes of Columbus played for Chattanooga and former Mississippi State quarterback Billy "Tootie" Hill played for Huntsville. 

 

The Columbus Warriors, though, did not last the full season. The story goes that before a mid-season game at Magnolia Bowl one of the owners came down to the sidelines, said that he had the money for the team and would get the gate receipts and see them at half time. They never saw him again. 

 

The team folded and Ed said he was left with a game program, several bad checks from the team and memories of Mississippi's first professional football team, the Columbus Warriors.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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