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Lookie, Lookie, Lookie, Here Comes Cookie!

Cookie Gilchrist,  Buffalo Bills
1964 AFL Topps football card of Cookie Gilchrist, Buffalo Bills (Courtesy The Topps Company, Inc.)

That’s what they used to say about Cookie Gilchrist, one of the toughest, most talented and versatile football players to ever play the game. He was imposing. He was fast, powerful, and punishing. A sportswriter once called him the “American Football League’s Jimmy Brown.” At the peak of his career, Gilchrist stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 250 pounds of solid muscle. Add to that, a 20-inch neck. He was a controversial figure on and off the field, and always seemed to be in the headlines, whether he was feuding with someone, demanding more money for his services (which he probably rightly deserved) or was standing up for himself or others of his African-American race.

Born Carlton Chester Gilchrist in 1935 in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, excelled in both the Canadian Football League and the American Football League. In fact, he was an All-Star in nine of his first 10 years of professional ball. That is, the first five of the six years he played in Canada, plus his first four years in the States. As a teenager, Cookie was a star running back at Har-Brack High School in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb. Upon graduation in 1953, he was approached by a Cleveland Browns scout and although he was underage at 18, he signed a professional contract without ever playing college. But at training camp, he didn’t make the team. So, he headed north into Canada with the Ontario Rugby Football Union, a senior league where he played two seasons--for the Sarnia Imperials in 1954, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in 1955. He was the team’s MVP both years.

Remaining on this side of the border, Gilchrist turned pro with the CFL Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1956, running for 832 yards on 130 carries for an excellent 6.4 average. He also caught 18 passes, and intercepted two passes on defense. This was the age of the grueling two-way football, which he relished. The next season, he ran for 958 yards and scored seven TDs. In the 1957 Grey Cup Game that year, he rushed for two TDs as the Cats whipped the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 32-7, but was sold in the off-season to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for $5,000 following a contract dispute with Hamilton management, his first of many squabbles with the higher-ups. In Regina, he ran for 1,254 yards, his best rushing season in his entire career. He also returned 17 kickoffs for 436 yards. One afternoon in particular stood out, a game against the BC Lions on 1 September, in which he ran for 173 yards on 15 carries.

Cookie was then traded in the off-season back east to the Toronto Argonauts. In his three seasons in TO, his best performance was 1960 where he was an All-Star on both offense as the fullback (rushing for 662 yards and receiving for 346 yards), and defense as a linebacker. Plus, he was the team’s place-kicker, with five field-goals and 43 converts. He was the team’s “Mr Everything.” Cookie’s six years in the CFL saw him net 4,911 yards on the ground, another 1,068 in the air, plus 12 interceptions on defense, in which he ran two picks in for TDs. In addition, he kicked 19 field-goals and 64 converts.

With Toronto in 1961, he signed an unprecedented five-year player contract, in a season where he ran for three-straight 100-yard rushing games. He finished with 709 yards on the ground and a 6.8 average. Trouble brewed the following year when he was suspended for violating a curfew after an exhibition game in Edmonton against the Eskimos. He was then placed on waivers, but no one took him, not with four years remaining on his contract, even though the waiver price was a low $350.

The NFL Los Angeles Rams wanted Gilchrist something fierce, but Cookie took the one-hour trip south from Toronto to sign as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills of the fledgling, new American Football League which had started up in 1960 and were looking for stars to fill the seats. All the Bills had to do was reimburse the Argos the $5,000 they had advanced Gilchrist on his 1962 salary. That done, Bills Coach Lou Saban built his offense around Gilchrist’s strength and power up the middle. If there wasn’t a hole, he would run up a lineman’s back. “And that would hurt,” Bills Hall of Fame guard Bill Shaw once said in a recent interview.

Gilchrist would soon become the first of the marquee AFL players, this before “Broadway Joe” Namath signed his huge $427,000 contract in 1964 with the New York Jets. Gilchrist was actually Buffalo’s Plan B because they had drafted Syracuse University’s Ernie Davis (the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner), hoping that he would sign with them. Instead, Davis inked a three-year, $200,000 contract with the Cleveland Browns, but died from leukemia in 1963 before he could play any pro football.

Playing the full 14-game regular-season schedule in 1962 for Buffalo, Gilchrist was the AFL’s first 1,000-rusher with 1,096 yards for a 5.1 average. He had six 100-yard rushing games. He booted five field-goals and eight point-afters (as they call converts in American footbal). He set the AFL all-time record with 13 rushing touchdowns, plus two more TDs in the air. He was also voted the league’s MVP. In 1963, despite a rib and ankle injury, he was only 21 yards shy of another 1,000-yard season. In a single game that year on 8 December against the New York Jets, in which the Bills won 45-14, he set a then-record of 243 yards rushing, along with five TDs on the ground, while carrying the ball 36 times. He finished the year with 12 TDs on the ground and two more in the air.

In the first two seasons Gilchrist spent in Buffalo, the Bills finished with identical 7-6-1 marks. Then, in 1964, the Bills--quarterbacked by Jack Kemp--came alive with a stunning 12-2 season, a league-leading 400-242 for/against, and a league championship to boot by beating the San Diego Chargers 20-7. In the regular season, Gilchrist ran for 981 yards and six TDs and caught 30 passes coming out of the backfield. In the championship game, he exploded for 122 yards, with individual runs of 32 and 36. Unfortunately, it was Gilchrist’s last game in a Buffalo Bills uniform. By now, he understood a player’s value--especially his own--to a football team. In the off-season he wanted a new contract where he would receive a percentage of concessions. In response, management sent him packing to the Mile High State of Colorado.

All three years in Buffalo, he was the team’s leading point-getter. He scored 31 rushing TDs, still third highest in team history, with 23 of those from inside the 10-yard line. With the Denver Broncos in 1965, he ran for 954 yards, his fourth straight season leading the AFL in rushing yardage. He played sparingly for Miami in 1966, then back to Denver in 1967 for only one game before hanging up the spikes for good at 32, with knee problems getting the best of him.

Off the field, the outspoken Gilchrist was a civil rights activist. He led a boycott by refusing to play in the 1965 AFL All-Star Game held in New Orleans over racist treatment to him and the 20 other black players who had a hard time getting cabs from the airport, along with being turned away at hotels and restaurants. The white players supported Gilchrist and the other blacks. So, AFL Commissioner Joe Foss moved the game to Houston, instead. This boycott may have been responsible in desegregating New Orleans, a move that helped the city in getting an NFL franchise in 1967. Speaking later of the boycott, Gilchrist remarked proudly that it was “better than anything I did playing football.”

Still in the news after retirement, Gilchrist was the only player to turn down induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame when he was asked to join in 1983. “It’s a very confusing thing,” the Hall of Fame’s managing director Bill McBride told Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. “We have never before had a player who said he did not want to be a member of the hall. The others are always gracious and happy about it.”

Gilchrist’s reasons were racism and financial exploitation from management. Throughout his career, he managed to tick off members of management, one being Hamilton Tiger Cats coach Jim Trimble, before Gilchrist left for Saskatchewan. The two of them almost came to blows. That would have been a good fight because they were two tough characters. Forever feuding with Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Gilchrist also refused to appear at Buffalo Bills alumni functions, including his enshrinement at the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame because he wanted to be paid for his trips.

Despite beating the throat cancer he had been diagnosed with in 2007, Cookie Gilchrist died on 11 January 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania of complications from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease brought on by head injuries. He was 75. He and Ralph Wilson had reconciled their differences the week before by telephone.

Gilchrist is not only in the American Football League Hall of Fame, he is on the league’s all-time team at the fullback slot. Despite his many troubles, they still remember him with fondness in Buffalo, as they do here in Canada. In fact, he left an impact everywhere he played in his short career. On all six pro teams in his 12 years. If you count his two seasons in the senior ORFU, that’s eight teams in 14 years. I guess you might say he was one well-travelled athlete.

No matter how you look at it, he was something special. He was Cookie Gilchrist. A fighter to the end.


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