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  The Legend Of Cookie Gilchrist - by Rick Anderson

 

Lookie, lookie, lookie .... Here comes Cookie

The year was 1964. I was just a kid who loved the Buffalo Bills. One of my all-time favorites was a big fullback named Cookie Gilchrist. He helped take the Bills to their first professional football championship back in ‘64 by playing not only fullback, but also was put in on defense and kicked field goals. Gilchrist was ahead of his time, like by 20 years. He and Jim Brown terrorized defenses back in 1963 and 1964. While Brown was dazzling fans in the NFL, Gilchrist was doing the same in the rival AFL.

Cookie had a flare and a personality that would have been more acceptable in the 80s and 90s. He was colorful, egotistical and money-hungry. He also had some very interesting and dangerous hobbies, like jumping out of helicopters into lakes up in Canada to stake claims for mining purposes. He was also seen selling Christmas trees before a big game in December outside of Buffalo's old War Memorial Stadium.

Gilchrist had a flare that could be compared to Muhammad Ali, where he would do great things and then think he could then get away with bizarre behavior. That landed him in hot water with the law and the Bills organization.

The following is an article I had written and put into my Buffalo Bills scrap book back in ‘64. I have edited it a little to keep it current, but have left most of it intact to keep the impressions of a young lad as vivid as they were at that time. Remember that the article was written in 1964, so some of the sentences are written in the present tense. Here then is the legend of Cookie Gilchrist.

THERE WAS ANXIETY in the Buffalo Bills training camp during the summer of 1962. The players were really hustling,- and that was because there was a rumor out that Cookie Gilchrist was near-by, signing a contract with the AFL Buffalo Bills. "Better get a move on it, for Cookie nay be watching," was the saying around camp at that tine.

Chester Canton Gilchrist did indeed sign a contract with the Bills. He had just been waived out of the Canadian Football League because of a curfew violation. No team in the league wanted him after his Toronto team put him on the waivers. He had been in trouble off the field, but was never arrested in Canada.

Gilchrist was the best player in the CFL.. He had become as-much a hero in the minds of Canadians as Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull were. And so it was a shock when they found out that he was through with the Canadian League.

Teams in both the AFL. and NFL tried to sign Cookie. Gilchrist chose Buffalo because of its- closeness to his- apartment home in Toronto.

"You have to take my size and weight into consideration," Gilchrist said. "I'm not shifty. I can't sidestep. So I use my ability to the fullest extent. If I run over a guy, maybe he won't be there next time and I won't have to deviate. But I don't get any real joy out of trampling somebody. I usually carry the ball in my left arm. When I'm about to be hit, I lower my right shoulder and bring up my right forearm to make it tougher for the tackler to get a good shot at me. Most teams take away the inside from me, so I go outside more than up the middle. I try to get one-on-one with the cornerback, who is smaller than I am, and make him hit me from the side. You can bring a big man down if you hit him from the knees down, head on, but if I can make them hit me from the side I can slide off or spin away. When I go into a hole and one or two tackles hit me head on, I spin and they don't have a chance for a second reaction. I've learned body control and change of pace through constant work. Of course, the main thing is I'm as big as most defensive linemen and bigger than defensive backs, and I'm fast. That's my advantage. But I try to use my power wisely."

Harvey Johnson, who scouted Gilchrist in the CFL and got him to come to Buffalo said, "As the game goes on they begin to grab at him instead of hitting him solidly. You can't stop him without a solid shot. The longer the game goes, the more effective Cookie becomes."

Cookie was used sparingly during the 1962 pre season games. Bills Head Coach Lou Saban wanted to get him used to "U.S. football." When be was used, he was great. Defensive players didn't know what struck them. Gilchrist would gain about 25 yards per carry in his brief appearances in the pre season games that year.

Lou Saban started his first year as coach of the Bills in 1962, so he and Cookie arrived at about the same time. Their relations were rather cool from the start, and got worse as time progressed. Relations got so bad that after the first meeting of Buffalo and Boston in 1964,. Saban placed Gilchrist on waivers. Had it not been for Jack Kemp talking Cookie into apology, he would have been off to Oakland. (Had Cookie gone to Oakland, he would have played against the Bills before the season ended. As it turned out, the Bills lost that game anyway.)

It appears that Lou Saban made the right move when he reinstated Gilchrist. For had he not, the Bills could have easily missed qualifying for the AFL Championship. It was his blocking and running that led Buffalo to victory (at the end of the season) over San Diego, Denver, Boston and San Diego in order.

When put on waivers, Denver and Houston refused to claim him. But Oakland, New York and Boston did. Saban withdrew the waivers, and then Gilchrist did the best he could, on and off the field. But as soon as the season was over, Cookie demanded a bonus which he claimed was promised him. When he didn't get the bonus, he wanted out. If he had a choice, he would have preferred being traded to New York.

Gilchrist was traded, but to the Denver Broncos. In return, the Bills got 6 foot 5, 248 pound Billy Joe. His size was almost exactly the same as Cookie's, 6 foot 5, 251 pounds.

A talent vs. talent analysis would give Denver the credit of getting the beat part of the deal. But Buffalo got plenty, considering that they would have only gotten $100 if they had not recalled waivers.

Billy Joe is as strong as Cookie and is faster. He is also the second best blocker in the league, second only to Gilchrist. Cookie is 29 years of age, compared to 24 for Joe. Thus, Cookie has reached his peak and he can't go any higher-‘only down. While Joe is young and has a bright future ahead of him.

Joe was named rookie of the year in 1965 after he had carried 154 times for 649 yards. He slipped this year to only 415 yards, but this was because his feet bothered him an operation during the off season.

The trade wil1 give Denver four big name stars: Cookie Gilchrist, Jackie Lee, Abner Haynes, end Lionel Taylor. Gilchrist, Haynes, and Lee were all acquired in the last two years. Taylor has been with Denver from the start of the AFL.

These four men will really help attract crowds in Denver, and away. It is doubtful however, that the Broncos can overtake anyone of the three teams in their division and come out of the cellar, next year. All three, Oakland, Kansas City, and San Diego have just as many stars (if not more) and have the offensive and defensive lines that Denver doesn't have. But these four men will help the Broncos win many more games than last year, and Denver will not be a pushover any longer. They are rapidly becoming a solid club. And when this happens, the AFL will be a completely balanced league, just as the NFL is.

Cookie Gilchrist played his first regular season game with the Bills on September 9, 1962 against the Houston Oilers. In that genie, he carried 7 times for 22 yards despite the pulled muscle which he suffered early in the game. Cookie also kicked a 40-yard field goal, but missed the only point

Gilchrist led the league in rushing in 1962 with l,096 yards on. 214 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. His biggest game that year was against Oakland when he ran for144 yards.

In the last preseason game against Denver in 1963, Cookie suffered a rib cartilage separation. This injury, plus other minor injuries, hampered Gilchrist for almost the entire 1963 season. He didn't completely recover until the final home game against the New York Jets, December 3, 1965. That historic day will long be remembered. This is because Cookie broke 3 records and tied two. The big full back carried 56 times (AFL. record) for 245 yards (all pro record at the time) and scored 5 touchdowns (AFL record in 1963).

The yardage record was quite a feat considering that Cookie had 50 yards called back because of' penalties. His 245 yards broke the former record of 257 yards set by Jim Brown in 1957 and again tied by Brown in 1961.

Gi1christ finished the 1963 season second in rushing, behind Clam Daniels, by rushing 979 yards on 252 carries: an average of 4.2 yards per carry.

In the Eastern Division playoff game against Boston, Cookie had one of his worse games of' his life. He ran with the ball 3 times for 7 yards. Gilchrist has never done we1l against Boston. His best game against the Pats was the last regular season game this year when he ran 20 times for only 52 yards, a 2.6 average gain per carry.

At the start of the 1964 season, Cookie came to camp strong, healthy, and raring to go. He was in such peak condition that he asked Saban to allow him to play on both offense and defense as he did in Canada!

Gi1christ just couldn't get over the 100-yard rushing mark in a game that year until the second Houston game when he carried 15 times for 159 yards. His final carry of that game clinched the victory for the Bil1s, and his 100 yard mark. He broke free of tacklers and ran 60 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown.

A week after that, in a game in New York, he was faced with a similar situation. The ball was on. the Buffalo 55 yard line, third down and one, and the Bills needed the first down to maintain possession. Daryle Lamonica handed off to Cookie, but Ralph Baker hit him two yards behind the line of scrimmage. The big fullback jolted him hard, wrenched his ankle free from Baker's grasp, and was gone. The play covered 67 yards in all, Cookie's longest run in his three years in the AFL. (if' Baker had stopped Gilchrist short, the Bills would have had to punt. This would have given the Jets a chance to score a touchdown (the Bills were leading 15-7). Had all this happened, maybe the Jets would have played the Chargers for the AFL title instead of Buffalo.)

Cookie came on top in rushing in 1964 for the second time in three years. He carried 230 times for 981 yards, an average of 42 yards per carry.

In his last game as a Bill, Cookie did not break any records. But it must be said that it was his best game in the AFL. He gained 122 yards on 16 carries, which is very tough against the big San Diego defense, with the likes of Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison, whose weight total to about 600 pounds. The reason for the good game .....MONEY.

Cookie Gilchrist has always been a money man. He signed a pro football contract with the Cleveland Browns just after he graduated from high school. Gilchrist didn't want to go to college because the money he got from signing the contract was too tempting.

"I just looked at that $5,500 they handed me. That's a bunch of money for an 18-year-old kid," Cookie said.

While still going to high school, Cookie would work for a carwash on the weekends and after school.

"We'd wash cars on Saturdays for $2 per car. Sometimes a guy would pay $5, end one guy paid us $40 for one car. I averaged about $ 90 on a weekend," Gilchrist would say.

Gilchrist asked to be traded before the start of the 1964 season. This turned out to be only a gimmick for more money. Cookie signed for a reported $50,000. He said that he was promised a 5,000 bonus at the end of the season if he had a good year. But both Coach Saban and owner Ralph Wilson denied this.

Cookie's three year stay with the Bills can be summed up in five words : Trouble, trouble, and more trouble. One year went by before the first incident. On May 14, 1963, Gilchrist was arrested f or failure to observe a stop sign and resisting an officer. The 259 pound powerhouse was taken to a police station where patrolman Robert Klean claimed that Gilchrist had floored him with a punch. Cookie was fined only $60 for these offenses.

The Bills, in the summer of ‘64, had announced a date on which Gilchrist was to have signed his contract. News reporters, and radio & TV announcers were invited to witness the signing, but Cookie was nowhere in sight. He was up in Canada, jumping out of a helicopter into lakes, to stake mining claims .

Then came that fateful day of' November 17, 1964 (two clays after Boston had handed the Bills their first setback of the ‘64 season). Lou Saban put Gilchrist on waivers. This meant that any AFL team could claim him for only $ 100. It would have been the best bargain since the fluke that sent Jack Kemp to Buffalo for the same amount.

Saban's reason for Gilchrist's firing: "The club is more important than any single individual player."

During the game, the Bills players themselves got frustrated with Gilchrist.

"If you're not going to help us, take off your uniform and get out of here," yelled one offensive lineman.

Seems that Gilchrist was so hungover that he decided that he would not block opposing blitzers in their attempt to sack the Bills quarterback. When the Patriots realized that they had a free lane to the quarterback, they had a hay day at the expense of QB Jack Kemp. It turned out to be one of the most physical beatings of Kemp's professional life.

Gilchrist had substituted Willie Ross for himself in the November 15th game with Boston. This is not done in football. Only the coach can substitute.

Another reason for the Saban's placing Gilchrist on waivers was that Cookie had used inflammatory statements against Lou Saban, Jack Kemp, and halfback Joe Auer.

The final reason was Cookie's absences from practices on several occasions during the ‘64 season. This was due mostly to difficulties with customs officials at the Peace Bridge connecting Buffalo with Canada when Gilchrist made his frequent trips to and from Canada.

There were many other minor incidents which helped turn the relations between Saban and Gilchrist from bad to worse. Cookie had been seen in a cocktail lounge at 2 AM, 12 hours before the start of the first Boston game in November of ‘64. That was the same game that he was too hung over to play and took himself out of the game.

Gilchrist stated after learning of' his firing, "I was surprised at the timing of the Bills' action, although I had expected it to come at the end of the season."

Jack Kemp persuaded Gilchrist into apologizing to his teammates and Coach Saban. He then apologized on local television. Cookie later said that this had humiliated him.

After the season was over, Gilchrist demanded the bonus that he thought Saban had promised him. When he didn't get the bonus, he told Ralph Wilson,, "I wouldn't play for Lou Saban for $150,000. I'd. rather go elsewhere and play for less money. He went so far as to say, "If I'm forced to stay with the Bills, it will be against my will. I might even retire. I see no reason to play where I won't be happy."

Gilchrist talked about retiring from the game, and said that he would not miss the physical aspect of the game. "That will never be a problem with me," Gilchrist said. "I take the game as a game, in perspective with life. The game is played on Sunday. During the week it doesn't bother me. When I was younger, frustrations would build up. I'd get mad if some guy waited too long at a stoplight, and when I got to the ball park I wanted to take it out on somebody. But I have progressed as a man. I find other ways to take out those feelings. I'm a gourmet. I like to cook. I marinate steaks for two and a half days in a special wine sauce I make myself. I buy most of my wife's clothes. I'm interested in interior decorating. I read books that tell me how to live a better life. I'd rather take my kids horseback riding than watch television, but when I do watch television I prefer programs with strong motivation and good stories that make sense. My favorite TV show is The Fugitive. I can understand that guy. In fact, some of the players in Buffalo call me ‘the fugitive.' But one thing I'm not is a sports fan. I can't see why anybody would pay $6 to see a football game. The only pro football game I ever saw was the Giants and the Redskins in 1960. If a football game comes on TV, I get up and leave. I play the game out of a competitive desire and pride, and I'm a natural for it. But I don't like to watch it if I'm not involved. I think maybe I would have liked to paint, but I've never had the peace of mind to sit and do it."

Cookie finally got his wish to be traded. The Broncos were one of the worst team. In pro football at that time, both talent and attendance-wise. But with Gilchrist teaming up with Abner Haynes, who Denver obtained from. Kansas City in a trade, the Broncos became a much better rushing team the next year. This not only improved the Broncos' team. play, but also drew big crowds to Bear Stadium, something the Broncos had not done since 1962 when they came in second place. From that point on, Denver had sellouts through the rest of the century.

The next time the Broncos played in Buffalo, War Memorial Stadium was sold out. That was something Denver never had done before Cookie put on a Bronco uniform.. When Cookie Gilchrist came out and played against his former team, the Buffalo fans start chanting, "Lookie, lookie, lookie, that's our Cookie!"

 


Bills Backers United is a combined effort between the Bills Backers International Chapters located in Willow Grove PA, Laurel MD, Phoenix AZ, and Virginia Beach VA.

Copyright ©2002 Rick Anderson