Monday, January 10, 2011
Cookie Gilchrist rumbled right until the end
By Tim Graham
For those of you unfamiliar with what Cookie Gilchrist was all about, Paul Maguire has a story to share.
It was December 1964. While snow was being cleared from Fenway Park's field, the Buffalo Bills waited anxiously in a spartan locker room for their game against the Boston Patriots to start. They normally would've whiled away this time with card games or other diversions to ease the mood. Not on that day.
The Bills had to win to host the AFL Championship game six days later. The atmosphere was tense, the room quiet.
"Cookie stood up," Maguire recalled, "and said 'I'm going to tell you something. If we don't win this game, I'm going to beat the s--- out of everybody in this locker room.' "
Just then, Bills head coach Lou Saban and assistants Joe Collier, Jerry Smith and John Mazur unwittingly walked into their star fullback's escalating fury.
Former Buffalo Bills star Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist died Monday morning in Pittsburgh. He was 75.
Maguire continued: "Cookie pointed and said, 'And I'm going to start with you, Coach. I'm going to kick your ass first.' I just sat back in my locker. I knew he meant it."
On the first play of the game, Gilchrist took a handoff from Jack Kemp and trucked helpless Patriots safety Chuck Shonta.
"Cookie ran right over his ass," said Maguire, the Bills' popular linebacker and punter. "Then he went up to Bob Dee, who was the defensive end, and says 'You're next.' Kemp came over the sideline and said 'We've got to get him out of there. He's going to kill somebody.' "
The Bills pummeled the Patriots and then shocked the San Diego Chargers to win their first of back-to-back AFL titles.
"He had so much character he brought out the best in all of us," Bills tight end Charley Ferguson said. "If there's ever such a thing as 110 percent, that's what you got from Cookie. There was no such thing as not being ready."
Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist died Monday morning in a Pittsburgh assisted living facility.
Cancer finally caught him at 75 years old, but not before he broke another tackle.
Gilchrist's hospice nurse found him dead in a chair Saturday. She phoned his great nephew with the somber news. Thomas Gilchrist arrived and saw his uncle slumped over. Nurses prepared Cookie's bed for him to be laid down one last time. Thomas carried his uncle's 140-pound body from the chair.
And then Cookie woke up.
"He was dead in the chair," Thomas Gilchrist said. "And 30 minutes later he was drinking a root beer with me."
Cookie Gilchrist's family and teammates were laughing at the thought Monday. It was symbolic of how he was: rugged, stubborn and usually unbeatable.
Gilchrist often is overlooked among the game's great running backs because his career was brief and his relationships strained.
Ferguson, who also played with Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson, called Gilchrist "one of the greatest backs to ever play the game."
"These young guys didn't have more of an opportunity to learn about Cookie and see him in action," Ferguson said while mourning at former Bills teammate Booker Edgerson's home in suburban Buffalo. "They may have heard something, may have heard very little, but if they ever had that kind of opportunity it would have meant something to them."
Gilchrist went straight from Har-Brack High School in the Pittsburgh area to the Canadian Football League, where he starred for six years. He played fullback, linebacker and kicked field goals for Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Toronto before he returned stateside with Buffalo.
He played only six seasons in the AFL, but they were brilliant. He's the fullback on the all-time AFL team. In 1962, he became the first AFL back to rush for more than 1,000 yards and also kicked eight field goals and 14 extra points for Buffalo. In each of his first four seasons, he was an All-Star and led the league in rushing touchdowns.
"He was so impressive," Maguire said. "He was the biggest fullback in the game and could run and block. When he first came to the Bills he was the wedge buster.
"On the football field, he was one of the nastiest sons a bitches I ever met in my life. There was absolutely no fear in that man."
Gilchrist's 31 rushing touchdowns (in just three seasons) still rank third in Buffalo behind only Simpson and Thurman Thomas. Gilchrist set single-game records with 243 yards and five touchdowns against the New York Jets in 1963.
Gilchrist was a battering ram on the field, but so headstrong that he gave coaches and administrators headaches.
He engaged in several disputes with Saban and Bills owner Ralph Wilson. One of the pivotal moments came in Buffalo's first game against Boston in 1964, a War Memorial Stadium shootout between Kemp and Babe Parilli that didn't involve much running.
"The offense got the ball and he didn't go into the game," former Bills tight end Ernie Warlick recalled. "Saban asked 'Hey, Cookie, why aren't you out there?' He said 'They're not giving me the ball, so why the hell should I play?' So he sat on the bench and told his backup [Willie Ross] to go in."
The Bills placed Gilchrist on waivers after that episode, but Kemp brokered a reconciliation. The club pulled him back for the rest of the campaign. The Bills traded him to Denver in the offseason for Billy Joe.
"He jumped off the curb every once in a while," Warlick said, "but he was with them team almost 100 percent."
Gilchrist was among a group of black players who boycotted the AFL All-Star game over racist treatment in New Orleans. The game was moved to Houston.
He turned down induction into the CFL Hall of Fame, citing bigotry.
"He was very outspoken," said Edgerson, a Bills cornerback for eight seasons. "He understood the economics and the monetary value of a player. He expressed himself, and that got him in trouble a lot.
"But the things he did back in the 1960s was mild compared to what these guys do today. There is no way in the world he would be considered a bad boy today."
The Bills waived Gilchrist during the 1964 season because of his contract demands.
"I wanted a percentage of the hot dog sales, the popcorn, the parking and the ticket sales," Gilchrist said in a 2007 interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "[Saban] said that would make me part owner of the team. I was a marked man after that."
Those familiar with the selection process claim Wilson has long refused to consider Gilchrist for the team's Wall of Fame. Gilchrist and Wilson didn't mend their fractured relationship until a phone conversation last week, Thomas Gilchrist said.
"It's very sad that it couldn't be patched sooner," said Edgerson, added to the Wall of Fame in October. "It doesn't make any difference whose fault it is, or who didn't come to the table. Obviously, it was bad blood because they have not been put up on the Wall, and everybody believes that they should have been regardless."
Said Warlick: "It is a shame that those two guys are not even considered to go on the Wall. It's really too bad because they both should be there."
What makes Gilchrist's absence on the Wall of Fame even more disappointing is that players such as him -- stars that burned brightly but briefly -- aren't properly appreciated, particularly by younger generations.
Those who watched Gilchrist play know how special he was.
"Anybody from that era would never forget him," Maguire said. "He was that kind of a guy. When you went on the field with him, you never even doubted that you were going to win because he wouldn't let you think any other way."
Gilchrist is survived by sons Jeffrey and Scott and daughter Christina Gilchrist and two grandchildren.
Calling hours will be held Wednesday at Ross G. Walker Funeral home in New Kensington, Pa. Funeral services will be Thursday.
Thomas Gilchrist asked that any regards be sent to 322 Mall Blvd. Suite 164, Monroeville, Pa. 15146.