Walking The Buffalo Bills Wall Of Fame: Cookie Gilchrist
As we begin yet another installment of the “Walking the Wall of Fame” series, we encounter our most recent inductee: Cookie Gilchrist. One of the most dominant athletes of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, this running back spent only three years playing for the Buffalo Bills. He was a somewhat controversial induction, and a firecracker of a man. This is his story.
Carlton Chester Gilchrist was nicknamed “Cookie” as a child because he was always asking his elderly neighbor for sweets. He wasn’t given a sweet start in pro football, however. But before he got on the field for the first time he was just another kid from Brackenbridge, Pennsylvania. He dominated as a multi-sport athlete at Har-Brack High School, now known as Highlands High School, in Natrona Heights. Excelling in rugby, he was a gifted kid with big dreams. Wanting nothing more than to be a professional athlete, he had no plans for post-secondary education. Along came the legendary Cleveland Browns coach, GM, and part-owner Paul Brown.
A Mis-Introduction To Pro Football
Paul Brown intended to start Cookie Gilchrist’s NFL career, but instead he immediately derailed it. Brown served Gilchrist a contract right away and guaranteed that he would make it through camp and join the roster as a running back. One small problem: The contract was illegal, and in direct violation of NFL policy.
They were not allowed to sign a player directly out of high school, and the NFL voided the contract shortly after Gilchrist started getting reps at the Browns’ training camp. Tragically, he was no longer eligible for college football by the time they got around to filing the paperwork. With no college experience and an immediate blacklist from the NFL, Cookie was forced to go north.
Starting out right away in the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU), he was a hit. It was only three years later in 1956 that he would make the jump to the CFL, signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. They couldn’t keep him off the field, as he played both running back and linebacker for many years. He was a Grey Cup Champion by the end of his second season, and one of the most versatile athletes of the era. He was a natural athlete and, despite his immense frame and muscle build, he reportedly never lifted weights.
In six seasons in the CFL, spanning three teams, Cookie Gilchrist racked up 4,911 rushing yards, 1,068 receiving yards, and a shocking 12 interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns. He was a divisional All-Star at running back every year from 1956-1960, and was an All-Star linebacker as well in 1960. He started in the All-Star lineup in two separate positions and secured second place in the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Race.
Cookie Gilchrist: A Buffalo Bill
Even with all those miles on his tires, Cookie wasn’t done with American Football just yet. After a dominant CFL run, he was ready for a change. Initially viewed as a backup plan to draft pick Ernie Davis, Gilchrist wasn’t enticed by the Buffalo Bills. When Davis chose the NFL instead, the opportunity was his for the taking. While Davis unfortunately passed away from Leukemia before ever playing a down, Cookie became a household name instantly.
He exploded onto the scene in his first year, becoming the first AFL player to gain over 1,000 yards in a season (1,096 yards in 14 games), winning the AFL MVP title in the process. He initially played running back and placekicker, but became known for his breakaway plays and brutal rushing style. Though technically a fullback, he was the best running back of the era. Cookie Gilchrist set the American professional football record (AFL or NFL) for single-game rushing yards with 243 yards against the New York Jets, on Dec 8th, 1963.
The Beginning Of The End
Still, tensions flared as they always did wherever Cookie went, and before the 1964 season he had requested a trade to New York. Cookie was always trying to diversify his assets to maintain wealth and success after football was over, and New York was his ideal business destination. Despite that, the season went ahead as normal. This Buffalo Bills came out strong, starting 9-0 as the AFL’s darlings, which remains a franchise record to this day.
That was until Cookie benched himself mid-game in Week 10, angry at the pass-heavy gameplan they’d used and his lack of touches. The Buffalo Bills lost that game as the offense stagnated and the defense allowed three straight touchdown drives to blow the lead. Head coach Lou Saban waived Gilchrist two days later. Perhaps the move was a little hot-headed, but the whole team was such at the time. At the request of Jack Kemp, amongst others, Saban rescinded his waiving… a move he wouldn’t regret.
In 1964, Cookie Gilchrist and Jack Kemp led the Buffalo Bills to their first AFL Championship together. Lou Saban won the Coach of The Year award. Shortly after, Saban traded him to the Denver Broncos. Whilst Cookie was an incredible player, the coach couldn’t handle him anymore. In exchange, the Bills received RB Billy Joe. He spent one season in Buffalo, recording just 377 yards.
Cookie’s side of the deal ended up much better. He was an All-American in his first year away from Buffalo, racking up 954 rushing yards, 154 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns. He spent a season with the Dolphins and tried to return to Denver for another go, but his knees were shot. A career of plowing through defensive linemen had caught up to Cookie.
He finished up his AFL career with 4,923 rushing yards and 43 TDs. Gilchrist was named First-Team All-AFL three times, an AFL All-Star four times, was a two-time AFL rushing yards leader, and four-time AFL rushing TD leader. He would be named to the All-Time AFL team after the AFL-NFL merger.
Less than a decade after he retired from playing, Cookie Gilchrist founded the United Athletes Coalition of America. It was an organization created to help former football players adjust to life after their careers ended. The adjustment can be difficult and, having gone through it himself, he knew he could lend a hand to others in the same spot.
After his retirement, he turned down induction into the CFL Hall of Fame, citing exploitation and racism from management. It had been well documented and he is still the greatest player not in the CFL Hall of Fame to date. He also turned down WoF induction initially, weary of further exploitation without compensation, until the legendary Van Miller convinced him otherwise. Eventually, he agreed to be enshrined, but passed away of cancer in 2011, and was posthumously inducted into the Wall of Fame in 2017.
He donated his brain to studies for CTE, after acknowledging in his memoirs that he likely had it. Gilchrist’s brain was studied and he was found to have Stage IV CTE, which may have had severe adverse effects on his behavior throughout his life.
A Voice For Change
Cookie was a vocal civil rights activist who consistently risked his career for his beliefs. He successfully boycotted New Orleans as the site for the 1965 AFL All-Star Game over the city’s continued segregation, an early win for black athletes fighting for civil rights. This action is praised today, but it’s believed to be a contributing factor in his trade to Denver.
“People think I’m an oddball because I’m a Negro who speaks up”.– Cookie Gilchrist
His number, 34, has been officially retired by the Buffalo Bills in both his name and that of RB Thurman Thomas.
|O.J. Simpson (1980)||Jack Kemp (1984)||Patrick J. McGroder (1985)||Tom Sestak (1987)||Billy Shaw (1988)|
|Ralph C. Wilson Jr. (1989)||The 12th Man (1992)||Elbert Dubenion (1993)||Mike Stratton (1994)||Joe Ferguson (1995)|
|Marv Levy (1996)||Joe DeLamielleure (1997)||Robert James (1998)||Edward Abramoski (1999)||Bob Kalsu (2000)|
|George Saimes (2000)||Jim Kelly (2001)||Fred Smerlas (2001)||Kent Hull (2002)||Darryl Talley (2003)|
|Jim Ritcher (2004)||Thurman Thomas (2005)||Andre Reed (2006)||Steve Tasker (2007)||Bruce Smith (2008)|
|Booker Edgerson (2010)||Phil Hansen (2011)||Bill Polian (2012)||Van Miller (2014)||Lou Saban (2015)|
|Cookie Gilchrist (2017)||Reserved For|
The Golden Era
For the rest of the wall, navigate it here, and stay tuned for any entries left to come.