There are times in this business when you envy the older guys, when you wish you could look back fondly to a simpler, earlier time. One of my few regrets is I never got to see Cookie Gilchrist play football. From what I'm told, he was one of those players you had to see up close to appreciate his rare combination of power, size and skill.
Larry Felser, who covered the Bills from the start, has called Gilchrist the best player, pound for pound, he ever saw. The late Jack Kemp, who played in the same backfield, said Cookie was a better all-around player than Jim Brown.
But it goes beyond Gilchrist's raw athletic ability. Even more so, it would have been a treat to know and interview Cookie back in his playing days, when he was young and defiant, a constant thorn in Ralph Wilson's side. Gilchrist had a personality that was every bit as big as his talent, and a chip on his shoulder that was worthy of his 6-foot-3, 251-pound frame.
Gilchrist, who died at age 75 on Monday of cancer, was ahead of his time as a player and a man. He was the progenitor of the big, bruising featured back. In other ways, he was a throwback. During his six years in Canada, Gilchrist played both ways. He kicked and played special teams. He kicked field goals one year for the Bills. Harvey Johnson, who scouted Gilchrist in Canada and later coached the Bills, felt he was better on defense.
Cookie thought so, too. In his later years, Gilchrist had his own website, where he would expound on all manner of subjects. Even football:
"This iconoclastic football player played every position except quarterback," he wrote. "And he would have done that too, if he could have handed off to himself."
That was classic Cookie, no stranger to self-promotion and hyperbole. He would call Wilson late at night to ask for a new contract. He would walk up to the owner and ask for a personal loan. Once, Wilson opened his wallet and pulled out $100. He said that was all he had. Gilchrist turned it down. It was beneath him to accept so piddly a sum.
Gilchrist never felt he was paid enough. He was right, of course. This was a time before player unions, when the typical professional athlete had scant leverage with ownership. But Cookie was no typical athlete. In the spring of '64, he wrote a letter to Wilson, coach Lou Saban and the rest of Bills management. It began: "Gentlemen, it unfortunately becomes necessary again for me to formally request that you make efforts to trade me to some other football club."
He got a raise. The Bills won their first nine games. In the 10th game against Boston at War Memorial Stadium, the Bills lost a game in which Kemp and Daryle Lamonica combined to throw 53 passes. Gilchrist was so upset with his lack of work, he sent his rookie backup, Willie Ross, into the game without telling Saban.
The Bills put Gilchrist on waivers two days later. Gilchrist went to practice that week and apologized to his teammates, many of whom had been furious with his actions. Saban met with Cookie and took him back. He said he did not think Gilchrist was capable of humbling himself that way. Still, the Bills traded Gilchrist to Denver after the season.
Gilchrist was a complicated man, a tortured soul. Paul Brown signed him when he was 18 and brought him to the Cleveland Browns' camp. The signing was later deemed illegal by the NFL. Brown pulled back his promise that Gilchrist would make the team. He was no longer eligible to play college ball. So he left for Canada, where he played for eight years before joining the Bills in 1962.
Imagine how good Gilchrist must have been for a sainted figure like Brown to attempt to circumvent the rules for him! Evidently, people were trying to take advantage of gifted high school athletes long before Cam Newton and Reggie Bush came along. Gilchrist never got over it. From then on, he was suspicious of the men who ran the sport.
"He held that grudge all his life," said Ang Coniglio, the Amherst resident and AFL historian.
At the time of that Boston game in '64, Gilchrist was being profiled by a Sports Illustrated piece by Edwin Shrake. It's a fascinating piece of journalism, elevated by Shrake's writing and his subject's rambling, profound and often outrageous comments.
"People think I'm an oddball because I'm a Negro who speak up," Gilchrist said in the article. "But I have a lot on my mind. It's an internal disease, and it'll eat me alive if I don't get it out of my system what I think about things."
You can go years without hearing such a quote from an athlete these days. Most pro athletes are practiced in the art of saying nothing. They need to watch the film before admitting they made a bad throw. Few of them ever dare express a provocative or political thought. It's bad for business to have real opinions, as any player agent could tell you.
Gilchrist was open about the question of race. Remember, this was before the Civil Rights Act was passed in July of 1964. Black athletes were still housed separately from their white teammates in some southern cities. After the '64 season, Gilchrist led a group of 21 black players who boycotted the All-Star Game in New Orleans, because they could not get service or respect in some of that city's establishments.
They won. The game was moved to Houston. Gilchrist later said his role in the boycott was "better than anything I did playing football."
I spoke with Gilchrist for the first and only time in June 2005. The Bills were celebrating their championship teams. Members of the AFL champions and Super Bowl teams showed up. Cookie, as usual, did not. He wanted a special appearance fee. By then, the Bills had stopped asking, because the answer was always the same.
"I played football for one reason," he told me. "To get paid. I didn't get paid what I was worth when I played for the Buffalo Bills. It's impossible for you to even comprehend the full magnitude of my contribution, not only to the Bills or Toronto Argonauts, but the economy of America."
Gilchrist then launched into a 15-minute rant on slavery, the Bible, racism, the Constitution and what he considered a "curse" placed on black people. I couldn't tell if I was dealing with a crackpot or a genius, or something in-between. I wrote a column about his rift with the Bills. The next time I contacted him, he said he never wanted to speak to me again.
Old friends and teammates pleaded with Gilchrist to soften his position and reap some of the rewards that were available to him. Booker Edgerson tried to help. The late Jim Peters, who covered the Bills in the AFL days, spoke to Gilchrist regularly and wanted him to write a book.
Felser urged Cookie to do an interview with ESPN. He told him the network had seen his game films and been floored. He said there might be a book or a movie in it. Gilchrist told Felser he'd do it. A week before the scheduled taping, he backed out.
It was true what he said in the old SI piece. He never quite got his resentments out of his system. "The division between Ralph Wilson and myself is not going to be resolved," he said in our '05 interview. "What is he, 87? I think he'll be 87 on October the 17th, if I'm not mistaken."
He had Wilson's age and birthday exactly. That's the sort of memory Gilchrist had. He would call the children of friends on their birthdays. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, he reached out to friends and said he was happy just to be alive.
Toward the end, Gilchrist found some kind of peace. Wilson, speaking in a press release, said he and Cookie had a good talk over the phone last week. Let's hope they made amends, the way Wilson and John Butler did when his former general manager died in '03.
Wilson once told me he has no problem putting Gilchrist on the Wall of Fame. He worried that he wouldn't show up. Well, the Bills can finally put Cookie on the Wall, where he belongs, and give Buffalo fans one last chance to cheer one of the best ever to play the game.