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Gilchrist put Bills into city's soul ; Team's first superstar died Monday at 75

No athlete in Buffalo history ever had such a short-lived run in Western New York while making such a big impact on the community's sporting consciousness as Cookie Gilchrist.

Gilchrist, a man who ran like a freight train on the field and was larger than life off it, died early Monday of cancer in an assisted-living facility near Pittsburgh. He was 75.

Gilchrist was the first superstar of the Buffalo Bills. His tenure lasted from 1962 to 1964, but his exploits in helping the Bills to their first American Football League championship helped ingrain the Bills as part of the fabric of the society.

"Of all the football players I've seen over my years, he'd be in the top five, there's no question about that," said Joe Collier, a former Bills head coach and one of the most respected defensive minds in football.

"Cookie Gilchrist, to my way of thinking, was one of the greatest professional football players who have ever played the game, either NFL or AFL," said the late Jack Kemp, in an interview with The Buffalo News in 2002.

"Cookie was better than Jim Brown," Kemp said, referring to the Cleveland Browns' runner widely considered the greatest player ever. "Jim Brown is a good friend of mine, but Cookie in my opinion was better all around. He could block. He could catch passes. He could tackle. He could kick field goals. Jim Brown was the greatest runner. Cookie was greater all-around."

"If he had played his whole career in the NFL, absolutely, he'd have been a Hall of Famer, no doubt about it," said former Bills tight end Ernie Warlick.

Gilchrist came to Buffalo as a 27-year-old "rookie" in '62 after spending the previous six seasons in the Canadian Football League. Over the next three seasons he combined for 3,931 yards rushing and receiving and scored 35 touchdowns. He set a single-game pro football rushing record with 243 yards in a 1963 game against the New York Jets at War Memorial Stadium. He rushed for 122 yards in the Bills' 20-7 victory over the San Diego Chargers for the AFL championship in 1964.

At 6-foot-3 and 251 pounds, Gilchrist was one of the most powerful runners the game had seen, but he also had enough speed to get around the corner against defenses.

"There was none any better than Cookie in hitting the hole from tackle to tackle," said Bills Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw. "He would punish linebackers and defensive linemen. He would hit the blocker in front of him if he didn't get out of the way. I have scars in my back from when someone would stalemate me at the line, and here comes Cookie from behind me. He didn't care what color jersey you had on, he was going forward."

Gilchrist was not as fast as Brown, but he was about 15 to 20 pounds heavier.

"I don't know if he had the type of quickness Jim Brown had," said Collier from his home in Colorado. "Jim Brown could wiggle in the open field. Cookie was not a wiggle guy. He was a straight-ahead type guy. But in those days he was the perfect guy."

Gilchrist's outspoken nature got him embroiled in a controversy in the 1964 season that led to his departure from the Bills.

The Bills were riding a nine-game winning streak and playing their arch rivals, the Boston Patriots, in Buffalo. Gilchrist, mad about the Bills' pass-oriented game plan, took himself out of the game late in the first half and refused to go back in. The Bills lost, 36-28. Coach Lou Saban waived Gilchrist two days later. Kemp brokered a reconciliation, and Saban took Gilchrist back after the big fullback apologized on live television.

Four weeks later, the Bills played an all-or-nothing regular season finale at Boston. On the first play from scrimmage, Gilchrist set the tone with a 9-yard run off tackle.

"We ran a slide play," Bills back Wray Carlton told The News in 1997. "Cookie broke it to the outside, and he ran straight at Patriots cornerback Chuck Shonta. Cookie ran right over him and knocked him out cold. Shonta was laying on the field, and Cookie walked back to the huddle and said to the Patriots standing around him, 'OK, which one of you [so-and-sos] is next?' "

The Bills won, 24-14. However, Saban had seen enough of Gilchrist's nonconformist nature and traded him to Denver after the season. Gilchrist played three more seasons before retiring.

Gilchrist had a chip on his shoulder his entire adult life over the fact he did not get a fair shake from the football establishment.

He was born Chester Carlton Gilchrist, named for a black physician, Dr. Chester Harris. Gilchrist was not sure where his nickname came from but did not mind it because he said "there's never been a bad cookie."

Gilchrist was a high school football star at Har-Brack High School in Natrona Heights, Pa., near Pittsburgh. His junior season was his last because he was going to turn 19 before his senior season, too old under the scholastic regulations.

Along came Paul Brown, great coach of the Cleveland Browns, who offered Gilchrist $5,500 to try out for the National Football League team. Gilchrist accepted but before he ever collected, the NFL decided it was not going to allow signing of underage players. By Gilchrist's count, more than 100 universities were recruiting him. But even if he had sat out a year before going to college, he would have been ineligible; the colleges decided his pro deal violated his amateur status.

Brown sent Gilchrist to play rugby in Canada. Gilchrist played two seasons in the Ontario Rugby Football Union, then jumped to the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He tore up the CFL for six seasons, two with Hamilton, one with Saskatchewan and three with the Toronto Argonauts before Bills scout Harvey Johnson lured him to Buffalo. He still holds the Argos' single game record of 27 points.

Gilchrist enjoyed his time in Canada, but having to spend some of his best years in obscurity north of the border -- and losing out on NFL salaries -- rankled him.

He refused induction into the CFL Hall of Fame due to what he felt was exploitation by league owners. He resisted most offers to return to Buffalo for appearances due to what he felt was unsatisfactory compensation.

"He couldn't get that out of his craw," said Bills great Booker Edgerson, a loyal friend of Gilchrist. "He felt if he had been able to go to college he'd have been a better person for it. But he was a bright guy. I told him, 'Cookie, you came out on your own because you were ineligible to play [in high school].' He never got over it. He talked about it and talked about it. He didn't take advantage of so many good opportunities he could have had. The people of Buffalo and Western New York loved him."

Gilchrist also fought injustice off the field during the '60s. In 1965, he led a group of 21 black players to boycott the AFL All-Star Game, which was to be held in New Orleans. The AFL players encountered segregation at hotels and restaurants upon their arrival in the city.

"The next morning," Warlick said, "all of the guys got a call from Cookie saying we were going to have a meeting because we ran into segregation and I think we need to talk about it. All the black players were there, and a couple of white guys attended the meeting. Cookie was the one who spearheaded it. We voted not to play."

The game subsequently was moved to Houston, and the embarrassment had at least some impact on changing some segregation practices in New Orleans, which led to the city getting an NFL franchise.

Gilchrist overcame throat cancer in 2007, but cancer returned in more aggressive form in September and he had been in the hospital since.

Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. released this statement:

"The Bills were very lucky to have procured the services of Cookie Gilchrist who was one of the greatest fullbacks I have ever seen in all of my years in professional football. He was the greatest extemporaneous speaker that I have ever heard. At a banquet, he could get up and talk on any subject no matter what it was.

"I had the opportunity last week to speak with Cookie by telephone and we had a good conversation. Today is a sad day for me, the Bills and all of the community that Cookie is no longer with us and I want to offer my deepest sympathies to his family and friends."

Gilchrist is survived by two sons, Jeffrey and Scott, and a daughter, Christina, all of Toronto. Visitation is Wednesday in Ross G. Walker Funeral Home, New Kensington, Pa. The funeral is Thursday.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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