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Cookie was a monster on the field, a friend off it

I've been known to go on and on about Cookie Gilchrist's prowess as a football player but I wasn't alone in my admiration. It was sometime in the '90s when I was doing a weekly radio show on WBEN with John Murphy when we received a call from a man in his car driving in southern Ontario.

Murph and I had been discussing Cookie and the caller wanted to join in. His credentials were superb so we had an enjoyable gabfest. The caller was Jumbo Jim Trimble, who coached Cookie and coached against him in the best days of the Canadian Football League.

"Larry," said Trimble, one of the all-time tough guys in football, "when I heard you say that Chester [Cookie's given name] was the best all-around football player you ever saw, I had to call in since I feel the same way as you do."

That Trimble would look back upon Cookie with admiration was an event in itself. Back when Gilchrist was the terror of the CFL as a Hamilton Tiger-Cat, he and Trimble had a difference of opinion that became part of football lore. Cookie, as usual, felt he was not getting the ball enough. Trimble, in effect, told him, "I'll do the coaching and you do the playing!"

It got snarly to the point where a fist fight was the next step. Cookie, as was his way, wanted the last word. "You take the first punch," he said with his usual decorum, "you're the coach." The familiar result was that Cookie was soon playing for another CFL team.

Gilchrist was so athletically commanding, even in his middle teen years, that the top football minds were considering him for the best college programs, or in the case of Paul Brown, as someone he could groom to eventually replace one of his stars. The NFL quickly put the kibosh on that, voiding the Browns' contract.

Years later, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette would pick its all-time Western Pennsylvania team. It would make a Texan blush. Joe Montana was the starting quarterback with Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino and George Blanda on the honorable mention list. The running backs were Tony Dorsett and Cookie.

By 1960 things had changed dramatically in pro football. The NFL had a rival, the American Football League, with moneyed owners. The television networks got involved, bringing their money machines. The best of the players drafted out of college were getting six-figure contracts. In 1964 Alabama quarterback Joe Namath got more money than any pro football player ever thought was possible: four years for a total of $427,000. As a Buffalo Bill, Cookie was making almost $20,000, his good friend Jack Kemp, less than $25,000.

The bottom dropped out for Cookie during a vital game against the Patriots -- yes, them as usual -- in '64. The game plan was heavy with pass plays. Cookie didn't approve. He still didn't think much of that line about players playing and coaches coaching. In effect, he went on a one-man strike. Cookie was suspended, but Kemp talked coach Lou Saban into taking him back. The Bills beat the Patriots for the Eastern Division title right in Fenway Park, then they shut out the favored San Diego Chargers for the league championship. A short time later Cookie was traded to downtrodden Denver where he had his last good year for a loser.

The next season the Bills, without Cookie, and without their two top receivers, Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass, upset highly-favored San Diego for their second title. Kemp, operating a hunt-and-peck offense on which Cookie would have been warmly welcomed, was voted the AFL's most valuable player.

The 40-year aftermath was a mess. A lot of people tried to help Cookie, mainly Kemp.

Kemp used to kiddingly refer to himself as a bleeding heart-conservative. He stood by his old teammates.

Cookie would respond to his helpers by not showing up, as he did when the CFL wanted to enshrine him in its Hall of Fame; or threatening someone, as he did NFL Films when they dug up film on his playing days and were awed, wishing to show it nationally before a Bills' Monday Night Game. He might have made good money on the autograph circuit at the time.

Stubborn, lovable, intractable, generous, unreasonable. The Cookie I'll always remember is the one whom I asked for an interview when he arrived in Buffalo the first time. "I can't do it now," he said as he left the dressing room, "but give me your address."

He rang my doorbell a half hour later and stayed for three hours. We were always friends after that. May he rest in peace.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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