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Bills Wall of Fame: Cookie Gilchrist's great career ... should have been greater

Cookie Gilchrist played only three seasons for the Buffalo Bills and four full seasons in the American Football League.

He should have played a lot more.

That's why Sunday's halftime ceremony to place Gilchrist's name on the Buffalo Bills' Wall of Fame is a small measure of justice.

Had he not been exploited by the Cleveland Browns as an 18-year-old, he might well have gone into the Pro Football Hall of Fame a long time ago.

Instead, he got exiled to Canadian football and cheated out of at least four prime years in the NFL. Yet his impact on pro football still was great.

Gilchrist, who died in 2011 at age 75, was the Bills' first superstar. He was a two-time AFL rushing champion and he was the best player on the Bills' first AFL championship team in 1964.

His name – he was born Carlton Chester Gilchrist – should be remembered. The Wall honor ensures it will be a little better remembered.

"I think the Pegulas are doing a good job wanting to fulfill that legacy," said Gilchrist's son, Scott, referring to the Bills' owners.

"I think for an older generation, it's a great rectification," Gilchrist said. "For the younger generation, they're going to say I never heard of Cookie Gilchrist. But now they will."

"It would be much nicer if he was there, but better late than never," Scott Gilchrist said.

Cookie's name should have been on the Wall a long time ago.

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In September 1971, the Bills honored him at their season-kickoff luncheon and named him the first member of the team's "Hall of Fame." He got a plaque from the mayor and owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. The luncheon was held in the midst of the Bills' push for a new stadium, and Cookie's appearance was considered a positive public relations event in that effort.

When the Wall of Fame was created at the Orchard Park stadium in 1980, Cookie's plaque was more or less forgotten. He was approached by the team about another "induction." But his attitude was he already received the honor. If he was going to make another appearance to help the team, he wanted some payment. Gilchrist told me in the early 2000s it would have been to help inner-city programs that he supported.

As time went on, Wilson did not want to put Gilchrist's name up if he wasn't going to show.

Gilchrist had good reason to be wary of being used by the NFL.

He was a phenom at Har-Brack High School on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in 1953. He scored 189 points as a junior halfback and place-kicker on a 9-0-1 championship team. He was named to a 77-man high school All-America team. He was certain to get a scholarship to a top college program.

Gilchrist's plan was to transfer to a private school for his senior year because he was going to turn 19 in 1954. He would not be eligible under public school rules.

That spring, he was visited by Cleveland assistant coach Ed Ulinski, who had been directed by owner Paul Brown to offer Gilchrist a pro contract. Cookie signed for $5,500 on May 8, 1954. He spent eight weeks in training camp that summer with the Browns.

Not surprisingly, other NFL teams did not like the idea of signing players out of high school. Steelers owner Art Rooney filed a grievance with NFL Commissioner Bert Bell. Paul Brown released Gilchrist, who never saw a dime of the $5,500.

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Brown wanted Gilchrist to go to the Canadian league's Winnipeg franchise, which had a relationship with the Browns. Gilchrist opted to go to Canada on his own terms. Because he had signed a pro deal, even though he never got paid, his college eligibility was over.

"My dad was always mad that he never got any money from signing the stinking contract," said Scott Gilchrist from his Toronto home. "An 18-year-old signed a contract that changed his life. And it took a lot of things off the table for him."

Gilchrist spent eight years in Canada, his first two in the Ontario Rugby Football Union and his last six in the Canadian Football League. He was one of the greatest players in CFL history, producing 996 yards from scrimmage a year on just 155 touches a year. (He averaged 251 touches a year with the Bills.)

While Gilchrist played in obscurity, he made good money for the times – in the $20,000-a-year range in his last couple years with the Toronto. And he met his wife, Gwendolyn, while playing in Hamilton.

The Bills signed him in 1962. One of the Bills' assistants, Harvey Johnson, had coached Gilchrist in Kitchener in 1955, and the Bills needed a running back.

Gilchrist's impact was immediate. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he was one of the most dynamic big backs in pro football history.

"Cookie stood out like a giant," said Bills great Booker Edgerson in the book "The Cookie That Did Not Crumble," co-written by Cookie and Chris Garbarino. "He looked like the Greek god Zeus had chiseled him out of the Rock of Gibraltar."

Cookie Gilchrist selected to Bills' Wall of Fame

Gilchrist's running style was about halfway between Jerome Bettis (slower than Cookie) and Earl Campbell (faster than Cookie).

In three seasons with the Bills, Gilchrist rushed for 3,056 yards and scored 35 touchdowns. His AFL yards from scrimmage total was 5,428 yards and 43 TDs in just 65 games (four seasons by today's standards).

That's why Gilchrist is unquestionably worthy of the Wall of Fame honor.

Scott Gilchrist will be at New Era Field Sunday with his two children (Cookie's grandchildren), ages 15 and 13.

Scott said his father felt a strong connection to Buffalo.

"I was happy he was getting correspondence with Bills fans when he was going through cancer," Scott said. "He really appreciated that."

Scott also said his dad reconciled with Wilson over the phone about being slighted for the Wall of Fame.

"Just before my father passed, he called me at 2 o'clock in the morning saying he resolved his issues with Ralph," Scott said. "And I thought, 'OK, why are you calling me at 2 o'clock in the morning?' Little did I know, he would die about a week later. He felt good that he had finally put his dispute with the Bills aside. At least I know in my heart he had put it aside."

Let's say Gilchrist never signed that Browns deal. He would have gone to college and entered the NFL in either 1957 or 1958.

Let's give him four years of NFL action, from 1958 to '61. If he averaged 1,000 yards from scrimmage (realistic, considering he averaged 1,331 with the Bills), he would have ended his pro career with about 9,500 yards from scrimmage.

That would have placed him fifth all-time among running backs at the time of his retirement and 1,000 yards ahead of the No. 6 running back.

The Bills' posthumous Wall of Fame honor is the least the NFL can do for him.

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