Jim Brown died the other day. The obits hailed him as perhaps the NFL’s greatest player. Hereabouts, his passing brings to mind the late Cookie Gilchrist, of the Buffalo Bills.
Gilchrist was the AFL’s Jim Brown.
In fact, Gilchrist felt he was better than Brown – and told him so.
“I told Jim Brown to his face that if I had stayed with the Browns, nobody would have heard of him,” Gilchrist once told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Cleveland Browns signed Gilchrist in 1954, while he was still a high school student near Pittsburgh. But the NFL nixed the $5,500 contract because, the league said, 19 was too young to play pro football. So Gilchrist lost both the money and his amateur status. That meant he couldn’t play college football, either. He went to Canada instead.
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The game was almost 61 years ago in Buffalo, though what John Brown remembers of Ernie Davis has little to do with the play-by-play.
By 1962, when Gilchrist left the Toronto Argonauts to play for the Bills, he was 27. That season he gained 1,096 yards and was named AFL player of the year by the Associated Press. He gained nearly 1,000 yards for the Bills in 1963, and again in 1964. Then they traded him to the Denver Broncos for Billy Joe, another fullback.
Perhaps no other athlete in Buffalo pro sports history made a bigger splash in just three seasons than Gilchrist did. He was 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, with a legend larger than life. He clashed often with coach Lou Saban and owner Ralph Wilson, but Bills fans loved his Brown-like run-over-and-through-you style. Billy Shaw, the Hall of Fame guard, once told The Buffalo News: “I have scars in my back from when somebody 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.”
If you are a Western New Yorker of a certain age, all this can be evoked with just five words: “Lookie, lookie – here comes Cookie!”
Brown died at 87; his family did not give a cause. Gilchrist, who was nine months older, died of bladder cancer in 2011, at 75. (Researchers at the Boston University CTE Center later found that Gilchrist also had a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neuro-degenerative disease often caused by repeated blows to the head.)
If only the Super Bowl had come two years earlier than it did, we could have seen the Bills versus the Browns – and Carlton Chester Gilchrist versus James Nathaniel Brown. As it was, Gilchrist gained 122 yards on just 16 carries in the AFL’s 1964 championship game, while Brown gained 114 yards on 27 carries in the NFL’s championship game. (The Bills beat the San Diego Chargers, 20-7, at War Memorial Stadium, and a day later the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts, 27-0, at Cleveland Stadium: Two title games, in two days, on one lake.)
Brown and Gilchrist once got into a scuffle while playing pickup basketball at Brown’s house in Los Angeles. That’s according to O.J. Simpson, who posted a video tweet Friday after learning of Brown’s death. Simpson said Brown once knocked former Bills wide receiver Marlin Briscoe “three feet into the garage door” for showing him up by dribbling through Brown’s legs on the way to a layup. Simpson said he also once saw Bubba Smith have an on-court confrontation with Brown. “The great Cookie Gilchrist, the same thing,” Simpson said. “They got into a physical confrontation because he was playing a little physical, and you can’t play physical with Jim.”
Hear, hear – for Carl Scheer.
Simpson was a college player when he first met Brown. “Of course, I was cocky and everything, and I said, ‘Man, I’m going to break all of your records, you just wait and see.’ Well, obviously I didn’t. I broke some of them, though. You know, the single-season one.”
It was Gilchrist who broke Brown’s single-game rushing record of 237 yards. Gilchrist ran 36 times for 243 yards and five touchdowns against the New York Jets at the Rockpile, in 1963. That was Daryle Lamonica’s first pro start at quarterback, and the game plan was to give the ball to Gilchrist early and often. As Lamonica told me in 2020, “I told Cookie Gilchrist the night before the game, ‘Hey, Cookie, you get a good night’s rest. We’re going to let you loose, big guy.’ ”
Gilchrist told reporters after the game, “It’s nice to have the record, but here’s how I feel: I like to play football, and I like to play on a winning team. So if I block, play on defense, or carry the water, that’s fine with me.”
Gilchrist could indeed do just about anything on a football field. He once told Saban he would play middle linebacker, though only for double the money.
“Cookie was better than Jim Brown,” Jack Kemp told The News in 2002. “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 better all-around.”