January 10, 2011

Cookie Gilchrist dies at 75 after battle with cancer


Carlton Chester (Cookie) Gilchrist was the model for a long-gone era when football players would contribute on both offence and defence.

An imposing physical specimen, the six-foot-three, 251-pound fullback was a dominant force feared by opponents on both sides of the ball. Gilchrist also played linebacker, on the defensive line and even kicked field goals over six CFL seasons before continuing his strong play in the American Football League.

Gilchrist, who won a Grey Cup with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1957, died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 75.

“I was a big guy for that era,” CFL legend Angelo (King Kong) Mosca said in a telephone interview. “But I’ll tell you one thing, when he came through that line it was like a train coming through.”

Gilchrist also played for Saskatchewan and Toronto before moving on to the AFL in 1962, when he was named player of the year with the Buffalo Bills.

The four-time Pro Bowler, whose ferocious running style drew comparisons to that of the great Jim Brown, also played for Denver and Miami.

“He was as good as they get,” said Norm Stoneburgh, a teammate in Toronto from 1959-’61. “He was noted for his running ability and his offence. But coaches, when they got mad at him, would stick him on defence and he was just as devastating. He was that good.

“He could play any position. He was an outstanding athlete. And I’ll say, he knew it too.”

Former players and teammates remembered Gilchrist as a confident, tenacious, strong-willed man who seemed larger than life on and off the field.

“He certainly didn’t hide his light under a bushel,” Stoneburgh said. “He was great – and strutted it. Some guys aren’t good and they strut it. In his case, he just knew he was good.”

Gilchrist was a six-time division all-star in the CFL, five times as a running back and once as a linebacker.

“Cookie coined the phrase, `Lookie, lookie, here comes Cookie,”’ Stoneburgh said. “It was a phrase that was true – he knew it and opposing teams felt it.”

Born in May 1935 in Brackenridge, Pa., Gilchrist was lured out of high school by the Cleveland Browns. He didn’t make the team and ventured north, where he played with the Sarnia Imperials and Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen of the Ontario Rugby Football Union before joining the Ticats in 1956.

Gilchrist, who scored two touchdowns in Hamilton’s 32-7 victory over Winnipeg in the 1957 Grey Cup, played for the Roughriders in 1958 before being dealt to Toronto. In 1960, he was a finalist for the CFL’s outstanding player award, along with eventual winner Jackie Parker.

Gilchrist recorded 4,911 rushing yards, 1,068 receiving yards and 12 interceptions over his CFL career.

“Possibly at his age, he was as good as Jim Brown, if not better,” Mosca said.

Gilchrist still holds the Argos’ single-game record for scoring with 27 points, a mark he set Oct. 30, 1960 against Montreal.

“I’ll tell you one thing, he was chiselled by God,” Mosca said. “That was his body. He was unbelievable … he was a tough football player. He was really hard-nosed.

“He was never mad at anybody, he just played the game the way it was designed to be played.”

Gilchrist died at an assisted living facility near Pittsburgh, nephew Thomas Gilchrist said. He was first diagnosed with throat cancer and the disease spread to his prostate and colon.

“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,” said Ralph Wilson, the 92-year-old Buffalo owner.

Gilchrist’s grit and single-mindedness extended beyond the football field. He took stands against racism and wasn’t afraid to demand better contracts.

In 1964, Gilchrist and quarterback Jack Kemp led the Bills to their first of two straight AFL championships. Former Buffalo teammate Booker Edgerson said Gilchrist also wanted to play defence with the Bills.

“Yeah, he was tough,” Edgerson said. “If they would’ve allowed him to play linebacker, he would’ve kicked a lot of butt.”

Gilchrist led the AFL in rushing yards for three straight seasons (1963-’65) and touchdowns (1962-’64).

His most notable game came in Buffalo’s 45-14 win over the New York Jets in 1963. He set a then pro football record with 243 yards rushing and became only the fourth player to score five touchdowns – one short of the record set by Ernie Nevers.

Retired Buffalo News football writer Larry Felser covered Gilchrist during his days with the Bills and still regards him as the best to play the game. Felser wrote in 2004: “Any time. Any place. Any brand of football. Cookie was, pound for pound, the greatest all-around player I ever saw. He would be a superstar in today’s football.”

Gilchrist and O.J. Simpson are the only two Bills players to score rushing touchdowns in seven straight games, and Gilchrist’s 128 points in 1962 is the fourth-highest single-season total.

In its all-time roster section, the Argonauts media guide says Gilchrist, who was voted to Toronto’s modern-era (1945-’73) all-star team, was “a charismatic and volatile free spirit who many claim was the best all-around athlete ever to play for the Argos.”

Gilchrist also displayed a different kind of toughness. He and a group of black players boycotted the 1965 AFL all-star game in New Orleans after they weren’t allowed into a bar and had difficulty catching taxi cabs. The game was eventually moved and played in Houston.

Gilchrist is also the only player to turn down induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. He cited racism and exploitation by team management.

Gilchrist had a long-running feud with Wilson after the team waived him in 1964. Gilchrist refused to return to Buffalo to attend alumni functions unless he was paid. Gilchrist and Wilson finally settled their differences last week during a phone conversation, Thomas Gilchrist said.

“I’m glad they had that conversation,” Edgerson said. “When I visited him, he told me, ‘I’ve got to bury the hatchet with Mr. Wilson.’ “

On Monday, Wilson called it a “good conversation.”

Edgerson called Gilchrist a unique individual, who wasn’t afraid to speak out for better pay.

“He was 30 years ahead of his time,” Edgerson said. “He believed in what he did, good bad or indifferent. And he would go where ever he had to make it work.”

Mosca said Gilchrist always had a lot of ideas on the go.

“He started more things than you can imagine,” Mosca said. “In the city of Hamilton, he had a drive-in restaurant. He called it Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then he had a lighting business. … Cookie was always involved in something. A very interesting guy.”

Gilchrist is survived by sons Jeffrey and Scott and daughter Christina Gilchrist all of Toronto, and two grandchildren.

Visitation is Wednesday at the Ross G. Walker Funeral home in New Kensington, Pa. The funeral is Thursday.