There's some sad news today, as legendary former CFL and AFL player Cookie Gilchrist (pictured with the Buffalo Bills in a 1964 file photo they provided to The Associated Press) has reportedly died from cancer at the age of 75. Gilchrist had a spectacular playing career on both sides of the border, but his legacy goes beyond that; he battled racism and intolerance throughout his life, led a boycott of New Orleans as the site of the AFL all-star game and reportedly turned down induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame to protest actions of CFL management (although he told The Ottawa Sun's Earl McRae that wasn't true.) He led a complicated life, and his story is a reminder of how much things have changed both on and off the gridiron since then.
Gilchrist was born in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, but his first professional gridiron action came in Canada. He was a star high school player and was offered an NFL contract after graduation by legendary Cleveland coach Paul Brown in a move that went against NFL rules. While at training camp, Gilchrist apparently learned that Brown wasn't going to stick to his promise of a roster spot and decided to head to Canada instead. He initially joined the Ontario Rugby Football Union, playing for the Sarnia Imperials in 1954 and the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in 1955. With the formation of the Canadian Football Council (the national predecessor to the CFL), he moved over to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and was a key part of their 1957 Grey Cup-winning team.
When the CFL officially replaced the CFC in 1958, Gilchrist went to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for a season before being traded back east to the Toronto Argonauts. He spent three years with the Boatmen before heading south of the border in 1962. Over his six years in the CFC and CFL, Gilchrist played running back, linebacker, lineman and kicker. He was selected as a divisional all-star (there were no league all-star teams at this time) at running back every year from 1956 to 1960, and was also named an all-star at linebacker in 1960. At 251 pounds, he was one of the largest running backs around and was described by Tiger-Cats' legend Angelo Mosca as "like a truck."
Gilchrist left for the Buffalo Bills of the upstart American Football League in 1962, but he wasn't their first option at running back. The team had chosen Syracuse star Ernie Davis in the 1962 draft and was hoping he'd lead them to glory. Davis opted for the NFL's Browns over the AFL, though, and sadly died of leukemia before the season.
Gilchrist may not have been the team's first choice, but he turned into a franchise legend and is widely remembered as "one of the greatest Bills players ever." He played fullback and kicked for them, although he insisted he could still play both ways. In 1962, he set a pro football record with 243 rushing yards against the New York Titans (soon to become the Jets). That year, he was named the MVP of the AFL by both The Associated Press and UPI. He only played with the Bills for three seasons, but recorded 3,056 rushing yards and 31 rushing touchdowns in that time; he also led them to the 1964 AFL championship with a 122-yard rushing performance in the title game. That championship remains the second-most recent league title they've won to this day.
After leaving Buffalo, Gilchrist went to the AFL's Denver Broncos in 1965. He had a solid year there, followed it up with another strong performance in Miami the next season and capped off his playing career in Denver in 1967. He was named an AFL all-star every year from 1962 to 1965 and was chosen as the league's all-time fullback in 1970 after the merger with the NFL. Yet, it might be one of his off-field moments that was the most memorable.
The AFL scheduled its 1965 all-star game for New Orleans, which proved to be a poor decision. This was during the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, and there was still a lot of segregation in the South. Many of the black players selected to the game were refused service by hotels and restaurants in New Orleans, and that inspired Gilchrist to lead a movement to refuse to play in the city. Other players, both black and white, joined in, and the game was moved to Houston, marking the first successful boycott of a city by a professional league. As described in the Full-Color Football series, the boycott was a key moment for sports in general, and Gilchrist played a crucial role in it.
Gilchrist's legacy is a complicated one. He's fondly remembered by many, including teammates and organizational personnel with the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts. Despite his size, he was one of the most versatile players out there, and he also shone on both sides of the border at a time before that became exceptionally rare. He did well everywhere he went and succeeded despite adversity, but appears to have been treated poorly in both Canada and the U.S. I'm not sure we'll ever learn the full story as to why he's not in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, but McRae's piece suggests it's a complicated one. However, Gilchrist apparently retained some fondness for the Tiger-Cats; Drew Edwards writes that he came to speak to the team about the importance of donning the black and gold after a 2008 practice.
The CFL will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup in 2012, and there are plenty of positive things to reflect upon. On many fronts, Canadian football has been more fair and more equitable to a wide variety of people than either American football or broader Canadian society of the time. There are many positive stories of players who were given a chance by the CFL when other leagues snubbed them, such as Norman Kwong, Warren Moon and Damon Allen. However, Gilchrist's comments to McRae demonstrate that not all players came away from their time in the league with completely positive impressions. That's tougher to handle than the good-news stories, but it deserves to be remembered as well.