Cookie Gilcrhist: Pro Football All-Star, Civil Rights Activist, and Perhaps, Jack Kemp’s Conscience

Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist is one of the greatest football players you’ve never heard of. Given the recent news of the death of Republican Party leader Jack Kemp, it’s a good time to tell Gilchrist’s story, the story of a sports and civil rights hero who played with Kemp on the Buffalo Bills over 40 years ago.

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Cookie Gilchrist and Jack Kemp, Buffalo Bills, mid-1960s.

Gilchrist, born in 1935, grew up in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where the city of Pittsburgh is located. He was a high school football phenom, and drew some interest from the National Football League. After his high school graduation, he became embroiled in a high school player-signing scandal:

A star player in high school, Gilchrist signed a pro football contract with the Cleveland Browns between his 11th and 12th grades. He was signed by Hall of fame Coach Paul Brown, who denied the signing for years to save face in public. The NFL voided the contract but the damage was done and the 108 colleges who were recruiting him could not give him a scholarship…

Unable to play in college or the pros in the US, Gilchrist went to Canada. At 6’3″ and 250 pounds, with both athleticism and heart, he became a huge success in the Canadian Football League:

In 1956, he joined the Canadian Football League (CFL) with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, helping lead them to a 1957 Grey Cup victory. He also played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, rushing for over 1,300 yards, and played 3 years for the Toronto Argonauts, where he was runner up for the 1960 CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award. Gilchrist played fullback, linebacker and placekicker, and gained over 4,800 yards rushing in the Canadian Football League, where he was a CFL All-League player each of his six years in the league.

Gilchrist joined the American Football Leagues’s Buffulo Bills in 1962. Although he played just three years for the Bills, he had some impressive career highlights:

• He was the first 1000-yard American Football League rusher, with 1,096 in a 14-game schedule in 1962.
• Also in 1962, he set the AFL record for touchdowns with 13, and earned AFL MVP honors.
• Gilchrist rushed for a professional football record 243 yards and five touchdowns in a single game against the New York Jets in 1963.
• He led the league in scoring in each of his three years as a Bill.
• Though he was only with the Bills for three years (1962-1964), he remains the team’s fifth leading rusher all-time.
• He ran for 122 yards in the Bills’ 1964 American Football League championship victory (20-7) of the San Diego Chargers, 20-7.
• His 4.5 yd/rush average is second as a Bill only to O.J. Simpson.
• He was selected to the American Football League (AFL) All- Time Team in 1970.

One of the players on the Bills’ 1964 championship team was quarterback Jack Kemp.

As brilliant as he was, Gilchrist did have some detractors. At a time when racial integration was relatively new to professional sports, he was not the stoic hero that Jackie Robinson was.

As Booker Edgerson, a member of the Bills 1964 championship team put it, “Cookie was the Jim Brown of the American Football League; he was the icon of the league… But the biggest thing about Cookie is that Cookie did not take any mess off of anyone. That’s his legacy.”

That “don’t take no mess off anyone” attitude came to the fore in January 1965, just a month after Buffalo won the AFL title. The AFL All-Star Game was scheduled for play in New Orleans. On the eve of the Game, several black players visited the French Quarter and were refused admittance to two clubs. Plus they had problems getting taxis. The black players were angry about this, and several left town. Gilchrist organized a meeting that led to player boycott of the game, unless it was moved to a different site. The game was subsequently moved to Houston.

The Bills traded Gilchrist before the 1965 season, and some claim the trade happened because of Gilchrist’s role in the boycott. (Some have said that Buffalo’s inability to win a title since then is a result of a “curse” on the team for trading Gilchrist.)

Gilchrit himself has not spoken much about the trade. An article by the New York Times in 1994 reported:

He says he has little to do, not only with the Bills, but also with the N.F.L. and its players association. He reserves most of his criticism for black athletes who he thinks have done nothing, in an economic sense, to relieve suffering in the black community.

Gilchrist was selected to be enshrined into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum, but he refused the honor due to what he called racism and exploitation by management.

The recent death of Jack Kemp has led to reflection on Kemp’s willingness to support the black players during the 1965 boycott. Kemp was the founder and president of the AFL players union, and worked to get the game moved. Former football player Ernie Ladd told The Washington Post, “The only white who would take a stand was Jack Kemp.” Kemp’s actions were bold and courageous for the times, and he deserves credit for them.

But I hope that the bold and courageous-perhaps career threatening-actions of Cookie Gilchrist will be honored and remembered too. At the least, the team relationship between Gilchrist, a union son from western Pennsylvania, and Kemp, a golden boy from Los Angeles, must be considered a key factor in how Kemp handled the situation. Perhaps some book or screen writer will delve into that in the future.

My understanding is that Cookie Gilchrist is living in the Philadelphia area, where he is suffering from cancer. A site honoring his history is here. It would be nice to see a bigger media channel than this blog give some acknowledgement to his role in the 1965 boycott, a boycott for which Jack Kemp is deservedly drawing so much praise.

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5 comments

  1. Paradise Gray

    Cookie is back in Pittsburgh, he recently was released from hospital, he is doing ok, I saw him and spoke to him today 10/09/2010

  2. James E Ritchie

    It is so nice that Cookie is doing very well. When I was in Har Brack High School with him, he was alway a true gentlemen. I lived on First Avenue at that time. It was truly an honor to be his classmate. Lot of Luck, now and in the future. Your friend alway. JIM

  3. James E Ritchie

    I was very sorry to hear about his passing. A nicer person it will be hard to fine. He was a very friendly young gentleman and a classmate I will never forget. God Bless You Cookie and May You Rest In Peace.

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