By Budd Bailey
You never know what might pop up at a used book sale.
In the most recent example, I came across a book that essentially is the autobiography of one of the true legends of Buffalo’s sports lore, Cookie Gilchrist. Cookie’s story for $5? I’m in.
The publication came out in 2011, but I never saw it on sale locally – especially at such a reasonable price. After reading it, one could conclude that Winston Churchill could have been talking about Gilchrist and not Russia when he gave this quote (admittedly in the pre-WWII days): “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
No one can say the man couldn’t play football. Sportswriter Larry Felser said Gilchrist could have played almost every position on the field. He was a wrecking ball of a fullback for the Buffalo Bills for three seasons, including the championship year of 1964. But he also could be a distraction – Cookie sometimes didn’t think the usual rules applied to him fully. Gilchrist was known to have trouble making curfews and turning up on time at training camp, among other issues. Was it a case of Cookie causing trouble in an age when conformity was the rule, especially in pro football? Or, was it a matter of Gilchrist speaking up about unequal treatment at a time when African Americans were beginning to find their voices in search of justice? Or maybe was it somewhere in between? It’s hard to know.
But one thing we can say for sure after reading this book: Cookie sure knew how to keep a grudge. For example, his older sister held Gilchrist’s hand on the tip of a flame causing a burn. It caused no permanent damage but it started a rift that lasted after her death. Cookie wouldn’t even go to the funeral. No matter what happened along the way, Gilchrist never strayed from his principles.
That can be good in certain situations. Gilchrist was invited to be part of the AFL All-Star Game after the 1964 season had been completed. The catch was that the game was played in New Orleans, which was part of the Deep South at the time and a place where African Americans by any standard were treated horribly. The game’s organizers promised changes for the blacks who were participating in the game, but when the players arrived they discovered that little had changed since, well, the Civil War in a sense. Gilchrist was part of a boycott by the black players, and the contest was moved to Houston – a more liberal city in the area of rare relations at the time.
On the other hand, Gilchrist’s attitude didn’t help him achieve any sort of legacy. He always wanted compensation when he received an honor, such as the Bills’ Wall of Fame or induction into the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame. So it really took his death for that barrier to come down and the honors started to come, 50 years after he was earned them on the playing field.
This is not a typical football story. After serving as a prep star, Gilchrist said repeatedly that he dropped out of high school to supposedly sign a contract with the Cleveland Browns. A contract was filed in the NFL office. However, high school players were not allowed to sign with NFL teams, then and now. Certainly the Browns should have known that, and it’s hard to know if Cleveland had plans of stashing Gilchrist in the Canadian Football League until they could get him in the NFL. It’s an odd episode, and still doesn’t add up. In any event, Gilchrist headed to Canada and played pro ball at a low classification before moving up to the CFL.
There Cookie played at an all-star level but had problems following rules. In 1962, he strolled into a hotel at 3 a.m. – well past the team curfew – and Toronto soon put him on waivers. The Bills this offseason had been outbid for the services of Syracuse’s halfback Ernie Davis – by the Browns, oddly enough – and needed another runner. Harvey Johnson, a Bills coach, had worked in Canada in the Fifties and knew what Gilchrist could do.
Buffalo signed him, and the two sides had a productive if stormy relationship. That included an episode where Gilchrist wasn’t happy that Jack Kemp was calling so many passes, and stormed off the field in a one-man protest. That more or less led to a trade of Gilchrist to Denver in 1965. There he had one good season, but his massive body betrayed him at that point. He was out of football in 1967.
From there, Gilchrist became a little lost. He quickly went through his money, partly to feed a cocaine habit. His response was to start up a nonprofit organization designed to help pro athletes with their transition to retirement from athletics. That’s a worthwhile goal, and Gilchrist spent a lot of time and money chasing that dream. The problem with the concept is that it doesn’t have a natural source for funding, and the idea eventually died.
Gilchrist always was coming up with ways to make money, and most of them come off as small-time and naïve. For example, he went into a newspaper office and asked about a business deal – only to have the company’s leaders point out that Gilchrist has just tried to sue the firm. One can just imagine Bills owner Ralph Wilson shaking his head when Cookie offered to be partners with him over some new scheme.
From there, Gilchrist became something of a recluse. That makes more sense in hindsight, as after his death his brain was donated to researchers for examination. Sure enough, Cookie had CTE – which causes mental issues because of head injuries. The damage might have dated back to the early 1970s, which would explain a lot.
Late in Cookie’s life, a New York City retired detective named Chris Garbarino befriended Gilchrist. After Cookie’s death, Garbarino decided to put together an autobiography of sorts by the ex-player. It’s based on journals that Gilchrist wrote over the years. Yes, it is self-published and could have used some more editing. Even so, most of it reads fairly well under the circumstances.
There’s still some fog around the life and times of Chester Carlton “Cookie” Gilchrist, even after reading “The Cookie That Did Not Crumble.” Still, it’s worthwhile to get these words on paper. For those who are old enough to remember what the fuss was about, it’s worth reading – particularly for $5.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)