Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Legend and Legacy of Cookie Gilchrist

 Goes something like this - Cookie was an oversized personality. According to his obit (he died in 2011), "When he was playing in the Canadian Football League in the 1950s, Gilchrist owned a company that installed industrial lighting and trumpeted it with trucks emblazoned “Lookie, Lookie, Here Comes Cookie.”

Cookie also:
  • Was listed at 6'3", 250 lbs, and barely wore any pads when he played
  • Played fullback and kicker in this rookie season for the Bills and reportedly wanted to be paid two players' salaries because of this.
  • Also played on defense (as well as his two aforementioned positions) while playing in Canada. 
  • Was the first 1,000-yard rusher in AFL history and ran for more than 950 yards four years in a row
  • Reportedly took tons of speed when he played
  • Showered during halftime of games
  • In a division clinching win over the Patriots in 1964, he ran over a Patriots safety, then walked up to a defensive end and said "You're next." Every Bill in a 1964 highlight video I saw seems to recount this story.
Did Gilchrist like playing in Buffalo? I'm not sure. He reportedly compared it to slavery. He had been very happily playing for Toronto in the CFL, in a city he loved (apparently for its lack of racial prejudice), when the Bills purchased his contract. He clashed with Bills coach Lou Saban and was even kicked off the team once for insubordination (refusing to enter a game) but the players begged, and he apologized, and Cookie was let back on the team. However, at the end of 1964, the Bills traded him to the Broncos. It didn't help that he was known to bellyache about his salary, which turns out to have been pretty prophetic, seeing how the Bills were recently sold for $1.4B dollars - so Cookie in retrospect, was probably worth significantly more (in the long run) than he was being paid at the time. After all, he was one of the pillars on which the AFL was built.

Think about it. AFL owners each invested a  $25,000 franchise fee, plus expenses, to create teams that are now (some 50-plus years later) all apparently worth well over $1B. That's a great ROI.. And yes, television helped, but the players still had to put on a show, and Cookie was instrumental in that show.

I mean, how many leagues have since tried to emulate what the AFL did and force a merger with a more established league to gain all the benefits (including television contracts) associated with it? I think the AFL was by far the most successful at this - although the ABA and WHL certainly had some success - but football is football and I don't think any of the AFL franchises folded, like they did in those other rival leagues. There have even been two failed football leagues, the WFL and the USFL since the AFL-NFL merger.

Yes, Wilson took some risks and ponied up significant cash - he even loaned money to help keep other franchises afloat, so he deserves his returns, I guess. But, remember, guys like Cookie helped establish the AFL as a viable competitor to the NFL, which eventually forced the merger. According to one retrospective, "Cornerback Booker Edgerson, a former Bills teammate, said Gilchrist was 'just as good and maybe even better' than Jim Brown. 'He and Jim had the same outstanding abilities to play the game.’"

And Cookie had no easy row to hoe. After starring in high school in the Pittsburgh area, Cookie was reportedly told by Paul Brown to skip college and try out for the Browns. Unfortunately, 18-year-olds were not allowed to play in the NFL at the time (apparently this fact had escaped Brown) so Cookie was sent away with his college eligibility burned. That is how he ended up in Canada for several years prior to his being "bought"  by the Bills.

Gilchrist is somewhat notorious for being excluded from the Bills' Wall of Fame, apparently over his frequent contract disputes. But, based on the recent sale price of the Bills, I'm here to say Cookie was right! He clearly deserved more money, and now that the team has been sold from the ownership which had the dispute with him, please give the man his due honor! Ring him up!


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