Every sports writer has a bucket list of events they’ve never covered, cities they’ve never been to, people they’ve never interviewed.
Cookie Gilchrist was always high on my list of people I had to interview.
I called him more than once. I left messages. I talked to people who said they knew him and asked if they could arrange something. Almost every time I went to Pittsburgh, whether it be for a Penguins game or a Steelers game, I’d often think of getting a rental car and driving out to interview the man my late father insisted was the greatest football player he ever saw.
We never did connect — and the greatest player my dad ever saw succumbed to throat cancer Monday at the age of 75 on Monday, with a unpublished autobiography, a movie never made, and a football life so rich, so troubled, so complex that it is almost impossible to explain the man in any kind of modern context, the man who once drove a drove a truck around Toronto with the words “Lookie, Lookie, here comes Cookie” on it .
“I told Jim Brown to his face that if I stayed with the Browns, nobody would have heard of him,” Gilchrist said in a rare interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003.
“And that’s Cookie,” said Jim Rountree, his former Argos teammate. “He wasn’t just good. He was great.”
He played running back, fullback, middle linebacker, cornerback, nose tackle, punted, kicked field goals depending on the game and the circumstance, the kind of football player we don’t see anymore in an age of specialization. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” said Rountree, although Gilchrist disagreed.
Cookie once said he would have played quarterback too if he could have found a way to throw the ball to himself.
Cookie Gilchrist grew up in an America that no longer exists, with more racism and less sporting structure, spurning 108 college scholarship offers to sign an unheard of National Football League contract with the Cleveland Browns. High school players didn’t go directly to the NFL and until the deal was disallowed and the rules changed, Gilchrist had a brief and unhappy stay at an American university before finding his way to Canada.
“I was raped in public by the Cleveland Browns. I’ve been the villain and scapegoat ever since,” said Gilchrist in 2003.
He first ran the ball for the Sarnia Imperials of the Ontario Rugby Football Union and later for Kitchener Waterloo Dutchmen. Then one CFL year in Hamilton. One year in Saskatchewan. Three years with the Argos.
Long enough to be voted in to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Voted in but never enshrined. The story has gone around for years that Gilchrist refused to be part of the white establishment and would not agree to be inducted in the Canadian Hall.
Gilchrist told a different version to my QMI Agency colleague, Earl MacRae, in a series of e-mails exchanged last January. “I never turned down the Hall of Fame,” he wrote. “When John Agro told me to be nice to (commissioner) Jake Gaudaur when he told me I was nominated to be inducted, I told him I would take that under advisement.”
Gilchrist claimed his induction was reneged upon after that — and Leo Cahill, for one, believes the CFL Hall erred in never trying to induct Cookie again. “From what I understood, he would have gone in happily. He might have been angry at he time but he loved his time in Canada.”
“I loved Canada and the Canadian people,” Gilchrist wrote. “However Canada does not love Cookie Gilchrist.”
Much as they appreciated his talent, there were things about Gilchrist that didn’t enamour the Argos and after the 1961 season the decision was made to trade him. Only one problem. Gilchrist had, if you can believe this, a no-trade clause in his contract. When the Argos attempted to deal him, they voided his contract. Two teams with CFL connections, the Buffalo Bills of the AFL and the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL were very interested. So much so that a Bills assistant coach named Harvey Johnson drove up to Toronto and signed him to play for Buffalo.
And oh, did he play. In three seasons in Buffalo, he rushed for 3,056 yards (14-game seasons), scored 34 touchdowns in 42 games, won an MVP award, a league championship for the Bills. And today, there is an NFL team in New Orleans, probably because of what Gilchrist started in the 1965 AFL all-star game.
The game was scheduled for New Orleans at a time of racial intolerance. The 20 black players in the AFL all-star game were promised there would be no trouble, But upon arrival in New Orleans, cab drivers refused to take black players from the airport.
As the week went on, black players were denied service in hotels, restaurants and clubs until Art Powell of the Oakland Raiders called a meeting and in the meeting Gilchrist took over. The players voted to boycott the game.
The AFL had no choice. They moved the game to Houston, embarrassing New Orleans, which was in search of an NFL franchise. The football boycott essentially led to desegregation in New Orleans, which led to the awarding of an NFL franchise.
“The boycott was nonviolent, non-praying, non-singing, and non-begging, which was what black people always did,” Gilchrist said in 2003. But it was pure Cookie: Strong, opinionated, principled.
“He was one tough Cookie,” said Nick Volpe, who coached against him in the ORFU. “There wasn’t anyone like him, then or now.”