Long before the likes of Marshawn ‘Beast Mode” Lynch, Fred Jackson, and Thurman Thomas took the field for the Buffalo Bills, there was one tough cookie who plowed through the opposition.
His name was Cookie Gilchrist.
The powerful 6’3″, 251-lb. Gilchrist ran like a mack truck with reckless abandon and it was almost impossible to tackle him.
If you tried tackling him low and his knees and he would meet you head on. On the other hand, if you tried tackling him high, he’d stiff-arm you to the sidelines.
He was so good, some experts believed he was even better than the legendary Jim Brown.
Before playing for the Bills, Gilchrist strutted his wares in Canada where he led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the then-CFC title in 1957.
Gilchrist eventually earned AFL MVP honors in 1962 and led the Bills to the AFL title in 1964 when he returned to the United States.
Make no mistake about it: Cookie Gilchrist was one of the best running backs in CFL, AFL, and Buffalo Bills franchise history.
Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist was born in Brackenridge, PA on May 25, 1935.
His parents worked in a local steel mill to make ends meet.
He had to earn his keep when he was just ten or eleven years old: he carried coal for a dollar a week so he could buy whatever clothes he wanted.
It was around this time that he got his famous nickname.
Gilchrist told Sports Illustrated’s Edwin Shrake in 1964 he regularly asked an old man who lived at the top of a long flight of stairs for some sweets.
People in the neighborhood got wind of Gilchrist’s routine so they began calling him “Cookie.”
He had been called that way since then.
Born in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, on May 25, 1935, Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist, American football fullback (AFL All-Star, 1962-1965, Buffalo Bills; AFL MVP, 1962, Buffalo Bills; CFL All-Star, 1956-1960). He died in 2011. pic.twitter.com/jhfMp1Hb3Y
— MMJYBBJWIdols (@MMJYBBJWIdols) May 25, 2020
When Gilchrist was around fourteen or fifteen years old, he got into a fight with another boy in their neighborhood.
“I didn’t even realize the boy had sliced me until later when I looked down and saw I was bleeding,” Gilchrist told Shrake some fifteen years later.
Unfortunately, Gilchrist was scarred for life: he had one on his right shoulder and another one on his chest’s left side.
Four years later, he already stood 6’2″ and weighed 220 pounds as a student at Har-Brack High School in his hometown of Brackenridge.
Gilchrist and two of his friends earned money by washing cars for two dollars each on Saturdays. Some well-off customers paid as much as five dollars per car. One time, a customer even shelled out forty dollars for his car.
Football fans and random strangers also made donations in the locker room to pad his income. He told Shrake he averaged roughly $90 every weekend.
Gilchrist’s hard work paid handsome dividends: he purchased his own clothes and already flaunted three cars in high school.
He singled out his high school football coach Kenny Karl as the most influential individual during this phase of his life. Gilchrist claimed Karl did many things for him and expressed interest in his welfare, per Shrake.
Gilchrist didn’t have any ambitions of going to college.
“I had no intention of going to college,” he told Sports Illustrated. “When the Cleveland Browns heard about that, they sent a man around to talk to me.”
A young Cookie Gilchrist was about to take the football world by storm.
Pro Football Career
Cookie Gilchrist signed a professional football contract with Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns as an eighteen-year-old prospect in 1953.
Gilchrist admitted the $5,500 Brown and Co. handed him was a lot of money for somebody his age.
However, he figured he’d make four or five times that much in a decade, per Shrake.
His parents never knew about his contract signing until they found out in the papers. Nevertheless, they gave him their blessing to play pro football.
NFL History:When legendary coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns signed Cookie Gilchrist who was 19 at the time,the NFL Commissioner barred Brown from doing that and thus Gilchrist had to go to Canada to hone his skills first playing Ruby were he made All World then to the CFL
— Ronald B. Saunders (@BlackBuzzNews) April 1, 2019
Some accounts claimed the Browns violated NFL rules by signing Gilchrist straight out of high school.
The league eventually voided his contract. Gilchrist, who was ineligible to play college football by then, was in limbo.
He bolted the Browns training camp in Hiram, OH, and went north of the border to Canada.
Once he set foot on Canadian soil, he played minor league football for the Samaria Imperials and the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in the Ontario Rugby Football Union.
Gilchrist received Team MVP honors from the two clubs in 1954 and 1955.
While 19-year-old Cookie Gilchrist’s pro football career got off to a great start, he was involved in the occasional on-field skirmishes.
For instance, he attacked the Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers’ entire bench when he played for the Dutchmen in 1955.
It allegedly stemmed from a racist taunt and a sucker punch, per TORONTOIST.com’s Kevin Plummer.
A remorseful Gilchrist told Shrake he learned a valuable lesson from the experience nine years later.
After Gilchrist’s short stint in Canadian minor league football, he played in the Canadian Football League (CFL) from 1956 to 1961.
When Gilchrist signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1956, the CFL was known as the Canadian Football Council (CFC). He had 1,790 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 334 carries in his two-year stint.
Tiger-Cats legend Angelo Mosca compared the 255-lb. Gilchrist to a truck during their days in the CFC.
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) January 10, 2011
Ironically, Cookie Gilchrist – who also had an intimidating 20-inch neck – never lifted weights during his pro football career, per Sports Illustrated.
He was an integral part of a Hamilton squad that won the Grey Cup – the equivalent of the NFL’s Super Bowl – in 1957.
Gilchrist was also the Tiger-Cats’ Most Outstanding Player and an Eastern All-Star that year.
When the CFC changed its name to the CFL in 1958, Gilchrist signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
He had a career-high 1,254 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 235 carries in his lone season in Saskatchewan.
The Roughriders then traded Gilchrist to the Toronto Argonauts for Menan Schriewer following the 1958 CFL season.
Gilchrist had a combined 1,867 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 280 carries in his three-season stint with the Argonauts from 1959 to 1961.
He had officially played his final down on Canadian soil.
Gilchrist, a six-time division All-Star, concluded his six-year CFL stint with 4,911 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns on 849 carries.
While Cookie Gilchrist earned a decent income in his six-year CFL career, he had other business ventures to complement his football salary.
When he suited up for the Tiger-Cats, he put up a restaurant named Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Hamilton, ON area.
The restaurant specialized in Southern fried chicken and spareribs.
Unfortunately, Gilchrist told Sports Illustrated in 1964 he didn’t know much about the restaurant business – he even forgot to hire cooks and servers on opening night so he had to do the cooking himself.
The restaurant eventually lost money and went out of business.
When Gilchrist’s foray into the Canadian restaurant industry fizzled out, he launched an electrical maintenance business in 1957.
That, too, didn’t last long.
Gilchrist told Shrake his inexperience as a manager – he was a 22-year-old who managed thirteen employees – led to his downfall.
He admitted there’s prejudice everywhere although it wasn’t rampant in Canada.
When Shrake interviewed Gilchrist in 1964, the latter told him he was the only black person in his building. There were few black people North of the Border back then.
“In Canada, people are friendly to me,” Gilchrist told Sports Illustrated. “In the United States, they have reservations.”
There were speculations he left Canada because of his off-the-field shenanigans.
According to Shrake, Gilchrist ran into Toronto Argonauts head coach Lou Agase in the lobby of an Edmonton hotel well after curfew. He denied ever being a drunk or carouser.
However, his wife Gwen begged to differ: Plummer mentioned in his 2014 article she noticed his late nights out.
Gilchrist later admitted he soaked in all the adulation as a football player in Canada. Regrettably, it took a toll on his home life and marriage. He and Gwen eventually divorced.
Gilchrist insisted the real reason CFL teams resented him was because he wanted too much money.
Gilchrist reportedly demanded a three-year deal worth $60,000 from the Toronto Argonauts, per Plummer.
The best Toronto general manager Lew Hayman could offer was $55,000.
Gilchrist played out his option with the Argonauts the following day.
“I played sixty minutes, did two guys’ work, and was getting paid half of what I was worth,” he told Sports Illustrated.
Gilchrist returned to the United States and signed with the American Football League’s (AFL) Buffalo Bills as a free agent in 1962.
The Bills had originally planned to make Ernie Davis their No. 1 running back for the 1962 AFL season.
Unfortunately, Davis, who decided to play for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, succumbed to leukemia that year.
From the moment Cookie Gilchrist began playing in the AFL in 1962, controversy surrounded him.
He ran into trouble with the law that year when he was charged with assaulting a police officer.
Gilchrist denied the allegations.
He filed for bankruptcy a year later after his Canadian restaurant and electrical firm didn’t do well and cost him $80,000.
According to Sports Illustrated, Gilchrist declared liabilities of $59,397 and assets of just $7,400 in 1963.
Around that time, Gilchrist regularly rang up Bills owner Ralph Wilson at midnight asking for a salary advance.
Wilson toyed with the idea of cutting Gilchrist. However, when he took the field, Wilson promptly changed his mind.
To get his mind off his troubles, Gilchrist purchased a half interest in a Piper Club airplane and enrolled in flying lessons only to discover the plane had disappeared.
It turned out the plane’s other owner flew the aircraft to Florida and never showed up again.
Gilchrist just shrugged it off and purchased a 17-foot boat with a 100-horsepower motor, a Cobra, and a Buick.
To compound the cash-strapped Gilchrist’s woes, he injured his Achilles tendon before the 1963 AFL season.
Nevertheless, he still had 979 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 appearances for the Bills.
Gilchrist’s most memorable AFL game was against the New York Jets that season.
He set a then-pro football record with 243 rushing yards. Gilchrist became just the fourth player to record five touchdowns in a single game.
— ThisDateInBuffaloSportsHistory (@BuffSportsHstry) December 11, 2021
He came up just one touchdown shy of the record six touchdowns Chicago Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers scored thirty-four years earlier.
Better yet, he led Buffalo to the Eastern Division title game against the Boston Patriots.
Gilchrist reminded Shrake a year later that he suited up in five games that he shouldn’t have in 1963 because of his injury.
He shook off the pain and played anyway.
Gilchrist went on to lead the American Football League in rushing for three consecutive years from 1963 to 1965. He had 2,914 rushing yards during that record-breaking stretch.
His 31 touchdowns also led the AFL from 1962 to 1964.
Cookie Gilchrist was clearly at the peak of his legendary football career. He earned a slew of accolades during this time, including:
- Three-time First-Team All-AFL(1962, 1964, 1965)
- Four-time AFL All-Star (1962-1965)
- Two-time AFL rushing yards leader (1962 and 1964)
- Four-time AFL rushing touchdowns leader (1962-1965)
Perhaps the sweetest accolade of all was Gilchrist winning MVP honors in his first season in the American Football League in 1962.
He also led the Bills to the AFL title two years later.
During the pinnacle of Gilchrist’s AFL career, he wrote a letter to Bills management in the spring of 1964.
The letter expressed Gilchrist’s desire for Buffalo to trade him to another team. He also wrote he made the request in April 1963 but didn’t receive an adequate response from management.
It was clear what Gilchrist’s desire was: he wanted more money, per Shrake.
The Bills offered Gilchrist a new $30,000 contract that they asked him to keep a secret until they arranged a press conference.
Lo and behold, Cookie Gilchrist wasn’t around for his own press conference: he was in Canada leaping out of a chopper to plant stakes in mining claims located in various lakes.
Gilchrist co-owned the stakes with his partner Bill Richardson. The former told Shrake he met Richardson inside a shoe store in Hamilton, ON.
In a game against the then-Boston Patriots deep into the 1964 AFL season, a frustrated Gilchrist felt he wasn’t getting enough carries.
He sent rookie running back Willie Ross to sub for him just before halftime. Worse, he didn’t block for Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, who the Patriots pass rush battered relentlessly during the game.
Inside the locker room after Buffalo’s loss, Gilchrist felt the resentment of his Bills teammates. His coach, Lou Saban, also thought of releasing him right there and then.
Gilchrist felt he should’ve gotten between 25 to 30 carries per game for him to be effective. He only got eleven carries against the Patriots.
“I’ll get my four or five yards at a crack, and I’ll gain at least 100 yards for the day, more than 1,000 yards for the season, and it’ll be better for the team and for me.” Gilchrist told Sports Illustrated in December 1964. “I have too much pride to stand out there and just as a blocker.”
Ross agreed – he believed Gilchrist was a runner. The two teammates share a Buffalo apartment with defensive back Booker Edgerson. Gilchrist sometimes drove and spent time with his family in Toronto, ON.
To Gilchrist’s dismay, Saban and Bills owner Ralph Wilson dangled the Bills running back to any takers for $100. They had officially put him on waivers, per Shrake.
When the Bills released Gilchrist following the 1964 AFL campaign, it set off a long-standing feud between Gilchrist and the Buffalo team owner.
Gilchrist refused to visit Buffalo for alumni events unless the Bills paid him.
It was a stark contrast to Gilchrist talking to an audience of children without asking for any speakers’ fees during his playing days with the Bills.
It wasn’t until 2011 when the two men finally settled their differences. Gilchrist’s nephew Thomas confirmed their reconciliation to Syracuse.com.
Gilchrist made headlines in 1965 when he and several other black players boycotted the AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans, LA.
Gilchrist and his fellow players were infuriated when a local bar denied them access. They also had difficulty hailing cabs in the Big Easy, per Syracuse.com.
Organizers eventually moved the 1965 AFL All-Star Game to Houston, TX.
Cookie Gilchrist split his final three years in the AFL from 1965 to 1967 with the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins.
He received another chance to play for the man who offered him a chance with the Browns, Paul Brown.
Gilchrist was part of the Cincinnati Bengals’ expansion draft roster but decided to retire because of knee issues in 1968.
Cookie Gilchrist finished his six-year AFL career with 4,293 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns on 1,010 carries.
He had a cumulative total of 9,204 rushing yards and 65 touchdowns on 1,859 carries during his twelve-year pro football career.
Gilchrist doesn’t get as much recognition as other football greats during their storied era.
However, it’s about time he did.
Gilchrist’s Bills teammate Booker Edgerson felt he was just as talented – perhaps even better – than legendary Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown.
“He and Jim had the same outstanding abilities to play the game,” Edgerson told The Associated Press (via Syracuse.com) in 2011.
Gilchrist was a two-way player who also played linebacker during his days in the CFL.
Had the Bills allowed Gilchrist to suit up on defense, Edgerson felt he would’ve been just as dominant.
Many gridiron pundits including retired Buffalo News football writer Larry Felser also held the great Cookie Gilchrist in high esteem.
“Cookie was, pound for pound, the greatest all-around player I ever saw,” Felser wrote in his Buffalo News column (via Syracuse.com) in 2004. “He would be a superstar in today’s football.”
Post-Football Life And Death
Cookie Gilchrist and his ex-wife Gwen have two sons, Jeffrey and Scott, and a daughter, Christina.
According to TORONTOIST, Gilchrist returned to his partying ways shorty after he hung up his cleats – he made several acting appearances, and dated Playboy models, among other things.
Gilchrist indulged in several vices during this time. He even thought about suicide after his Playboy playmate girlfriend left him.
“These new vices were my way of dulling the sharp pain of becoming an afterthought in the public eye,” Gilchrist mentioned in his autobiography (via TORONTOIST).
Gilchrist eventually got his life together and established the United Athletes Coalition of America (UACA) in 1970.
His non-profit organization aimed to look after the welfare of retired athletes.
Gilchrist turned down induction into the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame in the summer of 1983 because of racism and alleged exploitation, per The Associated Press.
Since Gilchrist launched his restaurant business in Hamilton, ON in 1957, he had always loved to cook. In fact, he typically marinated steaks for two-and-a-half days in a special sauce he made, per Sports Illustrated.
Gilchrist told Shrake in 1964 he bought most of Gwen’s clothes. He also preferred to take his kids horseback riding rather than watching television.
Whenever Gilchrist watched television, his favorite program was “The Fugitive.” His other interests were self-help books and interior decorating.
Ironically, Cookie Gilchrist, one of the greatest halfbacks to ever play football, never considered himself a sports fan.
The only live pro football game he ever remembered watching was the one featuring the New York Giants and the then-Washington Redskins in 1960 – his second year with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.
“If a football game comes on TV, I get up and leave,” Gilchrist told Sports Illustrated. “I don’t like to watch it if I’m not involved.”
Lost in the wake of Penn State scandal is news that Buffalo Bills' Cookie Gilchrist, who died in Jan., had CTE, w/ symptoms for 40 years.
— Former NFL Players (@RetiredNFLers) November 9, 2011
Gilchrist died in Pittsburgh, PA on January 10, 2011. He was initially diagnosed with throat cancer that metastasized to his colon and prostate, per The Canadian Press (via CFL.ca).
His son Scott confirmed to The Associated Press (via USA TODAY) in July 2017 his father was in the last stage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death.
Scott Gilchrist also told the publication his father began showing symptoms of brain damage in the early 1970s.
Cookie Gilchrist became a member of the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame in the fall of 2017.