For those who played with him he was the greatest player they had ever seen, and this was during the era in which Hall of Fame RB Jim Brown was dominating the NFL. He was a supernova of a player for the Buffalo Bills during the AFL years. For three spectacular seasons Cookie Gilchrist was an unstoppable force that no one could handle, not even Bills head coach Lou Saban. His exploits helped propel the Bills to their first AFL title in 1964. Now 53 years after he recorded the first 1,000-yard rushing season in AFL history, Gilchrist’s name will be added as the 31st member of the Bills Wall of Fame.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Gilchrist’s son Marcus Gilchrist who will be in attendance at New Era Field when his father is posthumously honored on Oct. 29th. “It’s more like a full circle thing for my family with my dad. I think he would’ve liked it.”
Gilchrist came to the Bills in 1962 after a five-year career in the Canadian Football League, where he played for three different teams winning a Grey Cup with Hamilton in 1957 and was named an All-Star fullback all five seasons.
In his rookie year with the Bills he rushed for almost 1,100 yards in just 14 games with 15 touchdowns, and was named the American Football League’s Most Valuable Player. In Buffalo’s 1964 AFL title game victory over San Diego (20-7), Gilchrist was a critical component rushing for 122 yards.
To say that the fullback was dominant was an understatement. At 6-3 and 250 pounds, Gilchrist was a one-man wrecking crew. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his three seasons with the Bills rushing for just over 3,000 yards with 35 total touchdowns.
That physical dominance not only helped Buffalo win games, but gave the rest of the team an advantage even before they hit the field.
“Nobody ever talks about the psychological advantage he gave all of us,” said former teammate Ed Rutkowski. “With Cookie in the backfield we felt we could beat any team no matter what the score was during the game or where we were on the field. We just knew we could beat that team. That’s how confident we were with him in the backfield.
“He was big, strong, fast and he had a mean streak in him. He was a hell of a blocker. We used to love to watch game films where there’d be a middle linebacker or somebody blitzing up the middle and trying to get to the quarterback and Cookie would step up and knock the guy flat on his back. He was unbelievable. He was a great blocker.”
His supreme physical skills on the field were only reinforced with his words.
“I remember I think it was a 1963 game against the Boston Patriots and Cookie had just knocked out a linebacker when they met in the hole on a play,” Rutkowski said. “The next play we were going to run was a sweep right and Chuck Shonta was the cornerback for the Boston Patriots. Cookie gets down in his position and he looks at Shonta and he says, ‘Shonta you’re next!’ And sure enough on the sweep right Cookie is the lead blocker and he put Shonta out of the game. Unbelievable.”
Gilchrist was also tremendously versatile for a man his size.
“He could play defense as well as he played offense,” said fellow Wall of Famer Booker Edgerson. “He kicked field goals, kicked extra points and kicked off. A lot of folks wanted to compare him and Jim Brown. My argument was always that Jim Brown was an outstanding athlete, but in football Cookie was more versatile than Jim Brown. He could catches passes. Jim was never known to be a good receiver coming out of the backfield. Cookie was exceptional during that time. If he was playing today he would still be exceptional as a ball player.”
Gilchrist was also different from most other players of his time due to his outspoken nature. Despite playing at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, Gilchrist willingly spoke his mind whether it was a team issue or a social one.
“A lot of the players back in that day really didn’t speak their mind like the players do today because they’d worry about getting cut and being out of work,” said Edgerson. “So the players would look to Cookie to air their opinions because they knew Cookie wasn’t going to get cut.
“Eventually what it came down to was Cookie became a pain in the neck to management because he was always asking for something, but basically it was for the good of the team and it appeared he was asking for things for just his own benefit. But that was not the truth. So the guys looked to Cookie for his leadership and to get things done that they couldn’t ask for.”
Gilchrist also was one of a handful of Bills players who led the effort to move the 1965 AFL All-Star game out of New Orleans when the hotels would not give rooms to African American players in the same hotel as the white players.
“A lot of people don’t realize he brought us through a period in that civil rights movement where they moved that AFL All-Star game out of New Orleans to Houston because of blatant discrimination,” said Rutkowski. “Cookie was part of that movement with Ernie (Warlick) and Jack (Kemp). They represented all of us and we were very proud of what they did.”
Portrayed as a bitter man after his career was over, most of Gilchrist’s frustrations were largely rooted in how he was misled by Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown. Lured by the promise of a spot on the Browns roster while still in high school, Brown’s only mission was to hide Gilchrist from other pro teams. When he didn’t make the team and didn’t graduate high school he headed north of the border to play rugby and later in the CFL, since college football was no longer an option.
It kept Gilchrist from starting his pro career in the United States until he was 27-years old.
“It wasn’t as long as it could’ve been had he been allowed to play in the pros right away,” Rutkowski said of Gilchrist’s time in the AFL. “As far as I’m concerned I’ve played with a lot of football players and Cookie Gilchrist could do just about everything. He, by far, was the best. The greatest ball player I’ve ever played with.”