Obituary: Carlton Chester 'Cookie' Gilchrist / Outspoken, Brackenridge-born star running back
Before there was a Jerome Bettis, before there was an Earl Campbell, before there was even a Jim Brown, there was Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist, the outsized running back with an outsized personality to match -- a star player whose political views and temperamental nature put him at odds with coaches and teammates.
Mr. Gilchrist, the Brackenridge-born runner who played for the American Football League's Buffalo Bills and in the Canadian Football League, died on Monday of cancer at Sterling House of Penn Hills, a personal care home.
He was 75.
"The Bills were very lucky to have procured the services of Cookie Gilchrist, who was one of the greatest fullbacks I have ever seen in all of my years in professional football," Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson told The Associated Press. The two had reconciled in recent weeks after Mr. Gilchrist's condition was deemed terminal.
At a playing weight of 251 pounds, Mr. Gilchrist often outweighed the linebackers trying to tackle him and the offensive linemen trying to block for him. His crashing style later led to comparisons with Mr. Brown, the Cleveland Browns' Hall of Fame back who was born the year after Mr. Gilchrist and played for the team that offered Mr. Gilchrist his first pro contract.
It was a short-lived contract. The Browns signed him to a $5,500 deal in May 1954, while the young phenom was still attending Har-Brack High School in Natrona Heights. The previous fall, Har-Brack played Donora to a 0-0 tie in the WPIAL Class AA championship game.
While Mr. Gilchrist was set to skip college -- he claims he was recruited by no fewer than 108 college football teams -- that pro deal violated National Football League rules at the time (at age 19, he was too young to play in the NFL), and the contract was voided. The Browns then offered him a new contract: $100 per game for a 12-game season.
"I was raped, in public, by the Cleveland Browns. I've been the villain and scapegoat ever since," Mr. Gilchrist told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Milan Simonich in a 2003 profile.
Instead of moving to Cleveland, Mr. Gilchrist was Canada-bound, playing six years for the Canadian Football League and a related league before joining the Bills in 1962. His first season in the AFL, he was named player of the year, rushing for 1,096 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He helped lead the team, along with quarterback-turned-politician Jack Kemp, to two consecutive AFL titles, and he was a four-time AFL pro-bowl selection. Cornerback Booker Edgerson, a former Bills teammate, said Mr. Gilchrist was "just as good and maybe even better" than Mr. Brown. "He and Jim had the same outstanding abilities to play the game," he said, according to the AP.
Mr. Gilchrist shared the same high opinion of himself:
"I told Jim Brown to his face that if I had stayed with the Browns, nobody would have heard of him," he told the Post-Gazette.
Following the 1964 season, having already clashed with his head coach in Buffalo, Lou Saban, Mr. Gilchrist cemented his reputation for boat-rocking -- and for civil rights engagement. In segregated New Orleans, Mr. Gilchrist (according to his own account) helped organize a player boycott of AFL East-West All-Star Game.
Mr. Gilchrist was one of 21 black players selected to play in the game. But when white cabbies refused to drive Mr. Gilchrist and other black players into the city -- and after French Quarter businesses wouldn't let his black teammates in the doors -- he and others decided to boycott the event.
Ron Mix, Hall of Fame tackle for the San Diego Chargers, befriended the running back as a result. "The truth is, New Orleans should erect a statue to Cookie," Mr. Mix said in the 2003 profile of Mr. Gilchrist. "The city wanted an NFL team, but it was not going to get it unless it desegregated. The boycott led to a change in the laws."
And the AFL All-Star Game was moved to Houston.
Mr. Gilchrist also turned down induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, saying players were exploited by team management. In the years before his death, Mr. Gilchrist said he was writing a movie screenplay based on the New Orleans boycott; he also spent several years working on an autobiography manuscript.
His Buffalo career ended after three seasons. After he wore out his welcome there, he was traded to the AFL's Denver Broncos and also played for the Miami Dolphins. Retired Buffalo News football writer Larry Felser wrote about Mr. Gilchrist during his days with the Bills and still regards him as the best to play the game. Mr. Felser wrote in 2004: "Any time. Any place. Any brand of football. Cookie was, pound for pound, the greatest all-around player I ever saw. He would be a superstar in today's football."
After his 1967 season with the Broncos, the Cincinnati Bengals claimed Mr. Gilchrist in the league's expansion draft. The Bengals' coach and owner was Paul Brown, whom Mr. Gilchrist still had not forgiven since being "raped in public" by the Cleveland Browns. Mr. Gilchrist immediately retired.
"No way was I ever going to play for him," Mr. Gilchrist said. One man for whom he might have considered playing was Steelers' owner Art Rooney.
"He alone showed me more respect than any other white or black person," Mr. Gilchrist said in the 2003 profile.
Mr. Gilchrist was born in Brackenridge to parents Otto and Rose, who had worked in steel mills along the Allegheny River. He was named after a black physician, Chester Harris. As a boy, Mr. Gilchrist said, he dreamed of being a doctor.
The Rev. Darrell Knopp, pastor at McKeesport Presbyterian Church and a part-time hospice chaplain, met with Mr. Gilchrist several times over the last weeks of his life. He said the long-time recluse had come out of his self-exile over the last decade, "reconciling with a number of important people in his life after a period of estrangement" (including Mr. Wilson, the Bills' owner, whom Mr. Gilchrist partly blamed for getting rid of him following the 1964 season).
Rev. Knopp said that Mr. Gilchrist spent his final hours making peace with family, friends and his own death.
"I said, 'Cookie, you're coming to the end of the road. Are you ready?' He looked at me, and said, 'Yes, I'm ready.' "
And then he began to cry.
Mr. Gilchrist is survived by sons Jeffrey and Scott and daughter Christina Gilchrist, all of Toronto, and two grandchildren. Visitation will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Ross G. Walker Funeral home in New Kensington, where a funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday.
First Published January 11, 2011 12:00 am