State Your Case: Cookie Gilchrist

HOF Coach Paul Brown tried to sign him out of high school

(Published October 2017)

They call it the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But it’s not. It’s the NFL Hall of Fame.

For Canton to be the Pro Football Hall of Fame, all forms of gridiron achievement would need to be recognized. Miller Farr’s six interceptions in the World Football League would count toward his Hall-of-Fame candidacy. Herschel Walker’s 5,562 rushing yards in the USFL would count toward his candidacy. Doug Flutie’s 41,355 passing yards in the CFL would count toward his candidacy.

But they do not.

If the Pro Football Hall of Fame was indeed all inclusive, Cookie Gilchrist would already have a bust in Canton. Gilchrist played the first six seasons of his professional career in Canada and his final six seasons in the AFL.

How talented was Cookie? Hall-of-Fame coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns tried to sign him in 1954 when he was still in high school. But the NFL overruled the contract, so Gilchrist moved north to play his football in Canada. Three years later, the Browns drafted Jim Brown, who is considered the greatest player in NFL history.

“I told Jim Brown to his face that if I had stayed with the Browns,” Gilchrist once said, “nobody would have heard of him.”

Gilchrist made the All-CFL team in each of his first five seasons as a professional. He rushed for a team-leading 958 yards and seven touchdowns for the Grey Cup champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1957 and also intercepted three passes as a linebacker on defense, returning two of them for scores.

In 1958, after his trade to Saskatchewan, Gilchrist finished as the CFL rushing runnerup with 1,254 yards. In 1959, after his trade to Toronto, he added the placekicking chores to his workload. Gilchrist scored 73 points that season on five touchdowns, nine field goals and 16 conversion kicks – and also intercepted a career-best four passes that season. All this in a three-down league, not like the four-down game played in the NFL.

In 1960, Gilchrist scored 100 points on seven touchdowns, five field goals and 43 conversions. He also caught a career-high 25 passes and finished as the runnerup for CFL MVP. He made the All-CFL team that season on both sides of the ball, at fullback on offense and linebacker on defense.

Gilchrist moved back south of the border to the Buffalo Bills in 1962. He promptly became the first AFL player ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, leading the league with his 1,096 yards, averaging a Jim Brown-like 5.1 yards per carry. He scored 13 touchdowns on the ground and two more through the air. That earned Gilchrist AFL MVP honors and the first of his four consecutive AFL All-Star Game invites.

Gilchrist rushed for a league-leading 14 touchdowns in 1963, then led the AFL in rushing again with 981 yards in 1964. He capped his season with a 122-yard rushing effort in a 20-7 victory over San Diego that gave the Bills their first AFL championship.

But his journeys continued. The Bills traded Gilchrist to the Broncos in 1965, then he moved on to the first-year Miami Dolphins in 1966, then back to the Broncos in 1967.

Gilchrist was a civil rights advocate 50 years before Colin Kaepernick. He led a boycott at the 1965 AFL All-Star Game, forcing the contest to be moved from New Orleans to Houston because New Orleans wanted to segregate the black players from the white ones in hotels. Gilchrist also was voted to the CFL Hall of Fame but turned down the honor, citing “racism and exploitation by management.”

On the field, Gilchrist was a freak of nature – a 6-1, 251-pound package of power and speed who was bigger than the defensive linemen and linebackers of his day. He set a pro football record with 243 yards rushing in a game against the New York Jets in 1963 – a record that stood for eight years before Willie Ellison of the Rams rushed for 247 yards in a 1971 NFL game against the New Orleans Saints. Gilchrist was voted to the all-time All-AFL team.

In his 12 year career over two leagues and six cities, Gilchrist rushed for 9,204 yards, caught 196 passes and scored 76 touchdowns. He also kicked 19 field goals and intercepted 12 passes.

Gilchrist passed away in 2011 at the age of 75. The Bills will enshrine him posthumously into their Wall of Honor on Oct. 29 during halftime ceremonies of a game against the Oakland Raiders. His talent and career are both worthy of a look from Canton.

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