Friday, 14 January 2011
REMEMBERING COOKIE GILCHRIST
This tribute forms the lead of my weekly Friday Morning Tight End column at nfluk.com. If you want to see the whole column, you can link to it here. Otherwise, here's my remembrance of one of the iconic players of my childhood, and his importance...
I was reminded of a landmark this week, and no it wasn't Brett Favre retiring or the Seahawks making the playoffs with a losing record and upsetting the Super Bowl champion Saints. But this landmark did take place in New Orleans. It was 11 January 1965, and the event was the 1964 AFL All-Star game, held in a neutral site to seal the deal for an expansion franchise in the city. But a funny thing happened on the way to the game. A number of the players found they couldn't get taxis from the airport. They'd been booked into different, less attractive hotels than some of their fellow all-stars. They weren't allowed into the same night spots, or to eat at the same restaurants. These players were, of course, black.
Cookie Gilchrist, died last Sunday, 10 January, just a day off the anniversary of that game. It was Cookie who stood up and called a meeting that led to the 22 black players voting to boycott. You think of the guys at that meeting: Ernie Ladd, Earl Faison, Dick Westmoreland, Sherm Plunkett, and the idea that people would try to treat them like 'boys' seems absurd, but the absurdity simply highlights the atrocity which was America's apartheid in my childhood. Gilchrist's teammate Jack Kemp, the future congressman who during the season had kept Cookie on the Buffalo Bills after he feuded with coach Lou Saban and took himself out of a game, had himself walked out of a nightclub the night before when they wouldn't admit his teammate Ernie Warwick; Kemp and the Chargers' Ron Mix (who was Jewish) got the white players on board. The game was moved to Houston, and New Orleans didn't get a team until after the AFL merged into the NFL, at which point the city agreed to take steps to ensure the same thing wouldn't happen again.
It was inevitable Cookie would take the lead, because he began his career as a man among boys, and demanded to be treated as a man among men. Sometimes a bit more, because he also tried to sell the story of the boycott to the papers! Once, when Buffalo was losing a game, Gilchrist told his teammates in the locker room that if they didn't put it together and win he would beat up every one of them. Then he pointed to the coach, Saban, and said 'starting with you'. The Bills won. In the spectrum of role models of the time Cookie fit somewhere between the quiet self-assertion of Jim Brown or basketball's Bill Russell and the flamboyance of Big Daddy Lipscomb. He saw the world from Cookie's point of view, and expected others to do likewise. Like Brown, he was a fullback, but at 6-1 250 pounds, Cookie was even bigger, probably stronger and maybe even faster. But his application to the game was not always as great as Brown's and his approach less orthodox. Cookie was a punishing blocker, a strong runner, a placekicker (until his hamstrings stopped that) and even offered to play linebacker for the Bills, but only if they'd pay him two salaries. He always needed money, because he was fond of bad investments and according to his teammates was also an inveterate, and lousy, poker player.
Cookie was that way because he came up on his own. He was so dominant as a high school star in Pennsylvania that Paul Brown, always in the forefront of playing black stars. going back to Bill Willis in the AAFC in 1946, signed him for Cleveland. The NFL nullified the contract, and the NCAA declared him ineligible for college, so he turned pro for two years for Sarnia and Kitchener of the Ontario Rugby Football Union before moving to Hamilton in the CFL in 1956. He led them to the Grey Cup the next season, played one season with Saskatchewan and then was traded to the Toronto Argonauts. He was an all-star at fullback five times in six years, and at linebacker as well in 1960. He joined the Bills in 1962, became the AFL's first 1,000 yard rusher, and was the league's MVP. When the Bills beat San Diego to win the 1964 championship, he had 122 yards rushing. Saban traded Cookie to Denver for the very similar, but less assertive, Billy Joe (Saban, curiously enough, would also discard black QBs Marlin Briscoe in Denver and James Harris in Buffalo) and Cookie wound up his career with a year in Miami. He was voted to the fullback spot on the all-time AFL team, ahead of Keith Lincoln and Jim Nance, but in modern terms he would have been simply a running back, and a great one.
Cookie turned down the CFL Hall of Fame, because the league's then-commissioner had been the GM he feuded with in Hamilton. The story goes he was asked to behave if he attended, and when he said 'I'll take it under advisement', he was told that wasn't good enough. So he said no. He turned down the Bills' Wall of Fame partly because of more old feuds and partly because he wanted to get paid to appear.
Despite that bad history, I believe four things ought to happen, now that he's passed away. Cookie ought to finally be honoured, posthumously, by both the Bills and the CFL, recognising he was a great player, a trailblazer in a trailblazing AFL, even if he was also sometimes his own worst enemy. There also ought to be some kind of landmark put up at the Hotel Roosevelt in New Orleans, and another at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to mark the act of courage of the players' rebellion that Cookie led, which pushed race relations forward in football, and New Orleans, forever.