With the passage of time, there are two establishment responses to the great political rebels in sports. You either see them commodified and defanged—think Muhammad Ali—or they are simply erased from history. Count Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist among the erased. Gilchrist, a former Buffalo Bills running back, died of cancer on January 10 at the age of 75. His legacy as both a player and athletic rebel are well worth restoring.
Gilchrist, the 1962 American Football League MVP, died the day before a remarkable anniversary not exactly celebrated by the world of professional football. On January 11, 1965, Gilchrist led an African-American boycott of the AFL All Star game, which was to be played in New Orleans. In 1965, an informal Jim Crow system ruled the Crescent city, and African-American players talked among themselves about their inability to get cabs, be served in restaurants or stay at certain hotels. Gilchrist organized all twenty-two African-American All-Pros to approach AFL commissioner Joe Foss and make clear that unless the game was moved, they wouldn’t be playing. White players also announced that they would stand in support of their black teammates. Foss had no choice but to accede to their demands, and moved the game to Houston’s Jeppesen Stadium.
The actions of Gilchrist and his fellow All-Pros inspired Dr. Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans to launch the Olympic Project for Human Rights, calling for an African-American boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Gilchrist’s courageous organizing also echoes today as Latino baseball stars like Adrian Gonzalez and Yovani Gallardo have indicated that they won’t play in the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, Arizona, because of harsh anti-immigration legislation signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer.
Gilchrist later said that his role leading the boycott was "better than anything I did playing football." That’s quite the statement because we are talking about one of the great players to ever put on cleats.
Gilchrist was signed, in violation of NFL rules, by Cleveland Browns owner Paul Brown right out of high school. The NFL voided the signing and Gilchrist, who was now also ineligible to play college ball, had to trek up north and ply his trade in the Canadian Football League. In Canada, starting as a teenager. Gilchrist made six consecutive all-pro teams before moving to the AFL. There he dominated, becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher in league history, and setting the record for rushing touchdowns in a season. In one 1963 game against the New York Jets, Gilchrist rushed for 243 yards and five touchdowns.