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.
For someone named Cookie, there was no sweetness to his game. As teammate Paul Maguire remembered to writer Tim Graham on ESPN.com,
"On the football field, he was one of the nastiest sons a b—— I ever met in my life. There was absolutely no fear in that man."
Before one critical playoff game, as Maguire remembered, "Cookie stood up ‘I’m going to tell you something. If we don’t win this game, I’m going to beat the s— out of everybody in this locker room.’ " Then Cookie pointed at coach Lou Saban. "’And I’m going to start with you, Coach. I’m going to kick your ass first.’ I just sat back in my locker. I knew he meant it.’ "
But Cookie wasn’t seen as a leader just because he could play. He was outspoken He was loud. He was unapologetic.
As he said to Sports Illustrated in 1964, "People think I’m an oddball because I’m a Negro who speak up. But I have a lot on my mind. It’s an internal disease, and it’ll eat me alive if I don’t get it out of my system what I think about things."
Cookie took his anti-racist tenacity and applied them to his dealings with management. He sent an open letter to the club owner Ralph Wilson before one season that read, "Gentlemen, it unfortunately becomes necessary again for me to formally request that you make efforts to trade me to some other football club." He received his raise. But he wanted more.
As he said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "I wanted a percentage of the hot dog sales, the popcorn, the parking and the ticket sales," Gilchrist said. "[Coach Saban] said that would make me part owner of the team. I was a marked man after that."
Gilchrist spent his retirement utterly unapologetic about his outspoken ways. He was offered enshrinement in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, and Gilchrist became the first person to simply say no. He said that the racism and financial exploitation he suffered in the CFL could not simply be forgotten. He also for years refused induction in the Bills Ring of Honor because of his life-long conflict with Ralph Wilson, still the Bills owner today at age 87.
But late in life Gilchrist softened his stance, after receiving an outpouring of love from Buffalo when the news being public that he was battling cancer. Even Ralph Wilson wanted to reconcile and spoke to Cookie the weekend before his death. "I have a whole box of cards and letters," Gilchrist said. "I was surprised; it brought tears to my eyes. I thought Buffalo was mad at me." They weren’t mad Cookie. They just didn’t know what they had until it was gone.