Harvey Johnson, the Buffalo scout who coached Gilchrist in Canada, thinks Cookie's edge is that he punishes the defensive backs when they collide with him. "As the game goes on they begin to grab at him instead of hitting him solidly," says Johnson. "You can't stop him without a solid shot. The longer the game goes, the more effective Cookie becomes." Holub, the 225-pound Kansas City linebacker, says: "If you hit him low, he works on you with his knees. If you hit him high, you get a stiff-arm. You have to hit him around the middle and clamp your arms around him or he'll tear your arms off. If he gets through a hole at the line of scrimmage, it's hell on the linebackers." But stopping Gilchrist at the line of scrimmage is not a pleasant task. Jerry Mays, 247-pound Kansas City defensive tackle, says: "He's already at full speed when he reaches the line, and if the hole closes he can veer off quickly to another hole. I can't remember ever stopping him cold without a gain. You have to be in perfect tackling position even to get a draw with him." And yet, despite those testimonials to his prowess as a fullback, many observers—including Harvey Johnson and Gilchrist himself—think Cookie is a better defensive player than he is an offensive back. "When we got him we had no stars, so we put Cookie on offense and made him our star. Where I'd like to see him is as a middle linebacker," Johnson says.
"There's just not anybody who can tackle the way I can," says Gilchrist. Last year Boston Safety Man Ron Hall intercepted a pass and ran down the sidelines. Gilchrist met him at midfield with a blow that sounded like a dozen wet towels slapped against the pavement. Hall was out for several minutes. "I didn't get a good piece of him," Cookie complained later. "I hit him with my head." In 1962 Gilchrist played on all the Bills' special teams. He has been seen to kick off, hurl three or four blockers out of his way and make the tackle inside the 20. Except for last year, Gilchrist was rarely injured. "He doesn't know where the training room is," the Toronto trainer informed the Bills before they signed Cookie.
Why, then, did every team in the Canadian League pass him up and let him go to Buffalo? Gilchrist has been accused of slacking off once he has established his might. "For a year or two, while he's showing the fans in a new town how good he is, he's the greatest. But after he's showed them, he slows down. He ought to be traded every two seasons," said one coach. However, Cookie's off-the-field activities were what got him banished from Canada. The specific incident was when Gilchrist passed Toronto Coach Lou Agase in the lobby of an Edmonton hotel after curfew. Cookie was going out, not coming in.
"But none of those things was the real reason I was waived out of Canada," Gilchrist said recently. "The only real point of discussion was that I wanted to be paid what I was worth. I played 60 minutes, did two guys' work and was getting paid half of what I was worth. I insisted that was wrong, and that's where my reputation for making trouble began. Management wants to get an employee as cheaply as possible. If you don't persevere, you won't be paid what you're worth. They still don't pay me enough, considering what I do. I'm not a carouser or a drunk. Maybe sometimes people don't like me because I'm headstrong. But it boils down to the fact that they resented me in Canada because I wanted too much money. I have no regrets. It's worked out for the better. If it had worked out for the worse, I would have accepted that gracefully, too.
"I think you have to be shrewd as the people you're working for. Like when I wrote that letter asking the Bills to trade me. I had got wind that they were negotiating a trade for me while I was injured. I knew they hadn't made their season ticket sales yet for this year, so I brought it out in the open about trading me. I meant it. I always mean what I say. Maybe I use the wrong words sometimes, but the meaning is there."
Gilchrist's sincerity, combined, of course, with the yardage he gains, has made him a popular figure with Buffalo fans. He will go anywhere to speak, without charge, to an audience of children. A year ago one of the winners in a Buffalo fan contest was a talkative little lady in her 60s. Cookie sat by her and talked to her during her prize plane trip to Denver for a Bills' game and then carried her luggage to her room. But for the dozens of adult sports banquets Cookie requests a speaker's fee. "Suppose a club has 50 banquets a year and there's 50 guys on our team. Well, I'll go speak once free because that's my share. For the rest, unless there are kids there, they have to pay me. Otherwise I'd be on the run all the time." Although there are things he does not like about Buffalo, Gilchrist does think the city has one of the best franchises in professional football. "This is an industrial town," he says. "The people here want to know you gave them a 100% tough battle on the field. There are no fancy players on this team, only tough, proud men. The team is an indication of the type of people in the town. They're warm and friendly, but they know you have to be tough as a way of life. We don't have any glamour boys like Los Angeles or San Diego."
But on the November afternoon of the last Boston game, it was Gilchrist who was accused of showing the temperament of a glamour boy. The day began perfectly, bright and cool and with no wind. The Bills were unbeaten, and a record crowd of 43,000 had jammed into War Memorial Stadium. The steelworkers who are erecting a new section of 8,000 seats had hung a sign on the girders that read: BILLS 48, COLTS 7. This was Buffalo's rebuttal to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story comparing the football teams of Baltimore and Buffalo. Another banner behind the Boston bench said: THE NFL IS A MINOR LEAUGE (sic). Gilchrist rambled into the Bills' locker room in exuberant spirits and hung up his coat. Many of the other players were already dressed. Their cleats clattered on the concrete floor. "I feel good today. I feel like a gazelle," Cookie said, putting his glasses into his coat pocket. He is nearsighted, but he does not wear contact lenses during a game. ("I can see fine on the field. It's when I'm on the bench that my eyes get fuzzy," he says.) Cookie pulled his blue jersey over his shoulders and chest. He likes to warm up without pads. "Hey, coach," he said to Saban, "I feel great today."
Cookie's mood was still one of savage elation as the game began. The first Boston blitzers who dashed through the Buffalo line were met by awful whacks from Gilchrist's shoulders and forearms and tumbled like cinema Indians. But Cookie kept waiting to run with the ball, and Kemp kept throwing it. Gilchrist was called on a quick pitchout to the right for short yardage. He got the ball on a couple of draws and twisted for 17 yards on one of them. But by the middle of the second quarter the pattern of the Buffalo offense had emerged. Kemp was going to throw. This was not going to be a Cookie Gilchrist game. Clouds moved in, the sun vanished and Cookie's pass blocking began to falter. The blitzers thundered past him and drove Kemp out of the pocket. Kemp raced about frantically on play after play and then was hammered down beneath swarms of Boston tacklers who had not been picked off by Gilchrist. Kemp would lie there on the hard earth for a moment and then would rise painfully to find Cookie looking at him as if to say, "Well, what did you expect with all that passing?" With 28 seconds to go in the second quarter, the Buffalo offense got the ball and Cookie stayed on the bench. Without consulting Saban, he sent in his friend, Willie Ross.
Bitter words poured out in the locker room at the half, but Gilchrist's performance did not improve. The long afternoon ended with Buffalo Quarterbacks Kemp and Daryle Lamonica throwing 53 passes and a plainly disgruntled Gilchrist carrying 11 times for 31 yards. Boston won 36-28. Buffalo fans streamed out of the park offering each other condolences, as if their Bills were 1-9 instead of 9-1. Gilchrist climbed into his car and drove home to Toronto, believing the game had been lost because he had not been used properly. But there were four more games to play, and Buffalo still led the East, and Cookie was not overly worried about it.
Tuesday morning the Bills' office stirred with mysterious activity. Telephones were ringing and people were having whispered conversations and Ralph Wilson was calling from Bermuda and Saban conferred for hours with his assistant coaches. At noon the news came. The Bills had put Cookie Gilchrist on waivers. Any club in the AFL could claim him for $100. "No one man is more important than the team," said Wilson. Saban's authority had been flouted by the unauthorized substitution of Willie Ross, and in the test of strength between the fullback and the coach, Saban was the winner.