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Edwin Shrake
December 14, 1964
All his life Carlton Gilchrist has done things his own way. A fortnight ago his willfulness so enraged the coach and owner of the Buffalo Bills that they were ready to waive him goodbye. But he is back again—an army of one
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December 14, 1964

Tough Cookie Marches To His Own Drummer

All his life Carlton Gilchrist has done things his own way. A fortnight ago his willfulness so enraged the coach and owner of the Buffalo Bills that they were ready to waive him goodbye. But he is back again—an army of one

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In his black-rimmed glasses, black turtleneck sweater, peach sport coat, gray slacks and black loafers, Cookie Gilchrist looked as if he were sitting at a social protest meeting of the Screen Writers Guild rather than on a bench in the dirty, crowded locker room of the Buffalo Bills. "People think I'm an oddball because I'm a Negro who speaks up," he was saying. "But I have a lot on my mind. It's an internal disease, and it'll eat me alive if I don't get out of my system what I think about things." On either side of the big fullback the Buffalo players were slowly and sullenly dressing after losing a game, finally, to Boston, in the 10th week of the season. An hour earlier in that same locker room several of his teammates had raged at Cookie Gilchrist. "If you're not going to help us, take off your uniform and get out of here!" an offensive lineman had told him. Gilchrist, angry because he had not been called on to carry the ball as often as he believes is his right, had sent in a substitute for himself just before the half. Without the emotional charge of running over linebackers, Gilchrist had also become bored by pass blocking. When they realized the 251-pound Gilchrist was not going to interfere, the Boston blitzers had staged a riot inside the broken Buffalo pass pocket. Now, as the Bills stepped silently past Gilchrist on their way to the showers, Quarterback Jack Kemp sprawled nearby, dazed and sore and looking as if his jersey would have to be cut off with surgical shears after one of the worst beatings of his life. The air in the locker room smelled of mutiny. At that moment Buffalo Coach Lou Saban was trying to decide whether to kick the American Football League's leading ground-gainer off the squad. But Cookie Gilchrist ignored the resentment and bitterness that filled the room around him like escaping gas. He is accustomed to being a loner. Three years ago he was waived out of the Canadian Football League although he was the best player in it. Dissenting opinions of his value or his conduct mean less to Gilchrist than the polish on the hood of his new sports car.

"We should have beaten Boston," he said, staring at his large, scarred hands. "I'll admit I didn't play very well, but I only got to run with the ball 11 times in the whole game, and I don't think that's how we win. I ought to carry the ball 25 to 30 times in a game to be effective. I'll get my four or five yards at a crack, and I'll gain at least 100 yards for the day, more than 1,000 yards for the season, and it'll be better for the team and for me. I have too much pride to stand out there just as a blocker."

"You're a runner, man," said Willie Ross, the rookie Gilchrist had ordered into the game for a few plays as his substitute. Ross and Defensive Back Booker Edgerson share an apartment in Buffalo with Gilchrist when he does not drive home in the evenings to his family in Toronto, 95 miles away. "Tell you what I'll do. I'll teach you my moves."

"Willie is my prot�g�," Cookie said, smiling. "But I know this—life is a two-way street. It's not all good, and it's not all bad. There'll be other days."

Cookie Gilchrist stood up and, with Willie Ross, walked out of the locker room. Some of the Bills watched him as he went out the door and down the concrete ramp, but he did not look back. He was on his way to Canada to see a man about chopping down 30,000 Christmas trees to be sold on the streets of Buffalo. As far as Cookie Gilchrist was concerned, that Sunday's game was finished. He did not know, and he could not have imagined, that two days later Saban and Bills Owner Ralph Wilson would shock the professional sports community by offering Gilchrist to anybody who wanted him for $100.

What happened on that gray, chill afternoon in Buffalo when the Bills fell after winning nine games in a row was not the first trouble Saban, Wilson and General Manager Dick Gallagher had had with Gilchrist. Twice since he was suspended by the Canadian League and then signed by Buffalo Scout Harvey Johnson in 1962 Gilchrist has defied Buffalo traffic cops. Once he was hauled to jail and charged with assaulting an officer, an offense Cookie denied with simple logic by saying. "If I'd really hit him, he wouldn't be here." Gilchrist filed for bankruptcy in 1963, claiming assets of $7,400 and liabilities of $59,397 after mismanaged business ventures had cost him more than $80,000. He does not hesitate to telephone Wilson at midnight and demand a salary advance, although what separates Cookie from most other players in that respect is that he never calls collect. "I keep thinking we ought to get rid of him, that he's not worth it," Wilson has said repeatedly. "But then I see him on the field on Sunday, and I forget it." In 1962, when the wire services voted him the AFL's Most Valuable Player, Gilchrist rushed for 1,096 yards. Last year before the season started he injured an Achilles' tendon but still ran for 979 yards and helped put Buffalo into a playoff game with Boston for the Eastern Division championship. "There were five games last year when I shouldn't have played because I was hurt," Gilchrist said. "But they needed me and I'm a professional and I played. They never remember things like that."

At the age of 29, Carlton Chester Gilchrist is a complex and driven man. He is impulsive, proud, clever, shy and aggressive. He loves children and detests authority. He is obsessed with the idea of being a success in business, even though a restaurant and an electrical firm wiped him out. More perhaps than anything he wants security, but he can be a reckless plunger. He bought a half interest in a Piper Cub airplane last year, took six hours of flying lessons, and then the airplane disappeared. "The guy who owned the other half asked if he could fly the plane to Florida, and I haven't seen it since," Cookie says. "By that time I had got more interested in my new boat, anyhow. It's 17 feet and has a 100-hp motor and it really moves. I have a new Cobra and a new Buick. But sometimes I do wonder whatever happened to that airplane of mine."

Gilchrist has had to look out for himself since he was a tough kid growing up in the steel-mill town of Brackenridge, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. Beneath his cashmere coats and expensive shirts he carries two ugly half-moon scars, one on his right shoulder and one on the left side of his chest. "Got those in a fight when I was 14 or 15," he said. "I didn't even realize the boy had sliced me until later when I looked down and saw I was bleeding." By the time he was 18, Cookie was 6 feet 2 and weighed 220 and was an outstanding fullback and indifferent pupil at HarBrack High School in Brackenridge. Mostly, he went to school during football season and found something more entertaining to do when the season was over. "Two other boys and I supported ourselves with a car-wash business," he said. "We'd wash cars on Saturdays for $2 per car. Sometimes a guy would pay $5, and one guy paid us $40 for one car. Guys, football fans, would come in the locker room and make donations, too. Maybe $15 or $25. I averaged about $90 on a weekend. I bought my own clothes and I had three cars during the time I was in high school. I worked hard. I learned you always have to work for what you get. But my high school coach, Kenny Karl, was the guy who kept me in high school for as long as I stayed. If I had to pick one person out of my life who did the most for me, he's the one. He took an interest in my welfare. I didn't want to go to school, didn't see any benefit in it. My folks and my neighbors worked in the steel mill. I had been no place, knew nothing else but the steel mill. I had no intention of going to college. When the Cleveland Browns heard about that, they sent a man around to talk to me."

The Browns signed Gilchrist to a pro contract when he was 18. Although he was untutored in the subtleties of pro football. Cookie lasted until the final cut and was totally unimpressed by the company he was keeping. "I wasn't honored that the Browns had signed me," he says now. "I just looked at that $5,500 they handed me. That's a bunch of money for an 18-year-old kid. I figured in 10 years I'd be making four or five times that much. My mom and dad didn't know I had signed a pro contract until they read it in the papers. Then all they said was if I wanted to, it was O.K. That was the last word about it. Kids are intelligent at an early age. They know the difference between right and wrong. Parents should always tell the truth to kids. The truth doesn't hurt. When you get older, you resent it if you find out your parents lied. Mine didn't lie. I wish they could have been more compassionate, but they had to work so hard for a basic living that they didn't have time. I suppose that's where some of my frustrations come from. I want to be successful and be understood and not be put down as an individual. If I didn't believe in myself I could have been a bum. I've found the courage to carry on when people doubt me only because I believe in myself. People should work harder to understand those who don't conform. Who's to say society's rules are always right? Life moves fast, and people claim they don't have time for understanding. I say you better take the time to live and to understand what's important to your life. That sounds selfish. I guess. But it's selfish in a good way."

Wilson, Saban, Gallagher and Assistant General Manager Chuck Burr were forced to the limit of understanding last spring by a letter Gilchrist wrote them (with copies to the Buffalo newspapers and TV stations). The letter said: "Gentlemen: It unfortunately becomes necessary again for me to formally request that you make efforts to trade me to some other football club in the AFL. My attorney, Mr. Messina, and I have made these requests since April of 1963 without, I feel, adequate response from you. Therefore, in the best interest of the Buffalo fans—who have been exceptionally kind to me—and in the best interest of the team and, frankly, in my own best interest, may I ask you to give serious consideration to the trade offers made for me by other AFL clubs. Very truly yours, Carlton C. Gilchrist."

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