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Flamboyant football player Cookie Gilchrist became a fan favourite in high school and continued to be a big draw in Canadian and American leagues, where he had a knack for setting records and stirring things up.
JIM KERNAGHAN, Free Press Sports Reporter   2003-11-15 03:29:21  

Having just got himself excused from jury duty in Philadelphia, Chester Carlton (Cookie) Gilchrist had time to talk. And talk. And talk some more. This is a guy with lots to talk about. Somebody wrote that he's now a recluse. He must be the chattiest one in history.

Younger football fans probably don't know much about a man who might be the most colourful athlete who ever set foot in Canada, so let's draw comparisons.

Think Muhammad Ali, P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump and put it into a 259-pound fullback, linebacker and defensive tackle who placekicked and did it all with a style that crammed people into stadiums from the time he was a Pittsburgh-area high school player. He was a draw in Canada as a 19-year-old star with the Sarnia Imperials of the Ontario Rugby Football Union and later in the Canadian and American football leagues.

"I told the judge today I was in the process of writing a book about my life," Cookie warmed up. "I told him I was in business for myself. I said I didn't feel I could sit in judgment of anyone, that's God's role. I was dismissed," he added, with a bit of a chuckle.

The truth is, Gilchrist has been a keen judge of many things since he began his own car-wash business in high school, where he organized the teammates he took to the state championship. Along the way, while racking up records in Canada and the original American Football League, Gilchrist began a home- cleaning service well before it became fashionable, a lighting operation and various other enterprises.

There was always trouble, though, some of it self-inflicted, a lot of it the result of prejudice. Let's start with the Cleveland Browns, where he made the mistake of signing a pro contract as a teenager, thereby becoming ineligible to accept any of the 108 college athletic scholarships that came his way. He had been signed for more than $5,000, he says, then offered $100 a week to keep him around.

Instead, he came north to Sarnia and the Imperials for more money in 1953, where he began to set records.

He would move to the ORFU Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, then to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Toronto Argonauts, where his two-way play and punishing running style lit up the CFL.

Gilchrist became more effective as a game progressed. He simply wore down a defence with his straight-ahead power.

He played 48 minutes and scored two touchdowns in Hamilton's 32-7 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 1957 Grey Cup.

At one time or another, Gilchrist played fullback, halfback, inside linebacker, cornerback, defensive tackle.

He kicked off and booted field goals and extra points. "I never played quarterback or safety," he said with a laugh.

It's one of the reasons he devised a unique suggestion as to how he be compensated -- on commission.

"I played 60 minutes, and playing at times every position except quarterback and general manager," he said. "I would have done that, too, if given the chance. (General manager Lew) Hayman said, 'If we pay you on commission, you'll own us.' I also wanted them to pay to Cookie Gilchrist Enterprises, my corporation.They did not like a black Nubian man dictating terms to them. So, they labeled me as a malcontent, troublemaker, difficult to control, money-hungry or whatever to get my fans on their side."

Gilchrist would love to be in Regina tomorrow for the Grey Cup. He refused induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a result of his treatment by Americans, not Canadians.

"I love Canada and Canadians. It's the American coaches and general managers I sometimes had problems with."

One of them was Lou Agase, who coached him with the Toronto Argonauts.

Gilchrist claims Hayman sold him to the Buffalo Bills for $30,000 in 1962 with four years remaining on his $140,000 contract. Interestingly, Hayman was one of the investors in Gilchrist's Argo Bright Light Maintenance Service -- he contracted to monitor and replace industrial lighting. He had had a similar one in Hamilton that featured trucks emblazoned with "Lookie, Lookie, Here Comes Cookie."

Gilchrist says most of the problems he encountered were a result of his standing up for principles at a time when black athletes were expected to remain silent.

"I'd say 99 per cent of my problems have been because I never saw colour. I was often somebody's advocate.

"I spent the last 30 years studying the Bible, the Torah, the Koran. People have said I'm a recluse. I've been studying. When I came to Canada as a kid, I was exposed to another society, another culture, at a young age."

He loved Sarnia and was delighted to be contacted by Garry Woodcock of Wroxeter, who has the Imperials' MVP trophy that his father Joe won in 1946 and Gilchrist in 1954.

"While playing for the Imperials, I met some of the finest men in my life -- like Coach Red Douglas, who was the fairest coach I ever played for," Gilchrist wrote Woodcock. He remembered "the Mattingly brothers, Bruce and Don, Red McKelvey, Ross Dowswell, Bruno Harkens, Jim Burris and others. Sarnia was a world apart from Brackenridge, Pennsylvania. I remember winning that coveted trophy honour in 1954."

The four-time Pro Bowl pick, who set a single-game pro rushing record of 236 yards against New England Patriots, led the only known boycott of a sporting event by the players.

When black players were refused taxi and restaurant service at the 1965 Pro Bowl in New Orleans, they were joined by white players and the game was moved to Houston.

Gilchrist said it was "insidious racism" that led to his departure from the Argonauts. Along with roommate Boyd Carter, he had gone out with Edmonton fullback Johnny Bright after an exhibition game and it was one of the reasons he was suspended, then eventually traded to Buffalo.

"A few years after that, I ran into Agase, and know what he said? He said, 'Yeah, I sent your black . . . back home where they know how to treat you.' "

The four Buffalo years were as eventful. Gilchrist led the AFL in rushes three times, touchdowns four times, yards gained twice. He would run afoul of head coach Lou Saban.

In one famous incident before the 1964 championship game against San Diego Chargers, he told his teammates he would personally thrash them if they didn't win, and included Saban.

Gilchrist says he would love to return to Canada and play a role in in the CFL. At 68, he's older and wiser, and you can't help but think his fertile imagination and Ali-like ability to generate publicity would give the league a boost. It's not as though the CFL couldn't use it.

"In court today, there was a discussion about corruption in America and one woman said 'Where's there a place better?' I said 'Canada. Canada doesn't have the kind of corruption we have.' Her reaction was kind of 'Well, why not go there?' "

Why not, indeed. Gilchrist would love to play a role in in the CFL. At 68, he's older and wiser and you can't help but think his fertile imagination and Ali-like ability to generate publicity would give the league a boost.

It's not as though the CFL couldn't use it.

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