Tonawanda News

July 9, 2012

BOOK NOOK: Gilchrist biography solid, if not a a bit one-sided

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — If you didn’t know better, you’d swear former Buffalo Bills great Cookie Gilchrist was the inspiration for “Forrest Gump.”

Gilchrist rubbed shoulders with football’s greats in Canada and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. He worked on Capitol Hill for a congressman and was invited to a presidential inauguration.

He organized Marvin Gaye’s first concert in Toronto, promoted Muhammad Ali’s Canadian heavyweight title fight in Western New York and nearly created celebrity boxing with Jim Brown. Yet for all of these brushes with greatness, relatively little was known of Gilchrist.

Until he got a little help in telling his story.

“The Cookie That Did Not Crumble” is in many ways a Gilchrist autobiography. The book is based on a rough outline Gilchrist wrote about his life and is accentuated with some words from Chris Garbarino, a New York City resident who had unsuccessfully hunted for Gilchrist for months before tracking him down on — of all places — Facebook.

Garbarino had been intrigued by the lack of information available about Gilchrist. After finally finding him, the two formed a close friendship, with Garbarino helping Gilchrist move and tending to his final affairs after mild dementia and cancer caught up to him. After Gilchrist’s death in January 2011, Garbarino worked with the former Bills’ sons to bring his story to the public.

And that story — tweaked through Garbarino’s eyes — is a solid read that allows the reader the sort of inside glimpse that is rare and fascinating, if occasionally too one-sided.

The tale offers a stark contrast to much of what’s believed to be known about the gridiron great. Gilchrist left his suburban Pittsburgh high school early on the promise that the Cleveland Browns would sign him to a pro contract. The Browns claimed that Gilchrist was immature and lacked some work ethic and offered to send him to the Canadian Football League for more experience before a promised return. Gilchrist claims that the Browns were spurred in their attempt to sign a high school player, and that they wanted him in Canada so they could control him.

Gilchrist did end up playing in Canada, but on his own terms. He bounced around the CFL for upwards of a decade, becoming a top-tier talent. Along the way, he squandered his income on failed business deals and an overactive night life (which could stand to be greatly expanded upon, as the book barely grazes over his mistakes) and met a white woman he ended up marrying. 

Never one to shy away from racial controversies, Gilchrist proudly stood with his wife as the NFL refused to consider a player in a mixed marriage.

The fledgling AFL, though, needed talent and didn’t care. So it was that Ralph Wilson signed Gilchrist — who already lived nearby in Hamilton — to play for the Bills. He was the AFL’s leading rusher in two of his three seasons in Buffalo before bouncing around the league three more years.

Upon retirement, Gilchrist advocated for former players to received upgraded medical and psychological treatment while engaging in wheelings and dealings worthy of their own book. In addition to the aforementioned encounters, he passed on the chance to be a ground-floor investor in Kentucky Fried Chicken (receiving a personal invite from Colonel Sanders) and continued to speak out for racial equality — including a traffic stop gone wrong in Buffalo that nearly landed him in jail for a very long time.

But Gilchrist felt that he was always misunderstood. He knew that being an outspoken black man in the 1960s made him a bit of a target — he led a boycott that resulted in the AFL All-Star Game moving from New orleans to Houston due to racial mistreatment — but he felt that his reputation preceded him and he was prejudged as a troublemaker before even opening his mouth. So he stopped doing so, withdrawing from the public eye for more than 25 years. 

Even near death, he continued to feel that he was misjudged, as his rejection of offers to go into the CFL Hall of Fame and Bills Wall of Fame were seen as egotistical and/or financial moves. Actually, he rebuffed the CFL due to previous misdeeds racially and personally, and he had been honored as the first Bills Hall of Fame member before the Wall of Fame, only he never made it onto the wall.

Gilchrist was not part of the Buffalo community for too long physically, but he’s forever remained a dominant figure in spirit. This book may not clear up every aspect of Cookie’s legacy, but it does a good job of giving his side of the story and is an entertaining part of local history.

Contact Paul Lane at pjlnews@ymail.com.