This past Saturday, April 16, the Buffalo Bills Alumni held a celebration of the life of AFL-era running back Cookie Gilchrist. Gilchrist died on January 10 after a long battle with cancer. Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with Gilchrist's close friend, Christopher Garbarino. We discussed the memorial service and plans for Gilchrist's life story.
Let me start by saying I was not able to attend the memorial. A three-week old daughter and a two-hour trip can do that. Garbarino explains that those in attendance were a great bunch, but it could have been better attended with a little luck.
"The Buffalo Bills alumni threw a memorial at St. John's Baptist church. The memorial was attended by many former teammates and people that he had befriended or people that were fans of his," began Garbarino. "The weather was quite poor that day. We had a good turnout and the people that wanted to be there but couldn't did reach out to let us know that due to the weather or unforeseen circumstances that they couldn't, but they wanted to pass along their condolences and well-wishes to the family."
Former teammates and other local people associated with the team spoke about Gilchrist's life and legacy.
"Cookie's friends that did speak at the memorial, they really did characterize his life and his legacy," explained Garbarino. "He just was bigger than life. He transcended, not just football, just in general, he was a character. He was involved, not just with football, with many different moments in history. He was very big with civil rights work. He worked with Muhammed Ali when Ali was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He marched with Martin Luther King during the Freedom March for freedom in jobs in 1963 where Dr. King gave his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech. He's just more than a football player, and that's what was really acknowledged at the memorial."
While Gilchrist played in nine different cities in his amateur and pro career, Buffalo was the only city to host a memorial.
"Booker Edgerson, the president of the Alumni, really spearheaded this," said Garbarino. "He's one of Cookie's closest friends over the past 50 years. Booker put the wheels in motion there and it just seemed right. Even though he only played three years there, he really had a big following there and it just felt right."
Buffalo fans held a special place for Gilchrist, even 40 years after he played for them. Bills fans sent cards, letters, and emails to the AFL All-Star more than any of the other fan bases he played for.
"From what I was told the majority of his mail was from Buffalo, and a majority of the emails, which I took care of, were from Buffalo," Garbarino said. "I would say Buffalo and Canada were really his bases. He did play in Miami and he did play in Denver but he's really beloved in Buffalo."
Garbarino thinks Buffalo's whimsical remembrances of Gilchrist and the AFL Bills led to his popularity, even four decades removed from the city.
"It really was the glory years up in Buffalo and it was something that a lot of people reflect back on," said Garbarino. "The AFL was a great league, high-scoring, even though the Bills were really known for their defense at the time. It was really the golden age of football and he's a folklore hero."
Before he succumbed to cancer, Gilchrist began work on a book detailing his life story. Since his death, his family and close friends, including Garbarino, have continued work on that project.
"Cookie wrote a book, and there's just so much information," Garbarino said. "At this point it's being edited, but we hope to have it published in the next couple months. Before he passed he was trying to get all of his affairs in order, and unfortunately he passed before he could get it edited and get it published, so we've taken it on."
Cookie's story is an extraordinary one, and the book is going to cover it from the beginning. The story of his entry into professional football, for instance, is a long and rocky road.
"It's going to cover his life growing up in Pittsburgh," Garbarino revealed. "Cookie had 108 scholarship offers to play college football. In the summer between the 11th and 12th grade, Paul Brown came to his family and offered him a contract for approximately $5,000 to play football for the Cleveland Browns. Cookie's family advised him to take it. It was more money than most people were making at that time. He went to camp with the Browns. What happened is the Rooney family was familiar with Cookie because he was all-state in Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh, and they went to Bert Bell, who was the commissioner at the time, and complained, saying he was ineligible due to his age. Bell ruled that he was, in fact, ineligible based on when his graduation date would be. At that point, they voided his contract, but the colleges considered him a professional even though the contract was voided. But the fact that he made the intent to sign a professional contract and now he was left without the educational opportunities and without the job that he was promised. That's what forced him to go up to Canada to find opportunities to play ball."
Gilchrist's full life story will also be contained in the book.
"It's going to range from his time growing up in Pittsburgh to his time in Canada playing in the Ontario Rugby Football Union, and also in the CFL as well as his early days in the AFL," Garbarino said. "And his work when he retired trying to fight for better rights for athletes and to prepare them for retirement."
The other major project being undertaken by those closest to Gilchrist is the re-launching of CookieGilchrist.com.
"If somebody wants to go and find anything out about Cookie, we have links to all the articles that are out on the Internet where we feel that they are accurate and really depict his life," Garbarino said. "You can find different information about his statistics, and when the book is done it will also update anything about the book. When we had the memorial, it updated the information, and there's also a Twitter feed that we just started with information on the book. When the book's done, where it will be available and different things going on about the project."
The website and book are not the ultimate goal, however. Garbarino and Gilchrist's family have Hollywood aspirations.
"There have been several people in the entertainment industry that are interested in his story, and really feel that it would translate well into a movie," Garbarino said. "So that is what the ultimate goal is. We want everyone to know, not just people who would pick up a book about football, we want people who aren't familiar with his story, because it does transcend just football. It wouldn't be just football. It'd be about civil rights and growing up in the 1960s. I think it would appeal to a wide array of people, not just a football fan."
Gilchrist was always striving for better care for athletes and for their rights, as well as many off-the-field endeavors.
"He was always pro-athlete" said Garbarino. "Anybody who was in that position is going to be pro-athlete. But he and many other retired players feel that the retiree benefits need to be better."
In January of 1965, Gilchrist led the boycott of the AFL All-Star game being played in a segregated New Orleans. After black players were refused taxi rides, restaurant service, and verbally abused on the streets, they decided to leave and not play in the game.
"It was a huge move in getting New Orleans desegregated," Garbarino said. "At the time it really was just a blip. People didn't pay attention at the time. 'Oh, the game happened to be moved to Houston,' but it really started where people said 'I need to stand up and do what was right'. I know Abner Haynes, who played for Kansas City at the time, he was not with the team the following year. A lot of players, for standing up for their rights, really did take it on the chin where they had to be traded or they were moved to another franchise, or soon after they were out of the league. They did what was right for the people that came after them.
"He was a great man and up until the end he stood up for what he felt was right," concluded Garbarino of Gilchrist. "He was the type of person that would do for others before he would do for himself. He was truly a great person and I want people to know what he did on the field and what he did off the field, because his story really does need to be told."