February 24, 2010

1965: Buffalo Trades Cookie Gilchrist to Denver

The Buffalo Bills had won the AFL championship in 1964 in no small part to the efforts of their 250-pound battering ram fullback Cookie Gilchrist, the league’s leading rusher with 981 yards on 230 carries. But on February 24, 1965 they traded Gilchrist to the Denver Broncos for a lesser fullback, Billy Joe.

Gilchrist had been a mainstay of the Buffalo backfield since joining the team in 1962 after six years in the Canadian Football League. He had been an outstanding all-around player north of the border, but wore out his welcome with three teams before heading back to the US and the American Football League. With the Bills, he was both a powerful and productive runner, twice leading the league in rushing and setting a single-game record of 243 yards while gaining a well-earned reputation as an outstanding pass blocker. He was also outspoken and assertive in ways that sometimes annoyed teammates and most certainly led to disputes with Head Coach Lou Saban and the front office.

Prior to the ’64 season, Gilchrist had openly requested a trade to New York, where he saw greater potential for off-field business opportunities. He was often late for practice and openly disagreed with QB Jack Kemp, who wanted to throw the ball more. The situation came to a head during a game on November 15 against the Boston Patriots. The Bills were trailing late in the first half and had been passing far more often than running (Gilchrist had five carries for 23 yards, while Kemp had gone to the air 22 times). With the offense driving, Gilchrist suddenly pulled himself out of the game and sent in rookie Willie Ross to replace him.

The team lost for the first time all year, and an angry Coach Saban placed Gilchrist on waivers two days later. Not surprisingly, three teams claimed him, but a group of players interceded with Saban to have him recall the big fullback from waivers. Kemp had played a part – whatever their differences regarding offensive philosophy, the two were friends off the field – and convinced Gilchrist to apologize to the team and request a reinstatement. Whatever annoyances he had caused, his teammates were well aware that he always showed up motivated to play and they needed him if they were to win the division and league titles.

Saban agreed to allow Gilchrist back on the team, but once the season was over and a championship won, he was ready to take action. There were plenty of explanations offered by the club as to why they dealt him – most notably, although he had played in the AFL for just three years, he was 30 years old and, combined with his years in the CFL when he had also played linebacker on defense, his body had taken a beating. But in reality, he had simply become too difficult to handle.

Billy Joe was about the same size as Gilchrist, at 6’2” and 235 pounds and had been the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1963 after arriving as an 11th round draft choice out of Villanova. But his 646 yards in that first season ended up being his career high. He wasn’t the punishing and productive runner that Gilchrist had been, nor nearly as effective a blocker. In ’65, he contributed 377 yards with just a 3.1 average gain per carry (HB Wray Carlton led the team with 592 rushing yards), although he caught a career-high 27 passes. The Bills, with Kemp still at quarterback, an outstanding offensive line, and excellent defense, still had more than enough to win another championship.

Gilchrist gained 954 yards for the lowly Broncos (4-10) in 1965, which ranked second in the AFL, on 230 carries. It was a last hurrah for the big fullback with the big personality, and he refused to report to the club for the ’66 season. Placed on reserve to start the season, he ended up being dealt to the expansion Miami Dolphins midway through the campaign.

Ironically, Gilchrist and Joe were teammates in Miami in 1966 – the Dolphins had selected Joe from Buffalo in the expansion draft. Appearing in eight games, Gilchrist gained 262 yards on 72 carries (30 more yards than Billy Joe gained over the course of the entire season). He went back to Denver, where, in another irony, he was reunited with Lou Saban, but played in just one game before it was apparent that his knees could no longer provide the power needed to continue as an effective power back.

Cookie Gilchrist was certainly one of the most memorable characters in the AFL, and one of its best players. He was a force on the football field and a larger-than-life personality off of it – charming and intelligent, but also brazen and defiant. As a general manager of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts put it, “Put up with him for a season or two, he’ll be great. But then get rid of him before you have a nervous breakdown.”

The Bills got three good years out of him, including a key role in a league championship season.