December 8, 2009

1963: Buffalo’s Cookie Gilchrist Runs for 243 Yards and 5 Touchdowns

Fullback Carlton “Cookie” Gilchrist was a big athlete with an equally big personality. At 6’3” and 250 pounds, he was a behemoth for a running back in the 60s. He had gone directly from high school to the Canadian Football League (after a brief stint in the training camp of the Cleveland Browns), where he was an outstanding player for six seasons, appearing at fullback, offensive tackle, defensive tackle, linebacker, and placekicker. He was named a Divisional All-Star in five of those seasons - as a running back on each occasion and once as a linebacker as well. However, he also developed a reputation for being difficult to manage as he wore out his welcome with three different CFL teams (he started out with two years in the Ontario Rugby Football Union).

At age 27, Gilchrist joined the Buffalo Bills of the AFL in 1962 and was named league MVP by UPI after leading the league in rushing with 1096 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns (13 on the ground). A bruising power runner, he was also an outstanding pass blocker. But injuries that included torn rib cartilage, a broken toe, and sprained ankle ligaments slowed Gilchrist down in ’63. Running at about forty percent efficiency, he gained just 318 yards on 94 carries (3.4 yards per carry) through the first eight games. But then he picked up 125 yards on 26 attempts at Denver in the ninth game; it was a sign that he was returning to form.

Four games later, on December 8, 1963, the Bills hosted the New York Jets at War Memorial Stadium and Gilchrist ran for 243 yards on 36 carries. He not only set a new AFL record but exceeded Jim Brown’s existing NFL record by six yards.

Gilchrist scored the first TD of the game on a four-yard run in the first quarter and went on to accumulate five touchdowns on the day, all by rushing. His longest scoring run of the game was 19 yards in the fourth quarter as he repeatedly pummeled the Jets defense, and he was all the offense that Buffalo needed on this occasion. The final score was 45-14, and the only non-Gilchrist touchdown for the Bills came in the second quarter (after the big fullback had already twice rumbled into the end zone) on a 23-yard pass play from QB Daryle Lamonica to flanker Elbert Dubenion. Of Buffalo’s 370 total yards, Gilchrist had accounted for almost two thirds of it.

The unfortunate Jets had to face the Bills once again the following week at the Polo Grounds in the season finale, and Gilchrist carried 31 times for 114 yards and a TD as Buffalo won again, 19-10. The two wins to close out the regular season allowed the Bills to tie for first place in the weak Eastern Division with a 7-6-1 record. They lost the playoff to the Boston Patriots, 26-8, and Gilchrist was held to just 7 yards on 8 carries. The Jets ended up at the bottom of the division with a 5-8-1 record.

With the late rally, Gilchrist finished third in the AFL with 979 yards on a league-leading 232 carries (the first of three consecutive seasons in which he had the most rushes), for a 4.2-yard average and 12 TDs (he had two receiving scores to give him a total of 14). He was the league’s top rusher for a second time in 1964, but wore out his welcome with Head Coach Lou Saban and was traded to Denver.

Assertive to a fault, Gilchrist was both outspoken and independent-minded – traits not always appreciated in professional athletes, especially ones of color, during that era. But his accomplishments on the field spoke most eloquently to his toughness and ability, and teammates insisted that no matter what was said and done off the field, when it came time to play, Gilchrist was ready.