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culture

Historicist: One Tough Cookie

Football great "Cookie" Gilchrist's turbulent time in Argonaut double-blue.

Photo of Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Hamilton, by Peter Macdonald via Creative Commons on Flickr

Photo of Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Hamilton, by Peter Macdonald via Creative Commons on Flickr.

“I dealt with racism when I was in Canada. I dealt with racists. I was totally exploited. I was left with nothing, with no dignity. I was treated like an animal,” Cookie Gilchrist seethed in a July 1983 interview with Paul Patton of the Globe and Mail. “Go through your files,” the former Canadian Football League and American Football League all-star demanded. “Canadian newspapers are full of Cookie Gilchrist stories and all are derogatory. There’s nothing complimentary. I have all the clippings in a scrapbook and, if you read those stories, you wouldn’t think that I was worthy of the Hall of Fame. They didn’t treat me like a human being when I was there.”

Cookie, a ferocious and dynamic force on the field and a charismatic personality off it, was refusing to be enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. One of the biggest stars for the Toronto Argonauts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the bruising fullback was considered by many to be one of football’s all-time greats—Canadian or American.

Cookie was always outspoken and could be a cantankerous interview at the best of times. Living as a virtual recluse by the early 1980s, he was suspicious and paranoid of even innocuous questions from reporters. And he seemed to still have a chip on his shoulder about the decade he spent playing football in Canada. Although a perennial all-star, Cookie had a rocky relationship with most coaches and general managers, which eventually led to his ignominious departure from the Argonauts in 1962 for breaking curfew.

“Any place. Any brand of football,” insisted Larry Felser, a sportswriter who covered Cookie’s stateside career after he jumped to the fledgling American Football League. “Cookie was, pound for pound, the greatest all-around player I ever saw. He would be a superstar in today’s football.”

Globe and Mail (October 23, 1962)

Globe and Mail (October 23, 1962).

Already over six feet tall and 230 pounds as a teenager, Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist’s dominating play on the football field in high school earned over 100 scholarship offers from universities across the country. A professional $5,500 contract proved enticing, Cookie noted in his autobiography (co-written with Chris Garbarino) The Cookie That Did Not Crumble (2011). The contract offered a one-way ticket out of Brackenridge, Pennsylvania and away from the possibility of toiling in the steel mill like his father.

He dropped out of school and showed up at the Cleveland Browns training camp in 1954, but he was soon cut by Paul Brown, the famed coach, to placate NFL officials upset that the team had circumvented league policies by signing Cookie out of high school. No longer eligible to play at the college level, Cookie headed north to Canada. Never again would he trust an authority figure in the same way as he endeavoured to protect himself against being exploited again. He would ever after be suspicious of anyone showing interest in his football ability and sensitive to the racial dimensions of his treatment.

For the 1954 and 1955 seasons, Cookie played with the Sarnia Imperials and Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen of the Ontario Rugby Football Union, a four-team semi-pro league. Then he jumped to the next tier, joining the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats for two seasons. After a stint in Saskatchewan, he arrived in Toronto in 1959 as one of the marquee names in Canadian football.

He was undoubtedly talented enough to star in the NFL, having been offered a contract in 1957 to become Cleveland’s starting running back. But Cookie asserts in his autobiography the offer carried the condition that he break up with Gwen, his white girlfriend, to comply with an unwritten league rule (in place until 1965) barring interracial relationships. Cookie chose Gwen and a promising future in Canada. As consolation, that year the Browns drafted Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown.

(Left: Toronto Star [July 20, 1961].)

“There’s prejudice in all societies, but it’s rarely in the open in Canada,” Cookie would later recall to Sports Illustrated (December 14, 1964). The racism Cookie experienced in Canada took numerous forms. There was the team official in Sarnia who warned him against dating white women, or the woman in Kitchener-Waterloo who stopped him on the street to rub his skin “expecting his colour to come off and…amazed [that] it did not.”

On the field, racist attacks were more direct. Cookie received racist taunts from opponents and could count on being punched, kicked, or worse whenever he was on the bottom of a tackle. When he hadn’t seen who’d sucker-punched him in a September 1955 game against Balmy Beach, Cookie walked over to the Toronto club’s sideline “and challenged the entire team to a fight.”

An immense fullback, Cookie pounded the ball straight ahead, making little effort to sidestep or use his explosive speed to elude opponents. “[A]lthough I knew I could easily avoid many would-be tacklers,” Cookie reasoned in his autobiography, “I ran directly at them with all the force I could generate to teach them a lesson I did not want them to forget.” Now 250 pounds, he played with such ferocity that he once knocked a would-be tackler unconscious. Frequent comparisons between Cookie and Jim Brown annoyed him, because Cookie regarded his NFL contemporary as a one-dimensional runner. “I respected Brown, but I thought I was the more complete ball-player,” Cookie once said.

Able to run, catch passes, block, and tackle, Cookie played both directions on the gridiron—fullback on offence, as well as kicker, and everything from tackle to cornerback, and linebacker on defense—and was so dominant, the Globe and Mail‘s Scott Young once noted (October 1, 1977), that he “sometimes [made] it look as if he were playing all these positions at once.” His was a reckless style, in which he sustained as much physical punishment as he doled out, but it made him a fan favourite.

As a bonafide star, Cookie earned enough to live comfortably with his family, first in Port Credit and then in Rosedale. He was obsessed with securing his future beyond football and, as soon as he’d started making money on the field in Sarnia, he’d been trying to parlay his earnings into business success. At various points in his career he owned a barbecue and fried chicken restaurant, a cleaning company, an electrical supplier, a lighting company (whose trucks bore the slogan “Lookie, Lookie, Here Comes Cookie”), and later, a mineral exploration company and the Cookie Gilchrist Carrot Cake Company. But, because the young fullback ignored sound advice or trusted the wrong people, Cookie’s ventures never lasted long. Moreover, as forward-thinking as he was, Cookie never overcame the athlete’s common mentality that he could splurge now because there’d always be another contract coming.

Globe and Mail (July 5, 1961)

Globe and Mail (July 5, 1961).

Heading into the 1961 season, Cookie needed a lucrative contract to dig himself out of the financial hole he’d gotten into. In an era before agents, players dealt with management one-on-one and had to use whatever leverage they could. Showing up nearly an hour-and-a-half late for a meeting scheduled with Argonauts general manager Lew Hayman on July 4, 1961, Cookie declined to sign an offer that would’ve made him one of the highest-paid players in the league. As a perennial all-star who’d led the league in scoring for two straight seasons, he felt he deserved more. It wasn’t lost on Cookie that as a regular on offense and defense, he gave the Argos two players for the price of one. He demanded $60,000 for three years. Hayman agreed Cookie deserved a modest raise, but wouldn’t budge above $55,000.

The next day, Cookie informed the press that he would play out his option—a seldom-invoked clause in all CFL contracts that, in an era before formal free agency, allowed a player to earn his freedom from team control by playing for 90% of their previous salary. It was a risky gambit because, in an era before formal free agency, owners colluded to keep players beholden to their current team. But the creation of the American Football League south of the border gave Cookie leverage.

Commentators presented Cookie’s refusal as an impulsive decision that surprised even his lawyer and his wife. Though “a sterling football player,” sportswriter Milt Dunnell said of Cookie, he was “a somewhat unpredictable individual.” Given an opportunity by Scott Young, Cookie articulated the mature reasoning behind his seemingly outrageous contract demands:

It’s all very well to be a football star. I live good and I eat good, and I want to keep it that way. But look at it: Football is a game where you are giving your body, for a few dollars. After that goes, you have nothing. Even the laborer out there on the street, he might make a dollar an hour, but part of that dollar goes to help look after him when he hasn’t a job. Here we are, highly skilled professional men, and we have no security.

It was, Cookie asserted, simply a matter of business, not personal animosity.

(Right: Toronto Star [July 5, 1961].)

Believing Cookie was showing lack of commitment to the team, Hayman and head coach Lou Agase became determined to show that no player was irreplaceable. Instead of letting Cookie attend training camp, he was tasked with watching game film and, eventually, with merely checking in each afternoon at the team’s corporate offices. Gauging trade interest with other CFL clubs, Hayman found few takers willing or able to pay Cookie’s salary—the news of which was broadcast widely in an attempt to strengthen the Argos’ negotiating position. Football fans, however, just wanted a winning team and lined up firmly in Cookie’s corner.

Finally, on July 19, a day before the season’s first exhibition game, management caved and Cookie signed a then-unheard-of deal: a five-year contract worth nearly $100,000. The 26-year-old was confident that he’d not only achieved long-term security, but that he’d retire as an Argo. “It half-way secures my future,” Cookie told the Star (July 20, 1961). “I’m an Argonaut now until 1965, as long as I can make the ball club. As for two-way football, I’ll play any way the coach wants me to. I’ll even carry the water bucket if he says so.”

(Left: Toronto Star [August 10, 1978].)

He bristled, however, when late that season Agase relegated him to defensive duty only, in favour of a less talented but white teammate. Cookie saw it as racially motivated. He recalled how, over the course of his career, coaches had subbed in white players, giving them an opportunity to score after Cookie had done the hard work of getting the ball down the field. “Early in my career I did my best to break off long runs for touchdowns,” Cookie wrote in his autobiography, “as I feared that I would be pulled out of the game for a white player once we were within scoring distance.”

The inexperienced Agase was certainly not a strong coach, nor well-respected in the locker room. Despite having a backfield consisting of all-time greats Dick Shatto, Cookie Gilchrist, and Dave Mann, Agase insisted on lining up in the pass-oriented shotgun formation nearly every down that season. Moreover, Agase’s thorny personality strained relations with so many players that the season ended—after an anti-climactic playoff loss—with rumours of an impending player revolt.

Globe and Mail (July 19, 1961)

Globe and Mail (July 19, 1961).

Blame for the team’s underachievement, however, was directed at Cookie, whose reputation as a troublemaker and malcontent had followed him from Hamilton. There, in the midst of a season when the fullback was named the team MVP, the coach challenged Cookie to a fist fight when he refused to practice through injury. But afterward, it was Cookie who was suspended for insubordination. On another occasion, Tiger-Cats general manager Jake Gaudaur made it seem to the press that Cookie was AWOL from practice when, in fact, he’d been given permission to attend a funeral.

Teams had always looked the other way from Cookie’s hard partying as long as his performance never suffered on game day. But now, in 1961, he was rubbing off on his Argonaut teammates, and the club became known as much for their playboy antics in the Toronto nightlife as their underwhelming performances on the field. Cookie suspected that club management placed stories in the media to cultivate the image of a “big, bad Cookie” stirring up trouble. Cookie, however, thought any perceived discipline problem resulted from his insistence on loudly speaking his mind at a time when black men were expected to defer to authority. “The reason Cookie had this attitude,” the Telegram‘s Bob Frewin is quoted saying in Jay Teitel’s The Argo Bounce (Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1982), “was that he felt the only reason whites had any interest in him was because of what he could do on the football field. He was probably right.”

However, Cookie’s wife, Gwen, also noticed his late nights out, and his carousing put a strain on their marriage. He later admitted he was caught up in being Cookie the football superstar—enjoying the adulation of fans and women who chased him, and stewing over sports-page critics—and neglected his home life. They eventually divorced.

Toronto Star (July 27, 1962)

Toronto Star (July 27, 1962).

At the start of the 1962 season, in danger of being fired if he didn’t assert control of his locker, coach Agase introduced strict new rules of conduct, including pre-game and post-game curfews, and accompanying fines ranging from $25 to $1,000. It only took until the team’s pre-season trip to Edmonton before players challenged their coach’s authority. After the Argos were drubbed by the Eskimos on July 25, Cookie and his roommate, receiver Boyd Carter, were spotted by Agase leaving the team’s hotel at 3 a.m., well after the 12:30 a.m. curfew. Gilchrist and Carter were suspended indefinitely by Agase to serve as an example to their peers.

The two were to discuss the matter further back in Toronto on Sunday night. Everyone expected Gilchrist and Carter would be fined and reinstated. The meeting must not have gone well for Cookie because, by noon the next day (July 30), Hayman meted out harsher justice. Claiming that breaking curfew was far from Cookie’s first offence, he placed Cookie on waivers. Carter, on the other hand, paid a fine and rejoined the team—though he would be quietly released later that season.

“I feel the suspension for the curfew episode in Edmonton was unfair,” Cookie told the press. “We knew we were risking a fine, but if there had been a thorough check, there’d have been a lot of other guys caught too, not just us.” He added: “As far as I can see, there’s more to it than meets the eye. I can’t see his [Agase's] motive in suspending me. I just can’t comprehend this situation.” Cookie suspected that Hayman regretted his five-year contract and hoped that the Argos could get by without the fullback—knowing full well that no rival CFL club could afford to pick up Cookie’s contract off the waiver wire anyway.

Globe and Mail (July 31, 1962)

Globe and Mail (July 31, 1962).

Cookie’s firing—as a Star editorial termed it—was front-page news. Over the next few days details trickled out suggesting that Cookie’s deeper financial troubles had prompted his release as much as anything. Since his arrival in town in 1959, the Argonauts had, in various ways, assisted Cookie in his personal affairs. Club directors provided financial backing for a variety of his failed business schemes, and the team had already advanced him $5,000 of his 1962 salary. The team couldn’t even give Cookie advance notice of their decision because his telephone had been cut off since February over unpaid bills.

Hayman felt the off-field financial distractions were affecting Cookie’s on-field performance, telling the press: “We could straighten it out some way if it was just a question of dollars—I mean, if he’d attend to his knitting as far as the football club is concerned.” The general manager had simply had enough, choosing to keep coach Agase over Cookie. (The fullback, however, could enjoy a small measure of vindication when, just three games into a disastrous season, Agase was sacked.)

After nine seasons in Canada, Cookie signed with the Buffalo Bills, a struggling AFL franchise on the verge of relocating—inking a deal containing a clause that reimbursed the Argos their $5,000 advance. Cookie became the team’s first superstar and helped secure their future in upstate New York. (The NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, on the other hand, had been scared off, in part, because the league had not yet changed its stance on interracial marriage.)

In time, Cookie became convinced that he was run out of Toronto for being an outspoken black man demanding to be paid what he was worth. “Maybe sometimes people don’t like me because I’m headstrong,” he told Sports Illustrated a few years later. “But it boils down to the fact that they resented me in Canada because I wanted too much money.” On his way out of town, Cookie was particularly horrified by a cartoon depicting him, arms tied, being forced off a plank into shark-infested water at sword-point by Hayman, dressed as a pirate. Moreover, it must have grated Cookie that he’d been banished from the locker room when he invoked his option in 1961, but when the (white) star quarterback did it in 1962, there were no consequences. Hayman long enjoyed a reputation as a progressive—being one of the first CFL general managers to sign black players—but now seemed to let some athletes play by different rules.

Globe and Mail (August 6, 1962)

Globe and Mail (August 6, 1962).

In 1962, Cookie was named the AFL player of the year as he became the first AFL running back to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season. In 1964, he led the Bills to a championship title. He continued to fight racial intolerance, leading a players boycott to prevent the AFL All-Star game from being staged in New Orleans, a segregated city, in January 1965. But Cookie’s outspoken, confrontational style with authority figures eventually wore out his welcome, first in Buffalo, then in Denver and Miami before injuries brought on by his reckless playing style forced his ultimate retirement from professional football in 1967.

Despite limited opportunities for someone with only a Grade 11 education, for a little while retired life was good. Living on the west coast, he was making acting appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies, dating Playboy models, and partying at night. Liquor gave way to cocaine. “These new vices were my way of dulling the sharp pain of becoming an afterthought in the public eye,” he admitted in his autobiography. “I’d come to realize that once my athletic gifts were diminished, I was just another player for the owners to throw on the trash heap.”

At his lowest, after his Playmate girlfriend left him, Cookie contemplated suicide. He became determined to put himself back together, and to help other former athletes confronting the same difficulties out of the limelight—like Baltimore great Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who died of a heroin overdose; or Cleveland Hall of Famer Len Ford, who died in a rundown motel after years of alcohol abuse.

In the early 1970s, Cookie focused all his energies into the United Athletes Coalition of America (UACA), a non-profit organization he’d established. Taking a proactive approach to the long-term well-being of retired athletes, the UACA planned to offer private therapy services and substance abuse counselling to players past and present, financial advisory services, and other initiatives—none of which were yet provided through league-specific players unions.

(Right: Toronto Star [February 1, 1975].)

“I want to make a greater contribution than I did as a player,” Cookie explained in media interviews. But it proved difficult to convince the public that the plight of retired athletes was an important issue to address. In some corners, the UACA and Cookie’s efforts were openly mocked. Even active athletes, who showed great interest in one day accessing the UACA’s services, balked at contributing financially.

Used to ploughing through opposition as he had on the gridiron, Cookie proved weak at consensus-building. Unable to escape his “big, bad Cookie” reputation as a troublemaker with prospective but hesitant funders, Cookie sometimes ended up reinforcing his critics’ worst expectations. Faced with resistance—even condescension—at one meeting with Canadian government officials, Cookie lashed out verbally, cursing at them as he left the room.

In February 1975, Cookie staged a concert fundraiser for the UACA at Maple Leaf Gardens featuring Marvin Gaye, the Tavares Brothers, and Ike and Tina Turner—the latter no-showing at the last minute. Though rated as “one of the best concerts of the winter season” by critics, the show was a debacle. Instead of raising upwards of $150,000 as planned, Cookie was taken advantage of by Harold Ballard, arena owner and convicted fraudster. At the last minute, Ballard changed the terms of the contract with Cookie, then threatened to tie up the UACA—already on the verge of folding—in litigation for years if Cookie didn’t knuckle under. He didn’t see a cent of the concert revenue, he claimed in his autobiography.

“I could no longer fight the public’s perception that I was in the wrong, no matter what the situation,” he wrote. “This would be the start of a long, self-imposed exile where I spent my time reflecting on my choices in life.” Cookie retreated into seclusion, growing suspicious of and increasingly short-tempered with journalists wanting reminisces for puff pieces, and team officials inviting him to special events. “I couldn’t tell if I was dealing with a crackpot or a genius, or something in-between,” Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News recalled of Cookie’s tendency to rant on topics ranging from “true” black history, the Bible, and astrology in such interviews.

On July 27, 1983, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame announced Cookie had refused induction. “‘It’s a very confusing thing,” managing director Bill McBride said. “We have never before had a player who said he did not want to be a member of the hall. The others are always gracious and happy about it.” Three times CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur, as head of the selection committee, telephoned Cookie, and three times the former star had politely declined.

(Left: Toronto Star [July 27, 1983].)

“His objections were not specific,” Gaudaur told reporters. “He seemed unclear on just what the Hall of Fame was and asked a lot of questions about the reception and dinner.” In fact, as the player outlined years later in his autobiography, Cookie had asked Gaudaur for additional information regarding the composition of the selection committee, its process, and the criteria applied—playing ability and contribution to the sport, as well as character and sportsmanship. He couldn’t shake the chip from his shoulder over what he regarded as his exploitation and ill-treatment at the hands of CFL officials, including Jake Gaudaur. After having their share of disputes, Cookie and Gaudaur’s relationship reached its nadir in 1957 when the general manager reneged on a gentleman’s agreement of a $500 bonus for Cookie if the Tiger-Cats won the Grey Cup, resulting in the spendthrift player’s furniture being repossessed. Bitterness lingered, too, over the way he’d been run out of town by the Argos’ Hayman.

“I wanted to know who was sitting in judgment of my character,” he said. “Was the selection committee made up of those who had mistreated me and other players of color? Were these people the gatekeepers of quality character and sportsmanship?” Cookie felt that if he “accepted the honor from those who had mistreated [him], [he] would be condoning what happened in the past.”

Cookie merely requested to Gaudaur that no announcement be made of his decision until he’d crafted a statement outlining his reasons—that he bore no bitterness to Canadian fans—and his allegations of racism and unfair treatment in a constructive fashion. When the Globe and Mail‘s Paul Patton contacted him, after McBride and Gaudaur’s public statements, Cookie was enraged. But the reclusive athlete didn’t take advantage of the platform to present his viewpoint. Instead, with his standard haranguing tone, he offered a rambling exposition on racism and the unfair treatment of CFL players. Predictably, the resulting headline read: “Cookie bitter about Canada.”

(Right: Globe and Mail [July 28, 1983].)

After Cookie was diagnosed with throat cancer, his stance softened when the Canadian Football Hall of Fame again made overtures in 2007. Though he’d come to see the Hall as a means of securing his legacy, Cookie’s induction fell apart again, this time over Cookie’s insistence that he be able to raise money for charity by selling merchandise in the gift shop. Hall officials rightly objected to an inductee attaching special conditions to their induction. After Cookie’s death, his family made inquiries to the Hall but were informed that Hall officials considered, according to correspondence quoted in The Cookie That Did Not Crumble, that “the ‘matter’ is now closed and will not be looked at again.”

Late in life, he struck an unlikely friendship with Chris Garbarino, a retired police officer and football fan, with rambling but friendly telephone conversations leading to the two co-writing Cookie’s autobiography. Though Cookie could recall people and incidents from decades ago, Garbarino noted, he sometimes forgot the content of conversation just a day earlier, and the ex-player worried he was suffering Alzheimer’s. Analysis of Cookie’s brain tissue, after he died in January 2011, showed he had suffered stage IV Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the most advanced form of the progressive degenerative disease linked with sports-related head trauma.

The hard-nosed, straight-ahead playing style that made him one of the all-time greats—always fighting through tackles for an extra yard—had carried an exorbitant cost. Cookie would’ve been showing symptoms of the disease—which range from memory loss, impulse control, and paranoia to depression and dementia—as early as 1971, “shed[ding] some light on Cookie’s sometimes-erratic behavior” later in life, as Garbarino suggests in The Cookie That Did Not Crumble.

Sources consulted: Cookie Gilchrist and Chris Garbarino, The Cookie That Did Not Crumble (2011); Jay Teitel, The Argo Bounce (Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1982); and articles from the Globe and Mail (June 23, July 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 18, 19 & 20, and August 16, 1961; July 25, 27, 28 & 31, August 2, 3, 6 & 25, September 14, October 5 & 23, and December 3, 10 & 12, 1962; July 13, 1974; February 6 & 7, and March 22, 1975; October 1, 1977; August 30, 1980; July 27 & 28 1983; November 28, 1987; October 16, 1984; and December 17, 1991); Jet (February 6, 1975); Miami News (October 27, 1977); Ottawa Sun (January 24, 2010); Toronto Star (June 7, and July 3, 5, 6, 15, 17, 18, 19 & 20, 1961; July 25, 26, 27, 30 & 31, August 2, November 7, and December 4 & 13, 1962; April 6, and November 9, 1974; February 7 and March 21, 1975; August 10 & 31, October 17, 1978; November 20, 1980; December 1, 1982; July 27 & 31, 1983; August 23, 1989; and January 11, 2011).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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