This is the anniversary of 50 years of Denver Broncos football, as the American Football League began play in the 1960 season and will be celebrated in various ways throughout the year.
I thought one of the things that might be a little bit of fun and nostalgia on our web site would be to blog about some of the great memories and legendary characters who were a part of the Broncos and the AFL in those early years.
The AFL, by the way, lasted longer than any other “second” football league in history and was the only one to have all of its franchises absorbed into the National Football League.
You will find plenty of fans and officials who were a part of the AFL who consider it an indelible part of their lives.
One of the great characters in the AFL was Cookie Gilchrist. The name perhaps evokes a small kick returner or undersized cornerback, but don’t be fooled by the moniker “Cookie.”
There was nothing soft about Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist.
He was a young person who did his own thinking and developed a love for sweets as a child–this earned him the nickname “Cookie” but hard work earned him a body that very few Americans, athlete or not, had in the 1960′s.
He was a Pennsylvania native who grew up and grew large playing football, and he looked around and realized that carrying a ball was a more attractive way of making a living than coal mining.
Right after graduating from Brack Union High School in Brackenridge, PA, Gilchrist took his 6-3, 251 pound frame to the Canadian Football League, where he became a legend to rival Bigfoot.
He played and starred at fullback, linebacker, and was the placekicker as well. But again, he liked to do his own thinking, and a dispute with management in Toronto led him back home.
In 1962 he migrated back to the United States to play for the Buffalo Bills, where he led the AFL in rushing and touchdowns with 1,096 yards and 13 scores in his first year back. He led the league again with 981 yards in 1964, and the Bills were AFL champions in his time there. The bruising fullback was the first AFL rusher to gain 1,000 yards.
He was big, powerful, and fast–you had to see him to appreciate him, truly. Against the Jets in 1963 he virtually battered them silly in rushing for 243 yards in a single game. Again, he was a fullback, not a halfback, leading to the interesting thought that perhaps the most dominant running backs in each league in the 1960′s both played fullback, Gilchrist and the incomparable Jim Brown.
After a dispute with coach Lou Saban he was traded to Denver for fullback Billy Joe in 1965–Billy Joe had worn uniform number 3 for Denver, and Cookie said he wanted to be one better than Joe, so the Broncos’ fullback wore number 2 in 1965, leading the AFL in carries with 252 and rushing for 954 yards while earning a spot on the AFL All-Star team.
He had arrived at the Broncos’ training camp in Golden, Colorado driving a gold Cadillac — Cookie was hard to miss, by all accounts a charming personality and a physical specimen of the highest order.
Word has it from newspapers articles from the time that the Broncos indicated to him they were very happy that he could also be the placekicker, and Cookie said no problem, as long as he had two contracts–one to play fullback and one to kick. He had long ago figured out that the reason “professional” football had that label was because you got paid to play. And few business people were as shrewd as Gilchrist.
But the Broncos were a frugal team (to be very kind), and they politely declined his offer and kept him at fullback, wher he made defensive backs wince. I can remember seeing defensive backs actually backpedal when he headed toward them in the open field–and dodging tacklers was not his style. Although very fast, he was one of the most punishing runners in football history.
However, that salary dispute lingered on, and after the season Cookie announced his retirement. It was short lived, however.
He went to Miami for the 1966 season and then returned to Denver very briefly in 1967 to close out his great career–he was only 32, but had been playing professionally since 18 and thus had lugged a lot of carries and defensive backs. He had just 10 carries for the 1967 Broncos, who were coached by Lou Saban, who had Cookie for those championship years in Buffalo. But it was obvious that time had passed, and his career ended in Denver, where, by the way, he wore the more conventional number 30 in his second go-round in the Mile High City.
Overall, he scored 43 touchdowns in the AFL, and one could easily argue this was after his prime seasons had been spent in Canada.
Although not a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he is listed as one of the 300 greatest players ever by The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League.