An Original In Every Sense

Pro football legend, civil rights hero, sports labor icon, and original Buffalo Bill Cookie Gilchrist passed away the other day at 75 after a long bout with cancer.  I wanted to pass along two beautifully written and easily readable obituaries from two rather disparate sources: sportswriter Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News, and Dave Zirin of the liberal political magazine The Nation.  They are both worthy in their own right, but combined portray a picture of a truly original character, showing Gilchrist’s role as an originator and unique talent on the football field, an unapologetic civil rights organizer off it, perhaps the first pro football player to truly fight for player’s rights, and perhaps the first profoundly self-promoting running back, not to mention the first player to decline induction into a football hall of fame.  Left unmentioned are his status as an original member of the Canadian Football League, the American Football League, and the Buffalo Bills.

The picture painted is of a complicated, perhaps curmudgeonly, man with a sharp mind, a sharper tongue, an uncompromising willingness to stand up for what he believed in, even if at times what he believed in most was himself and even if that meant holding onto a petty grudge for decades.  As interesting and remarkable as it was to read of Gilchrist’s feats (many of which I was already aware of), it was this bit from Sullivan’s piece that seemed most likely to provide a succinct and apt description of the man:

It was true what he said in the old SI piece. He never quite got his resentments out of his system. “The division between Ralph Wilson and myself is not going to be resolved,” he said in our ’05 interview. “What is he, 87? I think he’ll be 87 on October the 17th, if I’m not mistaken.”

He had Wilson’s age and birthday exactly. That’s the sort of memory Gilchrist had. He would call the children of friends on their birthdays.  When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, he reached out to friends and said he was happy just to be alive.

At the time, the “division” between Gilchrist and Wilson was 40 years in the past.  In a phone call the week before he died, that “division” was finally resolved.

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