OPINION: The year that lucky Sarnians got to cheer on one tough Cookie

Cookie Gilchrist, second from right, seen here with Sarnia Imperial teammates at Norm Perry Park, was one of the best two-way players in the history of the CFL and played six seasons in the American Football League. Submitted Photo

James R. Wallen

A few years back, I worked on a film about Cookie Gilchrist who played one season with the Sarnia Imperials in 1954 before achieving fame – some might say “notoriety” – in the CFL and the American Football League (now part of the NFL.)

Although Cookie doesn’t figure in my film Gridiron Underground, screening Oct 23rd at the newly renovated Sarnia Library Theatre, his spirit pervades the film.

As a high school football player in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist received more than 100 scholarship offers from U.S. colleges. When the Cleveland Browns offered the 19-year-old a contract for more money than his family had ever seen, he set aside his dreams of higher education and signed.

Cookie never saw that money. The Pittsburgh Steelers protested Cleveland’s signing of a high schooler – especially one living under their noses – and the NFL decided to make an example of Cookie, banning him for four years. And because he had signed a professional contract – though he never received a dime – Cookie was ruled ineligible for a college scholarship. A high price to pay for a young black man with dreams of greatness.

That’s how Cookie Gilchrist found himself in Sarnia in 1954 playing for the Sarnia Imperials. The gridiron was a good place for a man with a chip on his shoulder. Cookie never bothered to dodge his opponents on the football field. He ran over them. Soon the cries began ringing out from the Imperials’ faithful every time Cookie touched the ball.

Lookee, lookee, here comes Cookie!

Cookie wasn’t only a punishing runner, he was a lethal linebacker and his kickoffs routinely sailed through the end zone. His teammates were in awe of his physique and talent, none more so than the late Jack “Red” McKelvie who stood all of five feet eight inches tall.

“Anytime I got hit he’d come up, “Who did it?” I’d say, “Nobody, Cook.” I didn’t want him to get thrown out of the game. He was 80% of our team.”

The Imperials fell short in their quest for the Ontario Rugby Football Union championship that season, but Cookie won the Jim Shanks Memorial Trophy that went to the most valuable player on the Imperials. The next year, an American coach came in and brought a backfield that “couldn’t carry Cookie’s shoes” according to McKelvie. So Cookie signed on with the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen.

“They kicked the hell out of us every time they played us,” recalled McKelvie. “And Cookie told me, ‘I’m sorry to say, Red, but I enjoy it.”

His gripe was with management, not the fans, never the fans, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his long and chequered career.

“The people of Sarnia really accepted him,” remembered McKelvie, who was as protective of Cookie off the field as Cookie had been of him on the field. “He said, ‘I’m a black man, and those white guys out there are cheering for me.’”

Cookie Gilchrist was arguably football’s first modern superstar, a massive and chiseled Adonis, outspoken on race issues and demanding in negotiations. And for one magical season, Sarnians were able to cheer one of the greatest running backs in the history of the game.

James R. Wallen is a local writer and filmmaker. His film Gridiron Underground, with original music by local musician Jim Chevalier, is a celebration of African-American football players who came north to Canada from the 1940’s to the present day. It is being screened at the Sarnia Library Theatre, Oct. 23rd at 7 p.m. Tickets at Blackwater Coffee Co., The Book Keeper, and at the door.