Last Monday, I unveiled my latest project for 3DownNation, a list of the top ten CFL feuds. Over the remaining week, I’ll countdown the five nastiest fights and most contentious disagreements in the history of the league.
Check out our previous posts below:
We continue today with the fifth-worst CFL feud of all-time.
Number Five: Cookie Gilchrist vs the CFL Establishment
Let’s start with one simple fact: Cookie Gilchrist is the best football player that you’ve never heard of.
Standing at six-foot-three and 251-pounds, he first dominated the ORFU, then the CFL, and finally the AFL as a freight train of a fullback, an accurate kicker, and a ferocious defensive player. Those who watched him contend that had he played his entire career in the NFL, he would have been considered a mere step behind Jim Brown on the list of most-feared football rushers.
He was equally impactful in the world of civil rights. Gilchrist fought passionately for players to be paid their worth in an era when free agency didn’t exist and athletes had no leverage. He was one of the most vocal early Black athletes, leading a boycott of the 1964 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans over the city’s continued segregation.
He campaigned for post-career support for athletes on both sides of the border, holding a Marvin Gaye charity concert in Toronto. If you watch footage of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, you’ll see the five-time CFL All-Star near the front of the procession, arm-in-arm with Diana Ross.
Ultimately, that is what the core of this feud is about. Gilchrist, at nearly every stop of his career, believed he was underpaid, disrespected, and mistreated, in large part because of his race. Therefore, he feuded with nearly every person in authority he encountered in the CFL. Gilchrist basically took on the whole damn league.
“People think I’m an oddball because I’m a Negro who speaks up,” Gilchrist once said. “But I have a lot on my mind. It’s an internal disease, and it’ll eat me alive if I don’t get it out of my system what I think about things.”
Gilchrist’s whole career was built on distrust for good reason. As a high school sensation, he was noticed by Paul Brown and signed by Cleveland. Unfortunately, he was under the NFL’s age limit, which meant he was booted from the league and deemed ineligible for college football. That was how a generational 19-year-old American found himself playing for the Sarnia Imperial in 1954 and then the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in 1955.
His CFL conflicts started when he jumped to the Tiger-Cats in 1956. Gilchrist was an instant star but was frequently fined and suspended for his defiance of team rules. On one memorable occasion, he attempted to engage coach Jim Trimble in a fistfight.
“Chester is a wonderful football player,” Trimble said after one Gilchrist outburst. “But football is a team game and I can’t mould my organization to fit one individual.”
Gilchrist was routinely angry about how his contract was being handled.
“I played with them in 1956 for $4,800. I made the all-star team and they offered me a $700 raise the next year,” Gilchrist later explained. “I wanted more. Why, some of their imports were paying more in income tax than I got in salary.”
He eventually signed for a $7,000 dollar base salary plus significant bonuses and led Hamilton to a Grey Cup victory. But he alleged that general manager Jake Gaudaur reneged on bonuses he was due and asked him to take a pay cut after two consecutive team MVP awards. The situation became untenable and Gaudaur sold his rights to Saskatchewan for just $5,000. Shortly afterwards a piece was published in the Toronto Star Weekly in which the Ticats detailed their multitude of grievances and the future commissioner of the league openly called Gilchrist a “dumb athlete.”
“Those stories look mighty good for Jim Trimble and some of the other brass, but they tell only one side,” Gilchrist responded in the Regina press. “I could throw in a rebuttal, but I’ll just leave it and say this: if they had treated me the way they treated most of the other players, I’d still be there playing football for them.”
“If the Hamilton club had treated me with kindness, I’d have played for it for the rest of my life for peanuts.”
Gilchrist sued the newspaper for defamation over the article and received a settlement and an apology in print.
“Canadian newspapers are full of Cookie Gilchrist stories and all are derogatory,” he said in 1983. “I have all the clippings in a scrap book, and if you read those stories, you wouldn’t think that I was worthy of the Hall of Fame.”
Gilchrist was productive in Saskatchewan but he pushed his way out of the city after one season so he could be closer to business interests in Toronto. The Roughriders flipped him to the Argos for a tidy profit.
In Toronto, the issues would be as pronounced as in Hamilton. Gilchrist was utilized primarily in a blocking role — in which he excelled — but believed coach Lou Agase was using him to set up scoring chances for white players. He also continued to believe that premier performance should be rewarded with premier pay, premier transport, and premier treatment.
“Cookie gets some funny ideas, you know,” general manager Lew Hayman once said.
In 1961, Gilchrist wanted a hefty pay raise. He held out of training camp and threatened to play out his option year at a reduced salary so he could start an NFL bidding war. The offer the Argos put on the table was massive and CFLPA founder John Agro described it as one of the best he’d ever seen.
Gilchrist turned it down and kept pushing for more money. The Argos were in a corner because of Gilchrist’s contrarian reputation. No team would even consider a trade for the controversial star. Offers were sent to every team in the league and only two responded. One was a simple rejection but the other, from B.C. Lions president Herb Cappozie, was more illustrative.
“No lookie for Cookie,” he wrote, playing on the famous catch phrase of “Lookie, lookie, here comes Cookie.”
Eventually, after two weeks of tension, Gilchrist signed for $95,000 over five years plus an option. It was a massive contract for the time and illustrative of one of the most complex aspects of Gilchrist’s history.
While it’s obvious that Gilchrist faced racial discrimination as a Black player in the 1950s and 60s, he also claimed mistreatment at times when he was among the most well-compensated players in the sport and protested slights that sometimes had little to do with him. He once refused team-supplied air travel when it was a twin-engine charter flight over the Rockies. How does one separate the racism he faced from the parts of his personality that were simply eclectic? It’s a difficult tightrope to walk.
In the 1962 pre-season, Gilchrist was caught breaking curfew in Edmonton. It was not the first issue that Toronto had dealt with behind the scenes and Lew Hayman cut his star from the team. No other club would even touch the $350 waiver fee to pick him up and he left Canada.
Gilchrist was equally divisive in the AFL but he was not done feuding in Canada. It is this second chapter that really forces Gilchrist into the greatest feuds conversation, despite the fact that he had such a wide variety of opponents. He would make a statement based on past grievances that no other player in league history would have dreamed of attempting.
In 1983, the fullback was offered enshrinement in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame on the condition that he played nice with his old enemy, commissioner Gaudaur. The leaders of the league and the Hall were still many of the people Gilchrist felt discriminated by during his career. They were the white coaches and managers who had cut him, bad mouthed him in the press, and undermined, in his eyes, his business and monetary success on and off the field.
Gilchrist said he’d take the Gaudaur condition under advisement. He was told that wasn’t good enough. He refused to guarantee his cordiality with the league’s boss and is therefore the only player in CFL history to refuse a bust in the Hall of Fame. To this day, you will not find his name among the list of gridiron greats honoured at Tim Hortons Field.
“I dealt with racism when I was in Canada. I was totally exploited. I was left with nothing, with no dignity. I was treated like an animal,” Gilchrist told newspapers at the time.
That point was later elaborated on in his posthumous biography.
“I loved the Canadian people; especially the fans who’d watched me play in the ORFU and CFL. But I felt that several of the CFL elite had taken advantage of me at the height of my career. I felt that if I accepted the honour from those who mistreated me, I would be condoning what happened in the past.
“In addition to the poor treatment I received from several coaches and owners off the field, all of the times I was punched, kicked or cursed on the field just because of the colour of my skin remained a vivid memory. I thought that by declining the honor I could bring new light to what had happened to me and other players of colour. At least the issue would spur on serious dialogue about player treatment now and in the past.”
Frankly, it’s a discussion we have never truly engaged in.
Shortly before his death, Gilchrist was vocal in his disdain for what he considered a league lie that he had simply refused enshrinement outright.
“Adolf Hitler said the truth when he said the bigger the lie, the more people believe it,” he wrote to the Ottawa Sun’s Earl McRae in 2010. “What is my crime? I never robbed, raped, stolen, lied, cheated, sold drugs, beat my wife or children. Why did the country treat me as a persona non grata from 1956 to 2010?”
It is worth noting that Gilchrist took a similar stance when offered a place on the Buffalo Bills’ Wall of Fame, refusing enshrinement unless he was paid to appear. The honour was eventually bestowed posthumously.
After his death from cancer, Gilchrist’s brain was studied and he was found to have stage IV CTE, the most aggressive form of the disease.
Gilchrist’s legacy, and this feud, are complex to interpret. It’s influenced by race, money, personality, and the effects of head trauma. Gilchrist was human. He was vocal and passionate about equality, yet sometimes petty, aggressive, and motivated by money. Those two sides hold a difficult balance in this story.
Source materials are inevitably biased towards the views of his white coaches and managers, while the evidence suggests Gilchrist, especially after retirement, likely suffered cognitive impairment and irritability from repeated blows to the head that influenced his own views on the situation. The truth, like in most things, is no doubt somewhere in the murkiness of the middle.
This is without a doubt the most unusual feud I have included given how wide the spray of issues and resentment really was. I stand by its inclusion for one reason: any man who took on almost an entire league, then stood his ground until he was denied the immortalization he deserved, has earned a spot on this list of greatest CFL feuds.