When fans think of running backs that have played for the Denver Broncos over the years, the conversation usually begins with Hall-of-Famer Floyd Little. Let’s be honest, the 1960s Denver Broncos didn’t have much to celebrate, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
In a time before free agency, former Broncos coach Mac Speedie quietly assembled an all-star backfield following the fallout of the boycott of the 1964 AFL All Star Game (played in January 1965). Because of gross mistreatment of African American athletes leading up to the game in New Orleans, the decision was made not to play in a city that had been so unwelcoming. The game was later played in Houston, but team owners weren’t happy with players standing up for what was right.
Within a handful of weeks, vocal voices that drove the boycott -Cookie Gilchrist of the Buffalo Bills and Abner Haynes of the Kansas City Chiefs - found themselves traded to the Denver Broncos.
If you were trying to assemble a backfield of the best running backs the AFL had to offer in the mid-1960s, fans at the time would look no further than Gilchrist and Haynes. Gilchrist was a three-time AFL All Star, the 1962 AFL MVP, and held the rushing titles from 1962 and 1964, and was the touchdown leader from 1962-1964 (Haynes and Gilchrist tied for most in 1962 with 13). Haynes had been a 4-time AFL All Star, 1960 AFL Rookie of the Year, 1960 AFL MVP, 3-time rushing touchdowns leader, and was the 1960 rushing yards leader.
To have these extremely productive running backs, both coming off All Star years, suddenly get traded to what was one of the least-successful franchises in the AFL, was unheard of. Many believe that their trades were punitive moves as a direct result of their participation in the AFL boycott.
Cookie and Abner only shared a backfield for the 1965 season, but it was the most productive one any Broncos running back duo had experienced up until that time. Both were featured in all 14 games played that season, with Gilchrist starting in all of them. Haynes had 41 rushing attempts for 144-yards while Gilchrist rang up 954-yards on 252 attempts. They totaled 9 rushing touchdowns and, unfortunately, 13 fumbles between the two of them.
For Abner Haynes, the pairing was a dream come true - as the 83-year-old told us in an interview on our most recent Something Something Broncos’ podcast.
We were like two brothers. He was the fullback I was the running back. He was just a rugged guy, tough guy. Also a street fighter. In the same backfield, you had your hands full with Cookie Gilchrist and Abner Haynes, because you didn’t know if you were going to get rough and tough, or speed.
Cookie Gilchrist would play the 1966 season with the Miami Dolphins and return to Denver for the 1967 season. Abner Haynes played both the 1965 and 1966 seasons with Denver before moving on to Miami in 1967. Gilchrist was elected to the Bills Wall of Fame in 2017. Haynes was elected to the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1991 and had his number retired by the team. Both players were named to the All AFL Team.
Although the one-two punch of Gilchrist and Haynes wasn’t what Mac Speedie had hoped it would be, it was the most productive in team history at the time. Here were two amazing athletes who stood up together for what was right in New Orleans and, together, they ran the rock for the Denver Broncos.
If you want to hear more about Abner Haynes, Cookie Gilchrist, or the 1965 All Star Game boycott, check out the interview Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann and I conducted with Abner earlier this week as part of our weekly Something Something Broncos podcast.