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Joe Gilliam represented much more than ‘Pittsburgh’s Black Quarterback’

Tennessee State product beat out Terry Bradshaw with Steelers to become first African-American to start an opening-day game in the NFL

As trucks delivered the latest edition of Sports Illustrated to Nashville, Tennessee, newsstands in 1974 — and as word spread about who was on the cover — the issue began to disappear just as quickly as it was displayed.

Locally, people swelled with pride seeing an action shot of Nashville’s own Joe Gilliam, surrounded by the title “Pittsburgh’s Black Quarterback.”

“I’ll never forget when that issue came out,” said Howard Gentry, a high school and college teammate of Gilliam’s. “That was one of us on the cover. That was exciting.”

One could say that cover headline was a bit understated, as Gilliam represented more than Pittsburgh’s Black Quarterback.

Gilliam was an 11th-round pick from Tennessee State, where he played under legendary coach John Merritt.

Gilliam earned the Steelers’ 1974 starting position by beating out future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.

And Gilliam’s opening against the Baltimore Colts was historic: He was the first black quarterback to start an opening-day game in the NFL (James Harris started the opening day game in 1969 for the Buffalo Bills, but that was in the AFL).

Gilliam had all the qualities to be a star. He was charismatic, he was fearless, and he possessed a cannon of an arm.

“He was a small, slender fella,” said Frank Lewis, who caught one of the two touchdown passes that Gilliam threw in that decisive 30-0 opening-day win over the Baltimore Colts. “But he had that rifle. There was no doubt in my mind that he would go on to have a great career.”

Despite winning two Super Bowl rings, that never happened. Gilliam would play in just 20 games over four NFL seasons in Pittsburgh, making seven starts. He lost his starting job to Bradshaw despite going 4-1-1 in his first six games of a dysfunctional Pittsburgh season (coach Chuck Noll started three different quarterbacks that season) that somehow ended with the Steelers’ first Super Bowl title.

Gilliam claimed he began using drugs after losing his starting position, and that substance abuse led to a downward spiral that featured multiple arrests and jail time.

He had multiple opportunities (the New Orleans Saints signed Gilliam twice but cut him both times, and he played a couple of years in the USFL), but he never was able to return to the NFL.

Yet, through all of those problems, it was clear that Gilliam was revered when more than 600 people showed up to pay respects to him after his Christmas Day 2000 death in Nashville from a cocaine overdose, just four days shy of his 50th birthday.

“Joe made it all possible for every one of us black quarterbacks,” 1988 Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams said after the service. “The struggles he went through eased the struggles we had to endure.

“That’s why I had to be here today,” added Williams, who attended the service along with Steve McNair, Kordell Stewart, Franco Harris and many of Gilliam’s teammates from the Steelers. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable with myself had I not come here to pay respect to Joe for all he did to help the rest of us.”

Gilliam comes from a family of football royalty.

His uncle, Frank Gilliam, was an All-American at Iowa who became a longtime scout for the Minnesota Vikings after playing three seasons in the CFL.

His father, the late Joe Gilliam Sr., was a coach at Jackson State and Kentucky State before arriving at Tennessee State in 1963.

So Gilliam grew up around sports. He played little league baseball, did gymnastics and was a good swimmer.

But football was his sport, and he stayed close to the game — and his dad — by serving as the team’s mascot when his father was at Jackson State. That’s how he met Gentry, who was the mascot at Tennessee State (then Tennessee A&I), where his dad coached.

“We were rivals, enemies and were not friendly at all with each other,” Gentry said, laughing. “Then his dad came over to Tennessee State to meet with our coaches. We were both in the hallway while our dads were in a football meeting, and he bought a Baby Ruth from a candy machine, walked over and asked if I wanted half. He told me, ‘We might as well be friends.’ ”

That friendship solidified years later when Gilliam’s dad took the job as defensive coordinator at Tennessee State. Gilliam became a fixture at practices and eventually learned the team’s offensive playbook before he even arrived at Nashville’s Pearl High School.

If you lived in Nashville and encountered Gilliam during his high school years, there’s a chance you caught a pass from him.

“You never saw him without a football in his hand,” Gentry said. “If you were walking around town and saw Joey, all you had to do was break out into a pass pattern and he’d throw the ball to you.”

Tragedy hit the family in 1967 when Gilliam’s older sister, Sonia, committed suicide on the campus of Tennessee State, where she was a drum majorette. Gilliam was told after being pulled from a Pearl High School practice, and he disappeared from practice for a few days.

“We’re playing an away game on Friday, the day of the funeral, and are getting beat pretty bad when a car pulls up just after halftime,” Gentry said. “Joey jumps out of the car with his jersey and shoulder pads in his hand. He comes into the game and throws a touchdown on his first pass. We had a great comeback but lost the game by one, and afterwards Joey broke down.”

After high school Gilliam attended Tennessee State on a football scholarship, and from the time he stepped into the starting lineup his junior season he led the team to a 22-1 record and consecutive wins in the Grantland Rice Bowl. Playing under a coach, Merritt, who bestowed legendary nicknames on players such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Joe “747” Adams, Gilliam was bestowed one of his own: Joe “Jefferson Street” Gilliam.

“Someone had given Joe Namath the nickname ‘Broadway,’ ” Gentry said. “We had our own Joe, and since Jefferson Street ran through the black community in Nashville, that’s the name Coach Merritt gave him.”

During the 1972 draft, Gilliam was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 11th round with the 273rd pick overall. In an era where black college quarterbacks were often converted to other positions, the Steelers allowed Gilliam to stay true to his roots.

Gilliam mostly sat behind Bradshaw that first year, playing briefly in two games. He made one start in five appearances his second season, completing 20 0f 60 passes for 331 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions.

The strike that opened the 1974 NFL season created an opportunity for Gilliam, who crossed the picket line and started all six exhibition games for the Steelers. When the season began, Gilliam was named the team’s starter for the season opener.

Being the first black opening-day starter in the NFL was historic, but you would have never known it by asking the Pittsburgh players at the time.

“In the locker room, we really didn’t care,” said Lewis, a 1971 first-round pick out of Grambling who was Pittsburgh’s top receiver in 1974 as the team was breaking in rookies Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. “It wasn’t a matter of who was going to be the quarterback. It was a matter of who was ready to step in and play in that particular week.”

There was no divided locker room, as even Bradshaw admitted the better man won the job, saying years later in an interview with Playboy that “Joe Gilliam had a phenomenal preseason; he won the starting job and I lost it.”

Gilliam’s take on the quarterback competition? Here’s what he said in a 2000 interview with Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel: “I had never seen a white guy — anybody — throw like Terry Bradshaw. And I bet he had never seen a black guy who could throw and play like I could.”

When Gilliam played, Pittsburgh’s offense was wide-open — a radical change for a team used to running the ball a lot with Harris and Rocky Bleier.

That drastic shift in offense might have been too much for some fans, as Gilliam said he began to get so much hate mail that he had to move his wife and daughter back to Nashville. Gilliam told Real Sports: “I did not understand the ramifications of what was, and what I was doing, and what I was representing of being the first.”

The day the Steelers improved to 4-1-1 with a 20-16 win over the Cleveland Browns would be Gilliam’s last NFL start. He threw for just 78 yards, completing 5 of 18 passes.

Gilliam claims the benching led him to drugs. He did earn two rings as the Steelers won back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975, which was his last season.

He had tryouts with the Saints and was cut twice. He was arrested multiple times on drug charges and played on several semipro teams and the USFL.

Bob Costas caught up with Gilliam for a segment that aired during the 1996 Super Bowl. At the time, Gilliam was homeless in Nashville and claimed he had been off drugs “for a while.”

Despite his troubled state, Gilliam still boasted about his football skills, comparing them to Bradshaw’s: “Yeah, he won four Super Bowls. And he was the quarterback. But wasn’t any better than me. I know it. He knows it.”

In May 2000, Gentry had a scheduled work trip from Nashville to Louisville (where he was hosting a sports radio show on the grounds of the Kentucky Derby) and asked his best friend, Gilliam, to come along.

Gilliam at first agreed. But when Gentry went to pick him up, he changed his mind. “He said it was too hot, that his chest was hurting and he was coughing a lot,” Gentry recalled. “He said he didn’t feel good. But I made him go.”

Gilliam complained during the four-hour drive. But once they arrived at Churchill Downs and began broadcasting, Gilliam, the first guest, began to perk up.

People recognized him and were eager to get close to him.

A man who played just four seasons in the NFL was treated like a rock star.

Pittsburgh fans attending the race on Millionaires Row noticed Gilliam walking on the concourse behind their seating area and pulled him up a 15-foot wall — and over a railing — so he could hang with them during the race.

A government official from Louisville noticed him outside the Kentucky Derby Museum and invited him into an exclusive party.

At the exclusive party, a woman who owned a great deal of real estate in Louisville invited Gilliam and Gentry to an after-party at her condo.

As the two drove back to Nashville late that night, Gilliam leaned his head back in the passenger seat with tears rolling down his cheeks.

Gentry, concerned about his friend, asked if he was OK.

“Howie, of all that I’ve done and all that I’ve been through, they still love me, man.”

As Gilliam’s tears flowed, Gentry became emotional himself.

“Yeah, Joey, they never stopped loving you.”

For the best friends, that would be their last extensive conversation.

Less than a year before that trip to Louisville, Gilliam attended a ceremony celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1974 Steelers Super Bowl team.

Lewis, his wide receiver with the Steelers, wound up riding on the same van with Gilliam into the city.

“He looked great, and he was telling me how he had gotten his life back together,” Lewis said. “He said he had a job, told me about a possible book deal and said someone was interested in doing a movie on his life. I was so happy for him.”

When Gilliam walked onto the field — wearing a Steelers jacket and a stylish hat, and looking fit — he was showered with love from the fans and his former teammates, all happy to see him doing well.

“Guys were hugging me, telling me how glad they were to see me,” Gilliam said in the HBO archives video clip that’s included in a Joe Gilliam documentary project. “I guess when they saw me and saw I was all right, we did a lot of crying and hugging and it was a great celebration.”

Just over a year later, Gilliam was dead, with the listed cause (accidental cocaine overdose) coming as a shock to those who thought he had cleaned up his life.

“I just remember seeing him alive, catching up and thinking everything was beautiful for Joe,” Lewis said. “It seemed his future was looking bright.”

Gilliam’s funeral service was held at Tennessee State’s Kean Hall on what would have been his 50th birthday. His best friend, Gentry, helped organize the service. Survivors included three daughters (one of them, Joi Gilliam, is a rhythm and blues singer who was once a member of the group Lucy Pearl).

“It was sad because you looked around the room and saw all of these African-American quarterbacks that he helped open the doors for,” Gentry said. “Yet for all that he had gone through, through his professional years and through his life, to see him laying there unscarred and peaceful, it looked like he was sleeping.

“It looked like, for once, he was happy again.”

Just months before he died, Gilliam started the Joe Gilliam football camp at Tennessee State. More than 17 years later, that camp is still going strong.

Which means that Gilliam’s legacy still lives.

“He gave the NFL a breakthrough. He let the NFL know that black quarterbacks could not only play, but they could play at a high level,” Gentry said. “We lost a pioneer way too soon. Jefferson Street Joe … he was our Broadway, our Beale Street, our Bourbon Street.”

Gentry is reminded of his old friend almost daily.

Open the door to Gentry’s upstairs “man cave” in his Nashville home, and the first thing you see?

That 1974 Sports Illustrated cover of Gilliam.

“It’s on the wall, framed, and it’s just one of my ways to celebrate Joey,” Gentry said. “We lost a legend and a pioneer who will probably never be given the level of acclaim that he truly deserved. But the truth is, we here in Nashville know his contributions to the NFL, and to our lives.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.