Gilliam, Joe Jr. 1950–2000
Joe Gilliam, Jr. 1950–2000
Former professional footbal player
Joe Gilliam, Jr. was the first African-American quarterback to start a regular-season National Football League (NFL) game. Although he was a highly talented player, his career was cut short when he became involved in drugs. But Gilliam persevered and got his life back in order before his untimely demise.
Gilliam’s father, Joe Gilliam Sr., coached football for more than forty years, most of them at Tennessee State University. He passed on his talent and love for the game to Gilliam, who grew up on the campus, helping his father. When Gilliam was eight years old, he began going into the opposing teams’ locker rooms at halftime, posing as a team helper. He cleaned the other team’s shoes, listened to the enemy coach’s halftime talk, and then went back to tell his father and the other coaches what he had learned. He continued this until he was in eleventh grade, when a player recognized him and ended his spying career.
Two years later, he was the star quarterback at Tennessee State University. Between 1969 and 1972, he led the team to a 39-3 record as well as two Division II national championships. In 1971 and 1972, he was an AP All-American and was the National Black College Player of the Year.
In 1972 Gilliam was picked in the 11th round of the draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1974 he led the Steelers to a 30-0 win over Baltimore in the season opener, and became the first African-American quarterback to start a regular-season NFL game. He got his chance because other players, including quarterback Terry Bradshaw, were on strike, and coach Chuck Noll said Gilliam could start if he crossed the picket line.
However, even though he had a 4-1-1 start that year and a three-game winning streak, coach Chuck Noll took his spot as starter away, saying the team needed a change. According to a Nando.net reporter, Gilliam said he thought the reason was “race, hate mail, and rumors of threats to Three Rivers Stadium.” For the rest of the 1974 season, Gilliam played backup, but was closely involved in the team, helping with play selection when the Steelers won the Super Bowl against Minnesota.
Gilliam remained a backup in 1975, and his involvement lessened. He threw only 48 passes for the entire season. Late that year, he was injured and began using drugs.
At a Glance…
Career: Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback, 1972-75; became first African-American quarterback to start a regular season game, 1974; New Orleans Saints, 1976; U.S. Football League; wrote autobiography, In Spite of Myself; ran football camp at Tennessee State; rehabilitation counselor.
Awards: AP All-American, 1971, 1972; National Black College Player of the Year, 1971, 1972.
According to John Pruett of the Huntsville Times, Gilliam said, “A guy came by and said, ‘Take these and you won’t feel the pain.’ He was right, I took ’em and I didn’t feel the pain. That’s how I got involved with drugs. But he didn’t hold a gun to my head and say, ‘Take this dope.’” Gilliam acknowledged to Pruett that he knew using drugs was wrong.
“A person can be raised in a good home and still make the wrong life decisions,” he said many years later, according to the Detroit News. He also said, according to Pruett, “A person is responsible for his own actions. I wasn’t abused. I didn’t go to school hungry. I was loved. My people were educated. I still made a poor life decision.” Gilliam’s decision to use drugs led to a downward spiral of addiction, homelessness, and crime.
In 1976 he was picked up by the New Orleans Saints, but didn’t last long on that team; he was fired for breaking team rules. Gilliam turned to playing semipro football, and played with the U.S. Football League, but by then, drugs had taken hold in his life. Stories of his football career were interspersed with tales of arrests, stays in drug rehabilitation centers, and his work as a rehabilitation counselor.
In the late 1970s he pawned his Super Bowl rings to get money to buy drugs. Pruett noted in the Huntsville Times that the worst aspect of Gilliam’s life as an addict was the fact that sometimes people would recognize him and mock his failure. Pruett wrote, “In his shame and despair, he climbed the Shelby Street bridge in east Nashville, intending to jump off.” He slipped and almost fell, and in that split second, he realized that he really didn’t want to die.
At other times, Gilliam was shot at and held up. In one case, two other people were wounded, but Gilliam was unhurt, and in two other incidents, the attacker’s gun misfired. “In spite of myself,” Gilliam said, according to Pruett. “I was always lucky in a lot of ways.” In 1988 a television report on Gilliam’s life led a group of fans to buy back one of his Super Bowl rings, and eventually the other was also returned. His father kept them in a safe place.
In 1996 a Nando.net reporter found Gilliam on the streets of Nashville, and asked him if he would be watching the Steelers play in that year’s Super Bowl. Gilliam said he would, but he had no idea where he would do so—or where he would sleep that night. “I take one day at a time, you know. A couple of days, that’s too far down the line at this point,” Gilliam told the reporter. He also said that, although he had quit using heroin in 1991, he was still addicted to crack. “I stopped doing the things that I was supposed to be doing, the things that helped me with my sobriety,” he said.
In the last few years of his life, Gilliam managed to reclaim his life. According to Pruett, he said, “It took me hundreds and thousands of dollars, lots of pain, jail, a lot of heartache and a lot of misery to come to the conclusion that the things my parents kept telling me were true.” He was sober for three years, and during that time he ran a football camp for teens at Tennessee State and counseled drug addicts. He also wrote an autobiography, In Spite of Myself, describing his experiences. A CNNSI.com reporter quoted James Hefner, president of Tennessee State, who said, “He reestablished himself as a role model and an inspiration not only to athletes and young people, but to us all.”
Gilliam died on Christmas Day, 2000, while watching football. According to CNNSI.com, his father said, “There was an exciting play, and someone said, ’Joey, did you see that?’ They shook him and he didn’t respond. Joey passed away in his sleep, sitting there on the couch.” According to the coroner’s report, he died of a cocaine overdose. Gilliam’s funeral was at Tennessee State, and he was buried in Nashville. In Nashville Sports Weekly, Gilliam summed up his personality and life: “I’m a positive person. I love God. I love myself. And I try to respect all human beings. And be respectful to them. Even though one might not respect me, I give them respect, too.”
Detroit Free Press, January 13, 2001, p. 3C.
Detroit News, December 30, 2000.
Huntsville Times, April 26, 2000.
Nashville Sports Weekly, May 16, 2000.
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/nfl/news/2000/12/26/Gilliam_dead_ap/ (March 7, 2001).
http://detnews.com/2000/lions/0012/30/sports-169344.htm (March 7, 2001).
http://www.al.com/columnists/Huntsville/jpruett/04262000-e27348.html (March 7, 2001).
http://www.nashvillesportsweekly.rivals.com/?sid=632&p=2&stid=207850 (March 7, 2001).
—Kelly Winters and Ashyia N. Henderson
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