Wednesday, December 27
Gilliam's career cut short by drug problems

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After years of struggling with a drug addiction that left him homeless and broke, Joe Gilliam Jr. finally seemed on track with his sobriety and priorities.

Tues., Dec. 26
The first time I met Joe Gilliam, his spark for life was obvious. He was a happy and energetic guy. I saw him last week at the Three Rivers Stadium closing, and he was walking around introducing himself to everyone; he was just that way, always outgoing.

Tony Parisi, the Steelers' equipment manager, told me a story about when the team was in New York playing the Jets. Gilliam had some ridiculous numbers, like 35-for-50 passing, and Terry Bradshaw asked Parisi, "Is that guy really that good or is he just lucky?" Bradshaw didn't toss out compliments that often, but everyone knew Gilliam had a gun and some serious ability.

Gilliam was a great story because everyone in the Pittsburgh organization felt comfortable knowing that if anything happened to Bradshaw, especially during the Super Bowl years, Gilliam would be a more than adequate replacement. In those days, it was unheard of to have that caliber of a backup, but everyone always believed in Joe.

His passing is a shock, and he will certainly be missed by everyone in Pittsburgh.
He was coaching a football camp for boys, counseling drug addicts and renewing relationships with family and friends. His turnaround ended Monday, four days short of his 50th birthday, when Gilliam died from an apparent heart attack.

"It's a shame because I think he did mend a lot of fences," said Woody Widenhofer, a former Pittsburgh Steelers assistant and current Vanderbilt coach. "He talked a lot about his dad and there was some mending there."

Gilliam was dead on arrival at Baptist Hospital about 10:30 p.m. Monday, hospital spokeswoman Jessica Etz said. Baptist Hospital's preliminary diagnosis was that Gilliam died of a heart attack.

The Nashville coroner's office has conducted an autopsy and found that Gilliam had serious coronary artery disease. The coroner will not have a definitive cause of death for about three or four weeks, once they get all the toxicology test results.

There was no sign of current drug use by Gilliam nor were there indications that the cause of death was related to his drug history, a coroner's office associate medical examiner said.

Gilliam's career was marked by a series of highs and lows, including a starting role for the Steelers in 1974 when he became one of the first black quarterbacks to start an NFL game.

In 1953, George Taliaferro of the Baltimore Colts was the first black player to start at quarterback in the NFL. Earlier that season, Willie Thrower of the Chicago Bears became the first black player in the league.

Marlin Briscoe of the Buffalo Bills was the first black quarterback to start a game after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. James Harris also started a game for the Bills the next season.

Drug addiction, in part, led to Gilliam's benching and eventually ended his NFL career. It also created financial problems that led Gilliam to pawn his two Super Bowl rings and left him homeless for a while on the streets of Nashville.

He fought his addiction to cocaine and heroin several times with stays in drug-rehab centers, even working as a drug counselor, but it took more than 20 years for him to finally kick his habit.

Joe Gilliam Jr.
Joe Gilliam Jr., left, emerged from Terry Bradshaw's shadow briefly in 1974, leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record before being replaced as the starter.

Earlier this month, when former Steelers reunited for the final game at Three Rivers Stadium, Gilliam said his life was so tough at one point that he lived in a cardboard box under a bridge for two years and, "To me, it was like the Ritz-Carlton."

"I had it all and then it disappeared and then my life disappeared and now, look, I'm back with my friends again," he said, gesturing toward teammates Lynn Swann and Roy Gerela. "I let a lot of these guys down, but only in America could I could come and be with these guys again."

Steelers president Dan Rooney said he had a long talk with Gilliam at the reunion and "he was upbeat and in great health, probably in better shape than anyone."

"Joe had some difficult times and everybody knows that, and during those times I had some talks with him and tried to help him and get him straightened out, it didn't work at the time but in time he did solve some of his problems," Rooney said.

Gilliam got the Steelers starting quarterback job in 1974 when veteran players, like Terry Bradshaw, were on strike. But Dick Hoak, a Steelers assistant for 30 years, said that wasn't why Gilliam got the job.

"He was an excellent quarterback and could throw the ball," Hoak said. "But Joe had problems off the field and that hurt."

This was Gilliam's third straight year of sobriety. His father, Joe Gilliam Sr., credited Gilliam's wife of four years, Barbara, for the turnaround, and his passion for the youth football camp he started in Nashville. Gilliam used the field of his alma mater, Tennessee State, where his father spent 40 years coaching football.

"I learned from the turbulent years what unconditional love is," Gilliam Sr. has said.

He now has Gilliam's Super Bowl rings. Kind-hearted football fans and friends bought the rings a few years ago and returned them to his father, who was waiting to give them to his son until he was ready to hold on to them permanently.

Gilliam, who was called "Jefferson Street Joe" for a boulevard near Tennessee State, was an All-America in 1970 and '71. He was an 11th-round draft pick by the Steelers in 1972.

Gilliam kept the starting QB job when Bradshaw, the starter the previous season, and the others returned after the 1974 strike and led the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record. He topped the Steelers in passing that year with 1,274 yards to Bradshaw's 785 yards.

But many Steelers' fans were unhappy with Gilliam and there was a racial tone to their anger. Gilliam began receiving hate mail and death threats. He said the franchise began receiving bomb threats on Three Rivers Stadium.

"I thought if you played well you got to play," he said. "I guess I didn't understand the significance of being a black quarterback at the time."

Coach Chuck Noll eventually gave the job back to Bradshaw, partly because of Gilliam's problems off the field. Gilliam said his problems with drugs began that year.

Noll also was angry because Gilliam kept calling passes and ignoring Franco Harris and the running game. He threw 50 passes in a 35-35 tie against Denver, then a team record. At the time, Steelers quarterbacks still called their own plays. Noll reinserted Bradshaw and the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl that season. Gilliam didn't play in the title game.

Gilliam played little the 1975 season, then was cut. He didn't play in the NFL again.

Gilliam joined minor league football teams in Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore during the 1970s. In 1979, he was seriously injured during an attack outside a Baltimore liquor store and was in a coma for weeks.

He recovered and played football again, for the Washington Federals of the USFL in the 1982 season.

Howard Gentry Jr., former broadcaster for Tennessee State and a Nashville councilman, said when he last saw Gilliam recently he told him he was working on a book and a possible movie about his life.

"Everything was just positive," Gentry said. "He looked great. He seemed to be on top of the world."

Gilliam's survivors include his father, his wife, daughters Joi and Lawanda, and two stepsons.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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VIDEO video
 ESPN takes a look at the life and career of former Pittsburgh Steelers QB Joe Gilliam.
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