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Steelers Gilliam paved the way for black quarterbacks in the NFL

Saturday, December 30, 2000

By Paul Zeise, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Doug Williams met Joe Gilliam Jr. in the early 1970s and never really considered him more than a casual acquaintance.

Still, when he heard Gilliam had died Monday night, it hit him as if he lost a member of his family. In some ways, he did.

Franco Harris escorts Barbara Gilliam from funeral services for her husband, former Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam, at Kean Hall on the campus of Tennessee State University yesterday. (Chris Berkey, Associated Press)

Gilliam was one of the NFL's first black starting quarterbacks, and Williams was the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl.

Yesterday, on what would have been Gilliam's 50th birthday, Williams was one of nearly 600 people who attended a memorial service and funeral for Gilliam at Tennessee State University's Kean Hall.

"Joe made it all possible for every one of us black quarterbacks," Williams said. "The struggles he went through eased the struggles we had to endure. That's why I had to be here today. 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 died of an apparent heart attack while watching the Tennessee Titans-Dallas Cowboys game at a friend's home.

"Every black quarterback who is and ever will be rides on the shoulders of Jefferson Street Joe," said Thelma Harper, a Tennessee state representative.

Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart, who, along with Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, was in attendance, echoed those sentiments and said that he was lucky to have had a chance to meet Gilliam before he died.

"I sat down and spoke with Joe last week and it was good for me. I was able to talk with him about the struggles that he and I have both shared, and he gave me a lot of encouragement. He told me to stay strong and finish the job that I started," Stewart said.

Gilliam earned a starting role for the Steelers in 1974, six years after Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos became pro football's first black starting quarterback. He started six games for the Steelers before faltering and being replaced by Terry Bradshaw. Gilliam led the club in passing that season with 1,274 yards.

Gilliam played little during the 1975 season, then was cut. In 1976, he played briefly with the New Orleans Saints before being dismissed for breaking team rules.

His subsequent addiction to cocaine and heroin left him homeless at times, broke and in and out of rehab centers. As recently as 1995, he was living on Nashville's streets and in rooming houses, and he pawned two Super Bowl rings to make ends meet. His father later got the rings back through fans and friends but was waiting for the right time to return them to Gilliam.

Over the past three years, he seemed to have turned his life around. He opened a football camp for teens at Tennessee State last summer and counseled other drug addicts. He was in attendance Dec. 16 when the Steelers played their final game at Three Rivers Stadium and took part in the postgame celebration.

Gilliam, who played with Steelers from 1972-75, was remembered by friends and family as a warm-hearted, generous man who was, and always will be, a legend in Nashville.

"Everyone in Nashville knew Joe, and we were all proud of him," said Howard Gentry Jr., a Nashville councilman who played high school football with Gilliam and is a close family friend. "That Jefferson Street Joe stuff was real. He transcended races and everyone loved him. This is a celebration of his amazing life.

"They called him Jefferson Street because he was Nashville. New York had Broadway Joe [Namath] and we had Joey."

Jefferson Street runs through the Tennessee State campus and also is the main road through the largest black neighborhood in the city. Gilliam, who also starred at nearby Pearl High School, led Tennessee State to two black college national championships (1970-71) and became a Nashville legend. His coach at the time, John Merrit, gave him the nickname "Jefferson Street" because he had reached superstar status like Namath did with the New York Jets.

"Joe was so physically talented that, even as early as high school, we thought he might have a shot at the NFL," said councilman Melvin Black, who was one of Gilliam's coaches at Pearl. "He was very intelligent also, which was important back then because of the stereotypes about black quarterbacks.

"Today, we lay him to rest, but he'll always be with us. He is at peace with himself and we are at peace as well."

The mood from most of the speakers and people at the service was more celebratory of Gilliam's life. And the impact that Gilliam had on people was evident by the number of people who attended his funeral. Along with many of his close friends and his family, there were many former and current athletes, local dignitaries, recording artists and a host of people, who, like Williams knew of him and wanted to pay respect.

Several citizens of Nashville and the city's football community gave tributes to Gilliam at the two-hour long service, and the eulogy was delivered by Pastor Herbert Rowe of the Upper Room Bible Church. Gilliam was buried at nearby Greenwood Cemetery.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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