A Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback not many remember, but a story worth telling.
My last name is not very common, so I sat down at my computer to look for others that might share my last name, Gilliam. The results did not have a huge celebrity base, but I did find a British director, a Christian singer and a San Fransisco 49ers’ offensive lineman.
I continued the search and found there is a Gilliam county in Oregon and a general in the Mormon Wars. I did happen to come across a picture of a QB wearing a black and gold jersey throwing a football who’s name on the back was Gilliam and I was intrigued to learn more.
Joe Gilliam played for my favorite NFL team the Pittsburgh Steelers and he actually replaced Terry Bradshaw as the starter one year during their heyday in the 70’s. I stopped reading and thought, wait what? He replaced a four time Super Bowl champion?
Questions came flooding in and I wanted to know when this happened, how it happened and where is he now? Who the heck is this guy? I am a die hard Steelers fan and I have never heard of him.
I read on quickly but intensely, focused on every word and meaning to find more information and the answers to my questions . What I learned about him, the 70’s in America and the NFL was very interesting to say the least.
Joe Gilliam was the first African American QB named as the starter going into week one. He replaced Terry Bradshaw in the 1974 season after outplaying him in the preseason. The Steelers won their first of four Super Bowls that year. NFL QB’s were allowed to call their own plays during this time Since Joe could call his own plays, he decided to call too many pass plays and did not listen to the coach. He ignoring team rules and game plans and was benched after 6 games. Joe Gilliam might have been BETTER than Terry Bradshaw. Terry even admits it saying that “It could of easily of been Gilliam who took the Steelers to their first Super Bowl and not me.” Racism was bad at the time. Some seemed to not be able to accept a black QB and there were reports that his car was vandalized and he had death threats When he was benched Joe had a 4-1-1 record (Wikipedia). There was some speculation as to why he was being benched with a winning record. There were people who thought that it was racially motivated. Drugs seemed to destroy his career and life. To cope with the benching and the racism he faced, Joe turned to drugs which eventually caused him to be cut by the Steelers and later become homeless. Mr. Gilliam died at the young age of 49.
The NFL is filled with stories of this nature. Players who fought their demons and lost or could not cope with the overwhelming pressure of professional sports. I have been an avid Steeler fan my entire life. When I was in the 5th grade I wrote a report on Terry Bradshaw because I loved football and my favorite team.