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Walking down Jefferson Street to recall the great Joe Gilliam

A quarterback who wasn’t known for the right reasons deserves his credit within Pittsburgh Steelers’ lore.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania in an era of labor unrest — bricks dropped from overpasses as “scab” truck drivers drove by and balloons filled with skunk oil tossed into the worship services of steel executives. But I was far too young to have much sense of that tense labor situation in the NFL during the summer of 1974. Up to that point, there had never been a season in any of the four major sports leagues diminished by labor unrest. Since that time, while salaries have skyrocketed across all four leagues (albeit at different rates) we’ve since then suffered through “replacement players,” “replacement refs,” sundry shortened seasons and even a blank space on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The unrest in ‘74 didn’t cost us any regular season games, but it did cost Terry Bradshaw his starting job. Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam crossed the preseason picket line and the season-opening color barrier, becoming the first African American quarterback to begin a season as an NFL team’s starter. The racial issue, like the labor issue, meant nothing to me. The only thing that mattered to me, or to most other Steelers fans, was Joe’s ability to toss the rock.

He started the first six games of that 14-game season, going 4-1-1. (I remember like it was yesterday Steve Davis, #35 filling in admirably for an ailing Franco in that sister-kissing game in Denver that ended 35-35.) To be sure, all due credit goes to the defense that was, if not at its peak, very close. Joe threw his share of interceptions, but then so had Terry. What struck me, though, was his poise — his calm in the pocket. He was chock-full of self confidence on the football field. I can still hear the deep tones of John Facenda on that year’s highlight reel referring to Gilliam’s “buggy-whip arm.” Where Terry was big and brutish, Gilliam was sleek and stylish. I didn’t just root for him, I wanted to be him.

Joe’s play eventually became as erratic as his off-field behavior and Ray Mansfield’s posterior became something of a revolving door as Terry Bradshaw and Hanratty both shared the reins of the team. The Steelers went on to finish the regular season 10-3-1, and the post-season 3-0.

I continued to hope for Joe’s return. At that age, I knew about as much of the demon grip of drugs as I did about labor issues. But the one thing I knew for sure is that you can’t fake talent, and if Gilliam had it those Sundays in September, surely it couldn’t be gone. He was eventually cut, and I vaguely remembering hearing on the evening news a few years later that he was playing in a semi-pro league somewhere. The next time I heard about him, his story had changed from a story of hope to a cautionary tale.

Joe ended up, for a time, homeless. Those stories were widely circulated around the time of Super Bowl XXX. Largely forgotten was the talent, but not completely forgotten. Terry Bradshaw, now more known for his time in the booth than in the pocket, was asked his opinion on the greatest quarterback to ever don the black-and-gold. This was long before the arrival of Big Ben and our perennial debates on who wears the crown, Terry or Ben. But back then, Terry’s vote was for Joe Gilliam.

You can still find sundry accounts of Gilliam’s latter life on the Internet. There were successes and their were setbacks, but in the end, death. None of that, however, can change the talent he had as a player, nor the joy I had watching him sling it.