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On this date, in 1950, Joe Gilliam, Jr., was born. He was a Black professional football player.
He was born in Nashville, TN., the third child of four children of Ruth and Joe Gilliam, Sr. He grew up on the campus of Tennessee A&I State University, as the college was known before 1968. Joe Gilliam, Sr., father, was a defensive coordinator at TSU. Gilliam, Jr. displayed his athletic abilities at a young age, beginning at Nashville’s Washington Junior High School, where he participated in tumbling, track, and basketball. In 1966, he became the starting quarterback at Pearl High School and led the squad when they played in the city’s first season of racially integrated football. Gilliam kept close to the Tiger football team by serving as a ball boy.
His heroes included TSU quarterback Eldridge Dickey. Gilliam, who was called "Jefferson Street Joe" for a boulevard near Tennessee State, was an All-American in 1970 and '1971. He was an 11th-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972. Along with Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Richard Dent, he was among the most famous football players to enter the NFL after playing at Tennessee State, the school that also produced Olympic star Wilma Rudolph.
Gilliam earned a starting role for the Steelers in 1974, years after James Harris and Marlin Briscoe became pro football's first Black starting quarterbacks. Gilliam became a starter when several veterans, including quarterback Terry Bradshaw, went on strike. Gilliam kept the job when Bradshaw and the others returned, leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record. Gilliam played four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Drug problems, however, led to his being benched and derailed his NFL career.
Battles with cocaine and heroin left Gilliam in financial ruin. But he fought his problems in drug rehabilitation centers and later worked as a counselor to help others with their addictions. In 1999, Dr. James Hefner, TSU President, allowed him to host a summer Youth Football Camp at Tennessee State with his father, Joe Gilliam, Sr. He was able to go back to Pittsburgh, to be a part of the last-ever game played at Three Rivers Stadium.
He received good reviews from the National TV announcers about his life and the path back to Nashville. Joe Gilliam died of an apparent heart attack on December 25, 2000. He was 49.