Remembering “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam

By Tom Donelson
Updated: December 25, 2005
Joe Gilliam (circa 1974)
Joe Gilliam (circa 1974)

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — The Pittsburgh Steelers and their loyal fans are entering this weekend’s playoffs with visions of Super Bowls past and present dancing in their heads. With a league best 15-1 record, the road to Jacksonville will have to pass through the passionate followers of the Black and Gold.

Behind Hall of Famers Franco Harris, “Mean” Joe Greene, and others in 1974, the Steelers finished 10-3-1 and won their first NFL crown by defeating the Minnesota Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX at Houston’s Rice Stadium.

The quarterback for Pittsburgh that day was another Hall of Famer, current Fox Sports studio analyst Terry Bradshaw. However, Bradshaw didn’t open the season under center for the Steelers. Bradshaw didn’t take over the starting job until mid season.

The man who opened the year as Pittsburgh’s number one quarterback was “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam. While the Tennessee State standout was a talented QB, Gilliam could never overcome his inner demons on and off the football field.

Born on December 29, 1950 in Nashville, Gilliam was the third of four children for Ruth and Joe Gilliam Sr. He grew up on the campus of Tennessee A&I State University (as the college was known prior to 1968). His father was a defensive coordinator at TSU.

The younger Gilliam displayed his own athletic abilities at a very young age, beginning at Washington Junior High, 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 integrated football. Gilliam kept close to the Tiger football team by serving as a ball boy.

His early gridiron heroes included TSU standout QB Eldridge Dickey. Gilliam would later earn the nickname “Jefferson Street Joe” after a boulevard near Tennessee State while he was an two-time All-American selection for the Tigers in 1970-71.

He was an 11th-round draft pick by the Steelers in 1972 NFL Draft. Along with Super Bowl MVPs Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Richard Dent, he was among the most famous football players to enter the NFL after playing at Tennessee State, a school that also produced Olympic star Wilma Rudolph.

In 1974, Gilliam earned a starting role for the Steelers, six years after Marlin Briscoe became first black starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He became a starter when several veterans, including Bradshaw, went on strike.

Gilliam kept the job when Bradshaw and the others returned, leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record. Despite the winning record, Bradshaw won the starting job back and was the quarterback during the years the team was famed for its “Steel Curtain” defense.

The demotion left Gilliam crushed. Some close to him felt it led to his deterioration into drugs and alcohol. He 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. After a brief stint in the USFL’s Washington Federals in 1984, Gilliam’s playing career would end Gilliam had said his addiction to cocaine and heroin started shortly after his demotion in ’74. Those battles would leave Gilliam in financial ruin. One of the low points came when Gilliam pawned his Super Bowl rings to feed his habit. At one point, Gilliam was living on Nashville’s streets and in rooming houses.

However, Gilliam would fight his problems in drug rehabilitation centers and worked as a counselor to help others with their addictions. In 2000, Gilliam started a football camp for teens at TSU and also began renewing relationships with family and friends.

Later that year, he made a return trip back to the final football game ever played at Three Rivers Stadium along with several of his Steeler teammates. Sadly, while watching a football game with his father on Christmas Day, Gilliam died of a heart attack at the age of 49, just four days shy of his 50th birthday.

At the time of his death, Gilliam was writing his autobiography and negotiating with a Hollywood filmmaker who was interested in making a movie about his life. At the time of his death, TSU president James Hefner called Gilliam a barrier-breaking quarterback who overcame many well-publicized challenges.

“He re-established himself as a role model and an inspiration not only to athletes and young people, but to us all,” Hefner said.

NOTE: The African-American Registry,, and Pro-Football also contributed to this story.