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An ode to Joe

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I knew the call was coming before the bell rang. It was Road Dog. His head was shaking, his eyes were blank, his voice was low. That ain't usually him. Usually he's calling on me for a handle on some ballgame. This time he was trying to get a handle on himself. Road Dog knew Joey. He came up with him.

Joe Gilliam Jr.
Joe Gilliam Jr., left, emerged from Terry Bradshaw's shadow briefly in 1974, leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record before being replaced as the starter.
Joey? That's what they called Joe Gilliam Jr., a 49-year-old walking train wreck, former Pittsburgh Steeler-New Orleans Saint-Washington Federal quarterback, drug addict, blown talent who, according to a medical examiner, died of accidental cocaine intoxication in Nashville while watching the Tennessee Titans beat the Dallas Cowboys on TV Christmas Day. Black QBs started for both teams. And there are all manner of quarterbacks who-happen-to-be-black in the NFL now. People are trying to win. It's said nobody even thinks much about this anymore.

"Nobody said how it was for Joey," Road Dog said of Gilliam Jr., who was buried on Dec. 29, 2000, on what would have been his 50th birthday, on the campus of Tennessee State University.

"You mean as a black quarterback?" I asked.

"Not just that. He wasn't that 'til the end. It's deeper than that."

"Deeper? How was it for him then, Dog?" I asked. "Run it down for me."

"Well, it was one of them once-upon-a-time deals. In the '50s, early '60s, just like official legend has it, Grambling was a legendary black football school. But it wasn't the only one, or even the primary one. By far the best football school, period, in Florida in the days of segregation was Florida A&M. Now it's the 'other' school in Tallahassee, just across from Florida State, just a small place with a good business school, where they play decent Division 1-AA ball, where the FSU hoop team can pick up a W and where the FSU football players can find a new set of honeys to be rude to. But once upon a time, FAMU had the rude boys.

"The coach, Jake Gaither, retired with a .800 win percentage. Jesse Jackson's school in North Carolina once sent a traveling squad of 37 football players to FAMU for a homecoming game. Thirty-six came back hurt.

"It was Jake who invented the phrase 'a-gile, mo-bile and hostile.' He was describing the kind of 'youths' he recruited from off the Florida sand for his famous FAMU three-platoon system. He called the platoons 'Blood, Sweat & Tears.' Today, they are known as Florida, Florida State & Miami. Pretty much.

Joe Gilliam
Jesse James pays respect to his former Tennessee State University teammate at funeral services in Nashville.
"Jake, he might have a backfield with, say, Charlie Ward at quarterback. No, not that Charlie Ward. His daddy. Charlie Ward, Sr. Running back might be Willie Galimore, a Chicago Bear who died in a car wreck, but who was Gale Sayers before Sayers was Sayers. At flanker Jake might have, say, Bob Hayes, who still is the World's Fastest Human, far as we know.

"And you know what all that was? It was just a backdrop for a war between two men named Joe Gilliam, and a war they'd fight together against the college football monsters of their world. Kind of like a Grendel vs. Beowulf thing.

"See, Joey's old man was defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Tennessee State in Nashville. He was one of few who could fight the monsters of FAMU and Grambling. Joe Sr. remains a precise and meticulous man, by inclination and necessity. Only tightly controlled, disciplined teams could go into places like Tallahassee and Grambling, La., and come out with Ws. Joe Sr. performed on the rings in gymnastics at Indiana -- he knew control and discipline. And rejection. And innovation. He had to innovate to survive. It was Joe Sr. who ran the first zone defenses, the Cover 2s and Cover 3s they raise all that fuss about now. Joe Sr.'s boys had to cover Bob Hayes before any NFL team did.

"Joe Sr. had a beautiful wife. Some said they didn't see how a man so driven could have a wife so beautiful. And three children. The eldest became a defensive back who had coffee with the Kansas City Chiefs and went on to be a college coach himself. He took the discipline of his father well. The next child was a daughter, beautiful like her mother. She didn't take discipline quite as well. She jumped out of a sixth floor window in a women's dormitory at Tennessee State. Killed herself. They said it was because the old man wouldn't let her receive company. That ain't fair to Joe Sr. But it's still what they said.

"So that left Joey. Sometimes he would lay around and talk about how he missed his sister, about how hard it was to please the old man. Joey was like a god to me. I was two years behind him. Just a DB out of New York. I used to think the old man was too hard on Joey, too. Come to realize later Joe Sr. knew all along what his children were up against just living day to day.

Joe Gilliam
Late in his life, Gilliam tried to warn youngsters about the dangers of drugs.
"Beating FAMU was small potatoes compared to what Joe Sr. had in mind for Joey. His son would be the finest football quarterback alive. Not the finest black quarterback. The finest quarterback. Other fathers have been so inclined toward their sons, sometimes with good results, like Jack and John Elway, sometimes with disasters, like Marv and Todd Marinovich. But Joe Sr. had the ultimate challenge. His son was black.

"By the time Joey was the quarterback at TSU, it was the early '70s. I was around, Dub. Sam Cunningham had marched through 'Bama; they said Bear Bryant said Sam Bam did more for integration that afternoon than Martin Luther King did in a lifetime, but that wasn't so, and Bear Bryant probably never said it. But that's what they said he said. So the handwriting was on the wall by then. In only a few years, the football teams in the SEC were laced with young black athletes.

"By the time Joey came along, FAMU football was taking on water, losing recruits. Old Jake would not go gently. Joey threw two touchdown passes in the rain at Tallahassee in the first quarter when we went down there my sophomore year. Then he got knocked out, hit so hard I got sick to my stomach, and we wondered if the FAMU dudes had iron rods taped in their pads. Joey came back in the third quarter. Threw another TD. Got knocked woozy again. Had to carry him to the bench. We fell behind. The FAMU crowd chanted, "Not in Tallahassee! Not in Tallahassee!" Joey, he looked at me -- just a sophomore DB, didn't know what the hell is going on -- spit out some blood, checked a tooth, and smiled. 'This makes you great, boy,' he said. Then he went back in there and threw two more TDs -- five for the game -- and we won.

"Joe could 'read the clock' back then, the alignment of the defensive secondary. You know how most righthanded QBs prefer to read counter-clockwise, right-left. Joey could read it either way. In his sleep. Why? Because after a game, Joe Sr. wouldn't compliment the TD throws -- Joey threw a sweet ball -- but tell him he misread coverage on a third quarter play, how that was unacceptable. Woozy or not.

"Sometimes Joe Sr. would say to us, 'A thoroughbred responds to the whip. A mule bucks and sucks.'

"Some say Joey first stuck a needle in his arm to deal with the pain of losing his sister, to thumb his nose at Joe Sr., rebel against this expectation his father had of him being able to roll the clock forward 25 years in pro football all by himself. Some do not say that. Some say Joey first stuck that needle in his arm just because he was young and stepping wrong, and because he was one of the wildest, orneriest sumbitches you ever met. Like he was some son of a preacher man, only worse.

"Bigotry had a lot to do with why Joey stuck that needle in his arm in the first place. It was a year before Joey graduated high school at Nashville Pearl High that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got shot all up down the road there in Memphis, and cities burned, and people changed because something fell off the shelf inside and broke into pieces. One of the victims, one of the many, was Joey. Damn, he could play.

He still took the starting job for the Super Bowl-bound Steelers from Bradshaw to start 1974. In 1974, as a black quarterback in an era when there were none, a black quarterback with a smack addiction, he still took the job from Bradshaw. That's how good Joey was. And that's how bad he was. Because for years after that, no matter how talented a young black quarterback might be, some obtuse reference would be made to Joe Gilliam.

"It was a popular thing in Nashville in those days, mainlining heroin. That and murder. Wasn't nobody's fault but Joey's what happened to Joey, but damn, man, I can see how he blew it. I just happened to say no. But my sister hadn't jumped out no window, and I didn't have to face my old man. I was lucky. My old man was already dead.

"Joey went to the Steelers in, what, '73? Him and John Stallworth. Hell, we couldn't stop Stallworth in college at A&M. He must have hit us for four TDs in one game. But Joey had done him two better, thrown for six. We won. Now they were Steelers, and everybody knew the Steelers had the squad. Word was Terry Bradshaw wanted to go home once he saw Joey, his technique, his speed drop, his ability to read, how fascinated Steelers coach Chuck Noll was by Joey's mind, that gun he had, the things he could do. It took a Southerner like Bradshaw a while to come to grips with it. Joey was as good as Bradshaw was. If not better. Then one day in the car on the way to practice Stallworth looked over. There Joey was snorting H. "What are you doing,!" screamed Stallworth. Nothing to be done by then. Joey was gone.

"He still took the starting job for the Super Bowl-bound Steelers from Bradshaw to start 1974. In 1974, as a black quarterback in an era when there were none, a black quarterback with a smack addiction, he still took the job from Bradshaw. That's how good Joey was. And that's how bad he was. Because for years after that, no matter how talented a young black quarterback might be, some obtuse reference would be made to Joe Gilliam. Was this new QB any better a QB than him? Not likely. The very thing that Joe Sr. had wanted Joey to help end, Joey had helped reinforce. Bigotry.

"He started four games, I think. Played in nine. Howard Cosell called his name on Monday Night Football when Joey came off the bench to read the D and fire a TD bullet. Jefferson Street Joe Willie Gillie Gilliam Jr. Broadway Joe with the wrong paint job and a problem. He was gone within a year. Tried to hook on with the Saints. Tried to play as late as the mid-'80s, in the USFL, with the Washington Federals. Hear he'd kick, go back, kick, go back. Bradshaw said if it hadn't been for the dope, he never would've quarterbacked all four Super Bowl champion Steeler teams. Sure, he and we all knew what Joey could do. But for all Joe Sr.'s good intentions, whatever they might have been, all they did for Joey was pave the road to hell.

"But Dub: if there is an afterlife, and if it in any way requires that a defense be read, a football be thrown, with no ripple, on a line, to within a foot of its target, 40 yards downfield, then Joey's all right."

I was quiet. Then I asked, "Well, damn. Wonder if Culpepper, McNabb, McNair and them know that story?"

"No reason they should," Road Dog said. "That's why I'm telling you. I could have told them. But I didn't. I told you. I just wanted to tell it to somebody who might appreciate it. That's all. Period. End of story."

"Well, you told it pretty well," I said to the Dog. I don't think he heard me.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."

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