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"Jefferson Street Joe" Gilliam Laid to Rest
By Harvey M. Aronson, Steelers Hotline
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Tragically, ex-Steeler Quarterback Joe Gilliam died of a heart attack on Christmas night. Even more tragic is the fact that he had not reached his 50th birthday. He fell four days short of reaching that prime age. Gilliam's 50th birthday was yesterday. He suffered the attack while naturally watching another black Quarterback play the game of football, and ironically, it was a Steelers who he was watching. In the season's final Monday Night Football game, Anthony Wright, cut in training camp by the Steelers was starting for the Dallas Cowboys in their game against the Tennessee Titans. Even more ironic is the fact the defending AFC Champions now play in the area where Gilliam was born and raised. Weird is what I call that.

Yesterday was his funeral, and just about 600 people attended. That in itself tells you something about the person Gilliam was. He was loved by all. The ceremony was held at Tennessee State University where he played his collegiate ball. In attendance was an array of family, friends, and football players, among them Franco Harris, Gilliam's teammate back in the 1970's. Harris is shown here with Gilliam's wife Barbara. Also in attendance was another great black Quarterback, Doug Williams. Williams is also the current Grambling University Head Coach, where many NFL stars came from. Tennessee State Representative Thelma Harper had this to say about Joe Gilliam: "Every black quarterback who is and ever will be rides on the shoulders of Jefferson Street Joe." Those words from her mouth brought those in attendance to their feet with a standing ovation. The eulogy was delivered by Pastor Herbert Rowe of the Upper Room Bible Church. Gilliam was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery. If you are curious as to how Gilliam got his nickname "Jefferson Street Joe," it derives from a street on the campus of Tennessee State. It also happens to be the main road that runs through the largest black neighborhood in that city. Gilliam played his high school football at Pearl High, and led Tennessee State to two black college national championships in 1970 and 1971. His coach at Tennessee State is credited for giving Gilliam the nickname because of his star status at the time. Gilliam's body was in an open casket with plenty of roses, and other flower arrangements, one of which took the shape of a football with his uniform number (17) made up in the center. Gilliam's death came at a time that he seemed to put his major problems of drug use and homelessness behind him. He had begun a football camp for kids at Tennessee State and practiced counseling drug addicts. He claimed to have been sober for three years. His drug habit was so bad at one point that not only was he coming and going between drug rehab centers, but he also was living on the streets in 1995. His dilemma was featured at halftime of the Super Bowl. He also stooped so low that he pawned his two Super Bowl rings for money. Fortunately, his father was able to recover the rings, and had planned to return them to Joe. Tragically, Joe will never see them again.

My final words on Joe Gilliam are these: To this day I don't understand why when he was having such problems, and especially when he had no place to live, that his teammates, or even the NFL did not reach out to help him. It wasn't like Joe Gilliam was a "mean" drug user, someone who would harm others, or commit crimes. He was a man who was hooked on drugs and could not escape its clutch. Joe Gilliam was one of the nicest persons you would ever want to know, and it seems hard to believe no one would want to help him in his time of need. But, to his credit, Gilliam dug himself out of his self-made hole, and brought himself back to respectability. That is highly commendable. To that point, Joe Gilliam passes on with total respect. He was a god-fearing man, and only thought of others prior to his death. He was easily one of the most respected football players to ever wear the Black and Gold. Joe, if you were able to read this - never forget the fans, because we will never forget you.

 


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