THE BRUTAL TRIP DOWN

Joe Gilliam seemed to have it all, but then came the bouts with drugs and a 'murderous attack' in an alleyway
November 05, 1979

In a curious way, it was like old times for Ray Mansfield, the retired Pittsburgh Steeler center, and Joe Gilliam, the former Steeler quarterback, who has had more than his share of troubles in recent years. Mansfield was one of perhaps 750 people who peered through the dim lighting at Homewood Field, the Johns Hopkins stadium in Baltimore, to watch the Baltimore Eagles play the Pittsburgh Wolf Pak for the championship of the semi-pro Atlantic Football Conference on Oct. 13. Mansfield, who used to snap the ball back to Joe, is now the commissioner of the AFC. Gilliam did not come into the game until the second half, but when he did he threw two touchdown passes to lead the Eagles to a 20-9 win. "Brilliant, just brilliant," said Mansfield.

His performance was just that, but Gilliam (pronounced gill-em) was fortunate that he was able to play, much less star in the game. Last Aug. 20 at 5:15 p.m., Officer Joseph Goldberg of the Baltimore police found Gilliam staggering from an alley in the 1500 block of Kensett Street in the heart of the ghetto. Gilliam had been badly beaten on the head with two-by-fours and lead pipes. Initial reports had it that he had been shot; indeed, one television network interrupted its regular prime-time programming to flash a report that Gilliam had been shot twice in the head. According to witnesses, four men had first smashed the windows of the 1977 Buick Gilliam had parked near a liquor store. Then, when Gilliam came out of the store, they attacked him.

Two days passed before Gilliam regained consciousness in the University of Maryland hospital, and another two days passed before he was able to recognize his father. Despite the deep wounds in his head, no bone had been shattered, and after two weeks Gilliam, down 16 pounds from his normal 180, was able to leave the hospital. The season should have ended for him then, but he insisted on starting for the Eagles on Sept. 15 against the Connecticut Sea Raiders. Still weak, he underthrew his receivers and was intercepted six times before being relieved in the first half. He later came down with stomach trouble and a cold, and he did not practice for the championship until a week before the game.

While Gilliam lay in the hospital, rumors abounded. The principal one was that he was dealing in drugs at the time of the attack. This rumor was fueled by the fact that when the police picked up one of the alleged assailants (Timothy Matthews, 19), he was carrying heroin and marijuana. "All we know is that Gilliam is the victim of a murderous attack," a police spokesman said.

Gilliam says, "I was robbed. I was coming back home when I stopped to buy some liquor. I had a lot of money in my pocket. I wasn't thinking about anybody doing nothing to me, but they did. I came out of the store, and all my windows were knocked out. The last thing I remember was that I had gone to the trunk to get a swish broom and was sweeping the glass off the seat. When I woke up in the hospital I remembered I had some money, and I asked my mom to check my pants. It was gone. They crept up on me real good. It happens to people all the time."

For Joe Gilliam, the beating—or "accident," as he calls it—is the latest in a series of incidents that have plagued him since he was charged three years ago with possession of marijuana and possession of heroin. "Yes, I pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and possession of heroin," he says, "and I did time on both of them. Because of my reputation, even the things that aren't my fault give me the air of irresponsibility. It's tough. It gets to me. But I created the situation, and so I've got to live with it."

Gilliam doesn't come from a ghetto background. Now 28, he is the second of three children born to Ruth and Joseph W. Gilliam Sr. His uncle Frank, a star end at Iowa in the 1950s, is assistant director of player personnel for the Minnesota Vikings. His father, a former quarterback at West Virginia State, is the defensive coach at Tennessee State; he has sent such players as Too Tall Jones and Claude Humphrey to the NFL. As a youngster, Gilliam was more interested in baseball, basketball, gymnastics and swimming than football, but, as he says, "I knew the Tennessee State offense from the ninth grade."

A star quarterback and safety in high school, Gilliam became the regular quarterback at Tennessee State in his junior year. Although he led the team to a 21-1 record and completed 392 of 783 passes for 5,839 yards and 65 touchdowns, he was not picked until the 11th round of the 1972 NFL draft—by the Steelers, who already had two young quarterbacks, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw.

Gilliam played in only seven games his first two years with Pittsburgh. His big break came during the NFL player strike in 1974. At a meeting with Steeler teammates, Gilliam told them he could not afford to miss camp. They accepted his decision, and he reported to the club's training base at Latrobe, Pa. Bradshaw reported a week later, and Hanratty stayed out until the strike was over. Gilliam started and won all six exhibition games, completing 74 of 124 passes for 1,175 yards and 11 touchdowns.

He was that great rarity—the black quarterback for a contending team. (That year the Steelers went on to win their first Super Bowl.) Gilliam's teammates more than accepted him. "He loves to throw the ball," said Bradshaw at the time. "The guy is doing a great job. This year the hardest thing was to swallow my pride and realize that the team could get along without me."

"Joe's a driven kid," said Steeler Vice-President Art Rooney Jr. "I don't know if it's because he's black or because he's supercompetitive." Steeler fans were wild about Gilliam, too, because he had opened up the Pittsburgh attack. However, Gilliam says that he sent his wife Beverly, whom he had married after his sophomore year in college, home to Nashville with their daughter after they received threatening phone calls and letters and paint was splattered on his car.

In the regular season Gilliam led the Steelers to four wins and a tie in their first six games, but after a bad performance in the sixth game, a 20-16 win over Cleveland, Coach Chuck Noll replaced him with Bradshaw. Gilliam was to stay on the bench for the next year and a half. "Coach Noll called me into his office and told me it was time for a change," Gilliam says. "He's the coach, he calls the shots. Since I've left Pittsburgh, I've gained even more respect for Coach Noll. I appreciate the fact that he stood by me in exhibition games and the games I played in the regular season. There was a lot of heat from the press. I really thought they belittled my efforts."

Once he was benched, Gilliam became involved with drugs. "I kind of withdrew," he says. "I guess it was my way of not facing and dealing with the fact that I wasn't playing for the Steelers. And there were other problems in my life, not just those related to football. It was my way of hiding from what was really happening and not facing up to things."

He says that he cannot understand why he wanted to hide. "I don't know, 'cause I'm no shrink. At times I think about it. I think if there's any part of feeling good about myself during the year and a half that I wasn't active, it was that it really didn't break my spirit. I damaged myself. I did things to hurt myself. But I didn't let anybody crush my desire to play. I felt I wasn't going to play, I didn't think I would, but I still wanted to, and I still do."

Gilliam started with marijuana, then went on to heroin. He experimented with cocaine and uppers and downers, but he avoided LSD. "I was afraid of LSD," he says. "I should have been afraid of them all." He took drugs every day. "I didn't do it when I went to play ball. I did it after practice. The stuff was very easy to get." He became addicted to heroin. "After you've done it a while, it's not even about getting high anymore, it's to keep from feeling bad. I realized that when I realized, damn, I got to have it, Jesus Christ! This happened the first time I didn't have any, about-eight or nine months after I started. I told a guy I was sick, and he said, 'You got to have it, man. You've been doing this for a good little while, haven't you?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'You don't have any?' I said, 'No.' "

Gilliam had no difficulty getting all the heroin he needed. David Vincent of Nashville has served as Gilliam's lawyer, and he says, "The trouble with Joe is that he's been a star all his life. People defer to him, and he can't handle that. He's a tall, very handsome fellow who walks with grace. He's very attractive to women, not just sexually, and attractive to men, and they tend to let him do things he shouldn't. He needs someone to tell him what to do and insist that he live up to his responsibilities."

Noll says he had no idea Gilliam was on drugs. So does Mean Joe Greene. "When I heard about it later, it was a shock," says Greene. "It wouldn't have been a shock if I had heard he was on marijuana. But the extent of it...that came as a shock."

In June of 1976 the Steelers released Gilliam. "He was unreliable," Noll says. "He was of no use to the team. We couldn't depend on him, and there was nothing else to do with a player like that other than to let him go."

Looking back on his last days with the Steelers, Gilliam says, "I had begun to develop inconsistencies. My overall attitude and actions, everything. Not showing up for practice. Being late. Just a goofer. I figured they'd cut me. At the time I cared, but I didn't care. It was kind of a paradox. I did care, but I didn't care. I guess I really did in my gut, but I didn't, I guess, for show or whatever." Undoubtedly his dependence on drugs influenced his attitude. "It certainly didn't help me to think any clearer," he says.

The New Orleans Saints claimed Gilliam for $100 in June of 1976. Before Gilliam joined the Saints, Nashville police stopped his car, searched it and charged him with possession of marijuana and carrying a weapon—a pistol. Gilliam says he carried the pistol to protect himself against robbery, and that the marijuana consisted of two joints in the ashtray.

Gilliam's attorney appealed the charge on the grounds that no proper hearing had been held. Then Gilliam reported to the Saints' camp in Vero Beach, Fla., and he soon made headlines again by disappearing from camp for 2½ days. Gilliam did not explain his disappearance at the time, but he says now that he fled when three strangers—white men—approached him at camp and said, "Get out of here. You don't belong. You're not wanted. And if you don't, we're going to do something to you." Gilliam took off for Miami and then called the Saints' coach, Hank Stram. He returned to camp and never saw the three strangers again, but was soon dropped by the Saints.

Gilliam says he had "cleaned up" on drugs before reporting to the Saints, but after his release he went back on them. "I guess it could have been a lot of things," he says. "For me to pinpoint the reason, I guess there really isn't just one reason. I guess the bottom line was my inability to deal with my feelings."

In December of 1976, Nashville police arrested Gilliam in a motel and charged him with possession of heroin for resale. Gilliam vigorously denies that he ever sold any drugs—the resale part of the charge was dropped—and although he readily admits he was hooked on heroin when arrested, he says, "The fact of the matter is, I didn't have any heroin on me at the time. I was with some guys who did, but the one who went to jail later was me."

The heroin charge threw Gilliam into despair. "Things were so bleak," he says. "I didn't understand why it had happened to me like that." But before Gilliam was to come to trial on the heroin charge and the previous marijuana charge, lawyer Vincent recommended that he kick the habit by enrolling at Rubicon, a drug rehabilitation clinic in Richmond, Va. Gilliam spent six months at Rubicon. To show his determination to follow the program, Gilliam says, he spent the first few nights sleeping on the ground in a blanket near the front door.

In May of 1977 Gilliam left Rubicon, enrolled in a drug rehabilitation program in Nashville and accepted an offer to rejoin the Saints. "The encouraging thing now is that Joe openly admits his problem," said Stram at the time. "Maybe he will not be able to accept the challenge that lies ahead. Time will tell. The only thing we are doing is providing him with the opportunity. The kid needs help. If he loses the opportunity to play, a human life may be destroyed."

Although the record indicates otherwise, Gilliam says that he has never used drugs since leaving Rubicon. He admits he has been tempted "many times." What stopped him? "An ability to deal with myself. I don't feel bad about me. I like me. I don't care who likes me or who doesn't. I do. I think I'm all right. I'm an honest guy. I'm fair with people. I treat people nice, whether they treat me nice or not."

The Saints cut Gilliam just before the opening of the 1977 season. "He was throwing the ball well, and he hadn't lost anything," says Stram. "But he had a problem he just couldn't overcome." Then, in December, Gilliam again found himself in trouble in Nashville; he was suspected of having robbed a man of $44. The suspicion proved baseless—"fictitious," Gilliam says—and the grand jury refused to indict him. But in the course of the investigation, the police found a small amount of marijuana in his room. A check at the rehabilitation program revealed that Gilliam had not been there in eight weeks and that he had not been giving the required urine samples at Meharry Medical College. No one had reported these violations to the DA. Taken to court in May of 1978, Gilliam pleaded guilty to the 1976 marijuana and weapon charges. Judge John Draper gave him 45 days in the workhouse, suspending the sentence on condition that Gilliam enroll in a drug program, keep a job and submit to urine tests once a week.

In the summer of 1978 Gilliam was offered a job in Springdale, Pa. by the North American Fencing Corporation, whose owner, Bob Baker, also owned the Pittsburgh Wolf Pak, a new semi-pro club in the Atlantic Football Conference. The Nashville court let Gilliam go to Spring-dale. Gilliam said he found fence work fascinating, but his real job was to play quarterback for Baker's team. He led the Wolf Pak to a 5-1 record, but then left after a dispute with the coaching staff. "It was about calling the plays," Gilliam says. "We'd enjoyed immense success, and all of a sudden they wanted some input in the offense. I said, 'Hey, you're not happy? I'm not doing a good job calling the plays?' But the bottom line was that they said they knew more about football, and I should have no objection."

Back home in Nashville, Gilliam ran. afoul of the law last fall when it was charged that he had violated his probation by not regularly reporting to the drug clinic. The program was supposed to maintain a 24-hour observation on patients. Twice, though. Gilliam simply grabbed his bags and ran. Drug officials said they couldn't catch him. He was too fast for them. In October. Judge Draper sentenced him to 45 days in the workhouse. In jail Gilliam did janitorial work; he served 34 days and was released early for good behavior. Shortly after Christmas, Gilliam was accused of robbing a water boy at Tennessee State of $20. "Fictitious," says Gilliam of this charge, which was dropped. In February he pleaded guilty to the old heroin charge, and Judge Draper gave him four months in the workhouse. He again worked as a janitor and got out after 2½ months, with time off for good behavior.

Through everything, Gilliam has worked on perfecting his quarterbacking skills. "I dance the shuffle like Ali does," he says. "A quarterback has to be on his toes and ready to move. When I was a kid my feet were big, and I wasn't as quick afoot then, and I made up for it with quickness of hand. Right now I feel I'm bigger, I'm faster, I'm a better quarterback than when I played in the National Football League."

Gilliam got a chance to demonstrate this last July when he agreed to play for the Baltimore Eagles. Actually, the working arrangements were similar to those he had had with the Pittsburgh Wolf Pak. The Eagles are owned by C. J. Sears, the owner of the Royal Oil Corporation, the biggest distributor of oil in Baltimore, and Gilliam was—and is—paid to work for the oil company rather than to play football. Tall, handsome and mustachioed, with the air of a benevolent Rhett Butler, Sears likes the Eagles to go first class. He is not afraid to spend money—a crew videotapes every game the Eagles play—and he obviously relished having Gilliam at quarterback this season. Sears would like to have Gilliam learn the oil business. It strikes Sears as ironic that Gilliam and the Eagles held all practices and regular home games on a field at Cardinal Gibbons High School, the site of St. Mary's Industrial School, where Babe Ruth spent his boyhood.

Gilliam led the team to its first five wins, passing so spectacularly that Ted Marchibroda, the coach of the Colts, showed up to watch him in practice. But then, on Aug. 10, Gilliam left Baltimore suddenly and went to Birmingham to discuss an offer from Harry Lander, owner and coach of the Birmingham Vulcans of the semi-pro American Football Association. He came back apologetically four days later. "I was supposed to get a lot of money," Gilliam says. "I hadn't talked to the press in over a year, and as soon as I got off the plane, the first place we went was a TV station. Oh, I was so mad. It was publicity for Lander to make a few extra bucks for his game. I didn't even give him a chance to make the offer. I just didn't appreciate being used like that." Dan Bungori, who works for Sears at Royal Oil and serves as the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, says, "Joe asked me about his going down to Birmingham to check the offer. I told him to go ahead, that he'd be a fool not to investigate. He didn't ask Jim Sears because he was afraid to. When Joe arrived. Lander pulled a press conference, and his attendance went from 2.000 to 8,000. Joe was used, and I understand why."

Returning to Baltimore, Gilliam held a rare press conference in which he called his decision to investigate the Birmingham offer "one of my many dumb moves." Asked about a comment by Lander, who had said that Gilliam had told him a friend had given him some drugs in Birmingham, Gilliam answered, "I'm not making any comment on what Mr. Lander said."

Gilliam made a triumphant return to the Eagles lineup as he passed for 300 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-32 win over the Binghamton Triple City Jets. A week later, only hours after his wife filed for divorce in Nashville, he was brutally beaten in the ghetto.

Today Gilliam has no doubt that he could start for a number of NFL teams. "I'm bigger, faster and stronger," he says. "My opportunities in life are very good. Very good. But in football, I don't know. I don't own a team, I don't coach a team. Because of the exposure I've had—the media has been so negative—it's kind of hard to keep an optimistic attitude, but I do want to play football. I want to play in the NFL. Because I know I can play, maybe I'll get a shot."

As Gilliam and his joyous teammates made their way to the dressing room after the championship win over the Wolf Pak. Ray Mansfield was asked if he would take Joe if he coached or owned an NFL team. Mansfield paused. "That's a tough question," he said. "I love Joe. Joe and I had great rapport on the Steelers, even after he was benched. He's got the talent, but then he's had his personal problems. I hope they're over, but he's got to go clean for a year before I'd take him. Joe's got to show responsibility more than anything else."

TWO PHOTOSFour men smashed the window of Gilliam's car in Baltimore, then savagely beat the ex-Pittsburgh quarterback so badly that he was unconscious for two days. PHOTOJoe's passes led Baltimore to a semi-pro title.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)