By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
August 23, 2011
Around the time Super Bowl XLVI is played, Dexter Rogers hopes to finish a movie that will remind pro football fans everywhere that Joe Gilliam could have been just as famous as Terry Bradshaw.
A freelance writer from Fort Wayne, Ind., Rogers believes Gilliam was denied his chance for greatness because of racial issues in 1974.
Why else, Rogers claims, would coach Chuck Noll replace Gilliam as starting quarterback after leading the Steelers to a 6-0 preseason record and a 4-1-1 record to start the regular season.
"I'm not trying to portray Mr. Noll as being racist," Rogers said. "What I am trying to say is that the societal conditions with the respect to race were definitely a clear factor. Racial situations existed, having an African-American quarterback playing in a vastly white community, a segment of the Pittsburgh fan base did not accept that.
"So there was reason why he was getting tons of hate mail and having racial epitaphs being hurled his way. There was a reason why his car was vandalized. It wasn't because he was a bad person and it wasn't because he was losing games."
Rogers will try to prove his point in a documentary he's been working on for the last several months. It's titled "Joe Gilliam: What Could Have Been But Never Was."
Gilliam, who died at age 49 after suffering a fatal heart attack in December of 2000, came to the Steelers as an 11th-round pick in the 1972 NFL Draft. The other quarterbacks on the team at the time were Terry Bradshaw, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1970 draft, and Terry Hanratty, a second-round pick in 1969.
In 1972, Bradshaw started every game as the Steelers went 11-3. Bradshaw, though, was still a work in progress, completing only 47.7 percent of his passes with 12 touchdown throws and 12 interceptions.
In 1973, the Steelers went 8-1 in games Bradshaw started even though Bradshaw wasn't making significant progress as a passer. He completed 49.5 percent of his throws with 10 TDs and 15 interceptions.
Then in 1974, the preseason was marred by a players' strike. The strike didn't end until after the fourth preseason game. At that point, with Bradshaw and Hanratty refusing to cross the picket line, Gilliam gained an advantage.
Gilliam didn't care if anyone labeled him a "scab." He wanted to play, so he crossed the picket line and played well in the preseason. Even Noll admitted Gilliam was the best choice to open the regular season.
On a movie trailer Rogers has already produced, there's a clip of Noll saying "He's done very well in the preseason. He's been the most productive and that's what we look at."
That became a huge national story as evidenced by other clips on Rogers' movie trailer. One clip shows sportscaster Howard Cosell asking Gilliam about the pressure he was under. Another clip shows Dan Rather, as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," saying, "Well, the Pittsburgh Steelers have just completed the exhibition season as the only undefeated team in professional football. There's also a sociological aspect, a sociological undertone with what the Steelers have been doing."
After the Steelers opened with a 30-0 rout of Baltimore, Gilliam's picture appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The headline read, "Pittsburgh's Black Quarterback: Joe Gilliam bombs the Colts."
Yet after the sixth game of the season, with the Steelers leading the AFC Central, Gilliam was demoted.
Gilliam wasn't playing spectacular football. He had completed only 45.3 percent of his passes with four TDs, eight interceptions and a 55.4 passer rating. But Bradshaw didn't fare much better, completing just 45.3 percent of his passes with seven TDs, eight picks and a 55.2 passer rating.
The Steelers, though, did go on to win the Super Bowl.
Demoralized by his demotion, Gilliam began abusing cocaine and heroin and was cut by the Steelers after the '75 season.
Bradshaw went on to lead the Steelers to four Super Bowls championships in the 1970s. In 1989, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gilliam went on to years of drug addiction and, at one point, even wound up homeless for two years in Nashville, Tenn.
"In college, I took some courses on the history of the African-American athlete, and that's where Joe Gilliam's name kept coming up," Rogers said. "So it's always been in the back of my mind to write a story or do something to signify his contributions to the NFL.
"When you typically look at the historical legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, while it's great, it also overlooks the pioneer efforts of Joe Gilliam. He was the first African American quarterback to open a season, and his efforts led to a Super Bowl."
Rogers said that when his documentary is finished, it may run on ESPN's compelling "30 for 30" series.
When it's finished, the movie figures to stir up plenty of conversation and perhaps even controversy. Even Bradshaw admits Gilliam was slighted.
In another clip on the movie trailer, Bradshaw said when Gilliam was starting ahead of him, he asked the Steelers to trade him.
"It easily could have been him instead of me," Bradshaw said. "He absolutely had what it took to lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl. He gave me my job back. I didn't earn it back. I didn't beat him out."
An Ode to Joe -