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Roy Blount, Jr.
September 23, 1974
Having deposed two senior quarterbacks, Joe Gilliam was at the controls for Pittsburgh on opening day. He justified that choice by blasting Baltimore
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September 23, 1974

Gillie Was A Steeler Driving Man

Having deposed two senior quarterbacks, Joe Gilliam was at the controls for Pittsburgh on opening day. He justified that choice by blasting Baltimore

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The last time Jefferson Street Joe Willie Gillie Gilliam, the sweet soul flinger of Pittsburgh, made as spectacular a splash as he did in the Steelers 30-0 win over Baltimore last Sunday was the time, several years ago, when he met his wife Beverly. Joe saw her sitting beside a swimming pool one day and thought to impress her with a swan dive. He spread his arms, soared beautifully off the board and hit nose first. "There was blood all over the water," he recalls with a certain pride.

Little wonder that Gilliam did not go on to become the first great black pro diver. Last Sunday, though, he became the first black ever to start and win an opening day National Football League game. He did not fall on his face. Far from it. Two hours after the game, as the trash was being swept up in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and football markings were being effaced so that more baseball could be played, Gilliam's bubbling spirit could still be sensed soaring above the field. Some of the credit was due other Steelers—a defense that throttled the Colts, an offensive line that Gilliam may make as famous as O.J. Simpson made his and nine different tough and flashing pass receivers that even included a diving Swann.

But Joey Gilliam, the pride of Jefferson Street, Nashville, Tenn., was the main man. In three quarters of play against a Baltimore defense that had been resolute in pre-season play, he completed 17 of 31 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard bomb to Wide Receiver Lynn Swann, a rookie out of Southern California. Where are all of those other black quarterbacks—long since converted into wide receivers or cornerbacks—they said pro football wasn't ready for?

But let us not play this thing too much in terms of race and revolution. If Gilliam weren't grinning and skipping and waving his arms in delight after throwing a touchdown, you could see it as a nostalgia story. "Joey's a throwback to the '50s, to the days of Waterfield and Van Brocklin throwing to Crazy Legs Hirsch and Tom Fears," says Steeler Vice-President Art Rooney Jr. "He hits people's hands."

The pass is back, thanks in part to rule changes this year that make the receiver's job less liable to harassment, and Joe can throw it. As he did a couple of times in similarly brilliant exhibition games this summer, he started out slowly against the Colts. His first five passes were incomplete, and when he threw an interception to Rick Volk toward the end of the first quarter he walked to the sideline with only two completions, for 12 yards, in 10 throws. "I knew sooner or later I'd stop missing them and start hitting them," he said later.

The Pittsburgh defense, led by rushers L.C. Greenwood, Dwight (Mad Dog) White, Ernie Holmes and Mean Joe Greene, forced the Colts to punt. But Swann fumbled the kick and Baltimore recovered on the Pittsburgh 31, then punched as far as the one, which is where the Steelers stopped the last of three straight shots by Bill Olds.

And here came Gilliam again, stepping as cool as anything into a pocket formed by blockers who all afternoon never allowed a Colt to get more than a tentative hand on him. On the 13th play of the 99-yard drive, Gilliam threw a ball from the Steeler 46 that described an arc so pretty as to beggar description, and somewhere around the six-yard line Swann took it over his shoulder, having outsped and outmaneuvered his man. If anything can give the bomb a good name again that pass did.

In the first quarter the Colts' starting quarterback, Marty Domres, had been knocked out of the game, the convergence of Holmes and White having turned him into the center of an Oreo cookie. Replacement Bert Jones, who can also hum a football, made an unsuccessful effort to get into the aerial act, and the next time the Steelers got the ball Gilliam needed only three plays to go 64 yards.

Each of these plays was a pass. One was to Frank Lewis for 20 yards. The second was to Swann for 40, and the third was a four-yard looper to Lewis over on the right side for a touchdown to make the score 16-0 at the half.

In the third quarter, Bert Jones squirmed out of one ambush for a one-yard gain—causing Holmes, who got up to game weight by eating "two lobsters, some crabs, a bunch of shrimps and two burgers," to bang the ground in frustration. An interference call in the Pittsburgh secondary and Jones' passes to Tight End Ray Chester and Wide Receiver Glenn Doughty brought the ball down to the Steeler 18.

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