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

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

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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."

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