"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.