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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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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 2� 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 2� 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."

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