Quarterback Joe Gilliam Died of Drug Overdose

ByABC News
January 12, 2001, 6:37 PM

Jan. 12 -- Joe Gilliam, one of the NFL's first starting black quarterbacks died of an accidental drug overdose, according to the Nashville medical examiner.

According to Dr. Bruce Levy, the former Tennessee State and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Gilliam died of an accidental overdose of cocaine on Dec. 25, 2000.

The Nashville native started for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974.

Battle With Drugs

He spent much of his post-NFL career battling drugaddiction and living on the streets. He even spent two years living under a bridge in a cardboard box. He said before his death thathe had been free of drugs for three years.

However, Gilliam said he was winning his battle and opened a football camp for teens at Tennessee State lastsummer, and counseled other drug addicts. At the height of his battle with cocaine, Gilliam was in such desperate straits that hepawned his two Super Bowl rings.

"Joe had some difficult times and everybody knows that," saidDan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gilliam's team inthe mid-1970s. He said that a players reunion earlier this year,Gilliam "was really upbeat and in great health, probably in bettershape than anyone."

Gilliam's career was marked by a series of highs and lows,including a starting role for the Steelers in 1974, six years afterMarlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos became pro football's firstblack starting quarterback.

Drug problems were partly to blame for Gilliams benching andthe end of his NFL career.

Gilliam talked about it during a reunion of former Steelersplayers for the final game at Three Rivers Stadium earlier thismonth, telling former teammates that his life was so tough at onepoint that he lived in a cardboard box under a bridge.

I had it all and then it disappeared, and then my lifedisappeared and now, look, Im back with my friends again, hesaid.

Years of Sobriety

Gilliam said he was in his third year of sobriety, a turnaroundhis father, a longtime football coach, attributed to his son's wifeof four years and his son's passion for football.