Joe Gilliam becomes the first black quarterback to start for the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Chuck Noll coached Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl following the 1974 season with a 16-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. It was the first of four Super Bowls they would win throughout the 1970’s.

Despite finishing first in the AFC Central with a 10-3-1 record, there was a QB controversy that season and 3 different quarterbacks started behind center that season.


The Steelers were coming off a 10-4 season and a loss to the Raiders in the divisional round. Terry Bradshaw was the starter and was putting up fairly average numbers at the time. Gilliam beat out Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty and started the first 6 games of the season. The season started well with Gilliam throwing for 605 yards and 3 touchdowns with the Steelers securing a win over Baltimore and a tie with Denver (which they should’ve won in regulation but Roy Gerela missed a 25 yard field goal). In the third game of the season, the Steelers were shutout 17-0 by the Oakland Raiders and (to keep it a buck) Gilliam played like shit (8/31 106 yards 2 interceptions passer rating of 14.4). Despite winning the next three games, Gilliam’s play continued to decline and he only threw 1 touchdown to 3 interceptions over that stretch. Coach Noll would bench Gilliam and he didn’t start another game that season (he did see more playtime though since none of the Steelers quarterbacks played well enough to separate themselves from each other).

Under Gilliam, Pittsburgh’s offense featured a much heavier passing attack. This didn’t resonate well with the fans (along with the fact that he was black) and he received a ton of hate mail. So much hate mail that he moved his wife and daughter back down to Nashville.

“We’re gonna cut your dick off”

“We’ll kill you and your fucking nigger family”

Things didn’t get much better after the benching. Gilliam began using drugs and he was cut by the Steelers the following season. His cocaine and heroine addiction eventually led to him being homeless for awhile. By the late 1990s, Gilliam had cleaned up his life but unfortunately, he died of a cocaine overdose on Christmas Day in 2000, just a four days before his 50th birthday.

“Jefferson Street Joe” as he was nicknamed, is a pioneer who will probably never get the recognition he deserves. Gilliam knew he was better than Bradshaw and even Bradshaw would tell you he was better at the time. Gilliam was the first black quarterback to start on NFL opening day. He’s also a 2 time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

He might not be in the Hall of Fame. He won’t be remembered as one of the best to play at the position, but he’ll still go down as a legend.  At a time where it was beyond common for black quarterback to switch positions so they could play in the league, Gilliam defied the odds.


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