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Ex-NFL QB Joe Gilliam Laid To Rest

December 30, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ To the end, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam mixed bitter with sweet: He was buried Friday on what would have been his 50th birthday.

Gilliam, one of the first black quarterbacks in the National Football League, died of an apparent heart attack on Christmas Day while watching football at a friend’s home. His life was marked by athletic accomplishment and marred by battles with heroin and cocaine.

About 600 people attended the funeral at Tennessee State University, where his father, Joe Gilliam Sr., spent most of his 40-year coaching career.

``Every black quarterback who is and ever will be rides on the shoulders of Jefferson Street Joe,″ state Rep. Thelma Harper said to crowd that included Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart and former running back Franco Harris.

Gilliam earned a starting role for the Steelers during a players’ strike in 1974. He kept the job when regular quarterback Terry Bradshaw returned, leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record, but was cut from the team in 1975.

Gilliam’s subsequent drug addiction at times left him homeless, broke and in rehabilitation centers. In 1995, he lived on Nashville’s streets, pawning two Super Bowl rings to make ends meet.

But in the last three years, Gilliam fought his drug habit, opened a football camp and counseled drug addicts. His experiences were recounted in an unpublished autobiography he called: ``In Spite of Myself.″

The Rev. Edwin Sanders, who gave the eulogy, told family and friends that they should find comfort in the way Gilliam lived the last few years of his life. ``He had given his life to God,″ he said.

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