The 100 Moments of TSU Athletics presented by Taco Bell® series continues by remembering a trail-blazing student-athlete who opened the door for so many others.
The late Joe Gilliam Jr. was more than a football player to Tennessee State University; he was devoted to giving back to his institution and community. At an early aged Gilliam possessed athletic skills. During his years at Washington Junior high located in Nashville, TN he participated in track, tumbling, and basketball. In 1966, he was the starting quarterback at Pearl High School and led the team in the city’s first season of integrated football.
Gilliam’s father, Joe Gilliam Sr. was the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee State University Tigers for 20 years under Coach John Merritt Merritt. He became Head Coach of TSU Tigers in 1989 for four seasons. In 1990, he earned Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year. He passed on his talent and love for the game to his son, who grew up on the campus, helping his dad.
In 1970 and 1971 Gilliam was an AP All-American, National Black College Player of the Year, and was the starting quarterback for the Tigers during those years as well. In 1971, Gilliam had 243 completions and 2,116 passing yards.
He was an 11th-round draft pick by the Steelers in 1972. Gilliam became a starter when several veterans, including quarterback Terry Bradshaw, went on strike in 1974. He kept the job for a brief time when Bradshaw and the others returned, leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record. Gilliam became the first African-American quarterback to start a regular-season NFL game. Gilliam retired from football in 1984 and was inducted into the American Football Association’s Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
At times Gilliam ran a football camp in Nashville, where he earned his nickname “Jefferson Street Joe” for the boulevard that runs by TSU.
Most knew because he was physically talented that he was going to be a pro football player. Throughout his life he showed others why he was a good quarterback and opened the door for African-American quarterbacks.
Check out some Gilliam highlights below:
The 100 Moments of TSU Athletics presented by Taco Bell® highlights some of the greatest moments in honor of Tennessee State's centennial celebration. A new moment will be released each weekday for a total of 100. These moments were chosen by the TSU 100 Moments committee, which consists of alums from various departments. TSU has so many great moments, not all can be represented in these 100.
Sports Information Assistant Alex Mitchell contributed to this article assisted by LaToya Poore.