The Steelers ‘Same old Steelers’ reputation as perennial losers began to fade with their standout draft of 1974. That was also the first year that a black quarterback suited up in a black ‘n gold uniform.
Joe Gilliam, drafted in 1972, joined a team that already featured established quarterbacks in Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty.
After playing sparingly for two years, Gilliam got his chance when most players, including the two starting quarterbacks, went on strike for 44 days before the start of the 1974 NFL season.
Gilliam reported to training camp and the Steelers had no option but to begin their preparation for the forthcoming season with him at the helm. Gilliam was quoted at the time as saying, “I have to cross the picket line. I'm just a second-year man and I have to make the team.”
With the addition of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, the Steelers excelled during the preseason, winning by big scores and going 6-0.
With that powerful performance, Gilliam retained his starting job when the players’ strike finished and the Steelers entered the regular season.
He became the first black quarterback ever to win an opening day NFL game when he led the Steelers to a resounding 30-0 victory over the Baltimore Colts, making the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He continued that success with a 4-1-1 record, setting a team record against the Broncos in game 2 at Denver with 50 pass attempts and 31 completions.
Pittsburgh fans are never easy on their quarterbacks and after completing just 5 out of 18 attempts in a 20-16 win against Cleveland, Giliam lost his starting job.
Despite Gilliam's winning record, ‘the blonde kid’ Bradshaw, who had asked to be traded when relegated to the sidelines, once again became the starter. The demotion left Gilliam gutted and he never recovered from his fall from grace.
Joe Gilliam laid the foundations of a winning team in those first six games. The team began to believe that they could go all the way. Terry Bradshaw took over and led the Steelers to their first Super Bowl victory to finish the season.
Gilliam played little during the 1975 season, and was eventually cut. In 1983, he attempted a comeback in the United States Football League with the Washington Federals. As the third string quarterback, he threw for only 673 yards with a rating of just 39.0 and retired from football after that season.
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