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Local filmmaker Dexter Rogers is on a mission to tell the story of Joe Gilliam
By Jim Mount
Fort Wayne Reader
People who know the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers are familiar with the team’s storied and unstoppable appearances in four Super Bowls during the 1970's. The names ring out from the record books and film archives — Franco Harris, Lynn Swan, Mean Joe Green, Terry Bradshaw…
Yet while these names loom large in NFL legend, there’s another player from the same era that has been relegated to the forgotten corners of NFL history. It's the name and the story of Joe Gilliam, the starting quarterback in the early season of the 1974 Steelers and the NFL's first African-American starting quarterback. What happened to Joe Gilliam is a tragedy lost in the dust of time, and a story that journalist Dexter Rogers is committed to telling.
Rogers, a journalist for 19 years, based in Fort Wayne, is working on his first video project in an effort to give overdue recognition to a long forgotten trailblazer for African-Americans in the NFL. Introducing Joe Gilliam and his accomplishments has become the mission of Dexter Rogers, and telling this lost story is what motivated him to begin the project and learn first hand what all is involved in creating a documentary. “I didn't know what all it entailed when I first began, so I began to do what I knew how to do, which is write,” Rogers says about beginning the project. “I just started writing things down that I knew of him (Gilliam), started doing research, started reading articles…”
“I've seen a lot of movies, so I asked myself: what is a movie is comprised of?’" Rogers continues. "Footage, narration and music. So what do I need to do to combine those elements to do what I need to do? I just kind of went from there.” To get started on the project, Rogers got some help from a friend involved in video production; “I met a guy that I played tennis with, he was involved with video, music and things like that within film, so I struck up a conversation with him. So as far as the technical side, the editing and things like that, that came from my relationship with him. So he did a lot of the editing initially. I do it myself now but that's how I learned to do what I'm doing now, I just kind of winged it.”
Who was Joe Gilliam? According to the interviews in clips from Rogers' documentary — which include Franco Harris and Bob Costas — Gilliam was a phenomena, starting out a skinny kid with amazing abilities and someone the likes of the NFL had never seen before. Watching a clip from Rogers' documentary, you’re amazed at the rocket power of Gilliam’s arm, launching a football cross-field almost effortlessly.
A two time All American from Tennessee State University, Gilliam was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972. But after barely a season with the Steelers, leading them to a 4-1 record with 3 straight wins, Gilliam soon lost his position and, eventually, his job with the Steelers due to, according to Rogers, “a combination of bad choices and the climate at the time.”
The bad choices were a heroin addiction that began after an injury. “He began using heroin after the third game of the regular season in 1974 against the Oakland Raiders,” Rogers says. “A friend gave it to him for pain. He'd not used drugs prior to the Raiders game.” Gilliam’s addiction continued as a means to deal with the emotional pain of being stripped of what he had earned. Talking about Gilliam’s addiction, Rogers points out that drug addiction was dealt with differently in 1974. “Today, athletes have a plethora of opportunities to deal with drug problems that they didn't have that back then,” Rogers explains. “(Back then) they just had a 12-step program that they used for alcoholics, just a pamphlet that they gave to people. He (Gilliam) was addicted to heroin and that's a very addictive drug. So you go to the time when he was dealing with his situation compared to today, it was very, very difficult for him.”
But despite Gilliam’s addiction, he still won football games. “From a performance standpoint, he deserved to keep his job,” Rogers says. “The reason they took it away from him didn't necessarily have to do directly with his performance.”
A big part of the problem, Rogers says, was the climate at the time — 1974 was not all that far removed from the epicenter of the turbulent Civil Rights Movement in the 60's, and some factions of the fan base did not like the idea of an African-American in the position of quarterback, even someone with Gilliam’s definitive and proven ability. Gilliam was the target of a shocking amount of hatred and bigotry while with the Steelers. His car was vandalized, he received hate mail and his life — and the lives of his family — were threatened.
Yet despite these obstacles, Gilliam was still able to perform far and beyond the average player in his position. When Gilliam was removed from quarterback, The Steelers, with Gilliam starting at this point, were 4-1 and winning. In Rogers’ film, Terry Bradshaw acknowledges that he didn't earn his position back as quarterback; it was only given to him when Gilliam was removed from the position. Bradshaw’s performance as starting quarterback was inconsistent, and he was briefly replaced by the third string quarterback, Terry Hanratty. When that didn’t work out, Bradshaw was given another chance — Gilliam never had another shot. He was let go by the Steelers at the end of the 1975 season. He was picked up briefly by the New Orleans Saints, and played for a few semi-pro teams — the Baltimore Eagles and the New Orleans Blue Knights — in the late 70s and early 80s, but a comeback never materialized. Gilliam battled drug addiction during this time, and was even homeless for a few years. Eventually, he was able to piece his life back together, and had been clean for years when he died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 2000.
There is much to be told about Joe Gilliam, and Rogers’ objective is that this documentary gets national exposure, “Currently ESPN is looking at the project,” Rogers says. “PBS is another consideration. Also I spoke with NBC's Bob Costas, I interviewed him for my movie and had a conversation with him. He has said that he would do whatever he could to assist me including possibly getting it shown on his network.”
“I believe this is the type of story is one that deserves to be on a national level,” Rogers continues. “He (Gilliam) made major contributions to sports and society at the time where I feel that the things he did deserve to be recognized. So once I'm completed with it, it will be seen on the national platform. I will be getting a distribution deal but I'm just not sure exactly where it's going to land right now.”
Never having worked on a documentary before, Rogers is plowing ahead with a passion to tell a story that has been forgotten for years and along the way has developed his own personal philosophy that keeps his drive focused and determined in spite of whatever odds he faces or when he faces public doubts about his ability to produce a documentary on his own; “I don't let other people dictate my level of success,” Rogers maintains. “I don't let people dictate the gravity of my goals. I've heard people ask that — how do you think if you've never made a film before that you think you could make something good enough that people would want to see it? When I committed to being a journalist, I went through the same thing, hearing people say that I've never been published before, who's going to read my stuff? There's some things you cannot measure. You can't measure heart, you can't measure persistence and to some degree confidence is measurable but to a large degree it isn't. When you combine those things with intellect and a well thought out plan, there isn't anything you can't do.”
With an estimated completion date set for the end of summer, Rogers hopes to have the story of Joe Gilliam told in its entirety. The story of the magnificent abilities and the tragedies that ended a promising career before it even really began, Rogers intends to introduce the country to the rightful legend that is Joe Gilliam.
Clips of Dexter Rogers work on Joe Gilliam can be seen on YouTube.