The last time Jefferson Street Joe Willie Gillie Gilliam, the sweet soul flinger of Pittsburgh, made as spectacular a splash as he did in the Steelers 30-0 win over Baltimore last Sunday was the time, several years ago, when he met his wife Beverly. Joe saw her sitting beside a swimming pool one day and thought to impress her with a swan dive. He spread his arms, soared beautifully off the board and hit nose first.
"There was blood all over the water," he recalls with a certain pride. Little wonder that Gilliam did not go on to become the first great black pro diver. Last Sunday, though, he became the first black ever to start and win an opening day National Football League game.
He did not fall on his face. Far from it. Two hours after the game, as the trash was being swept up in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and football markings were being effaced so that more baseball could be played, Gilliam's bubbling spirit could still be sensed soaring above the field.
Some of the credit was due other Steelers - a defense that throttled the Colts, an offensive line that Gilliam may make as famous as O.J. Simpson made his and nine different tough and flashing pass receivers that even included a diving Swann.
But Joey Gilliam, the pride of Jefferson Street, Nashville, Tennessee, was the main man. In three quarters of play against a Baltimore defense that had been resolute in pro-season play, he completed 17 of 31 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard bomb to Wide Receiver Lynn Swann, a rookie out of Southern California.
Where are all of those other black quarterbacks, long since converted into wide receivers or cornerbacks, they said pro football wasn't ready for? But let us not play this thing too much in terms of race and revolution. If Gilliam weren't grinning and skipping and waving his arms in delight after throwing a touchdown, you could see it as a nostalgia story.
"Joey's a throwback to the '50s, to the days of Waterfield and Van Brocklin throwing to Crazy Legs Hirsch and Tom Fears," says Steeler Vice-President Art Rooney Jr. "He hits people's hands."
The pass is back, thanks in part to rule changes this year that make the receiver's job less liable to harassment, and Joe can throw it. As he did a couple of times in similarly brilliant exhibition games this summer, he started out slowly against the Colts.
His first five passes were incomplete, and when he threw an interception to Rick Volk toward the end of the first quarter he walked to the sideline with only two completions, for 12 yards, in 10 throws. "I knew sooner or later I'd stop missing them and start hitting them," he said later.
The Pittsburgh defense, led by rushers L. C. Greenwood, Dwight (Mad Dog) White, Ernie Holmes and Mean Joe Greene, forced the Colts to punt. But Swann fumbled the kick and Baltimore recovered on the Pittsburgh 31, then punched as far as the one, which is where the Steelers stopped the last of three straight shots by Bill Olds.
And here came Gilliam again, stepping as cool as anything into a pocket formed by blockers who all afternoon never allowed a Colt to get more than a tentative hand on him. On the 13th play of the 99-yard drive, Gilliam threw a ball from the Steeler 46 that described an arc so pretty as to beggar description, and somewhere around the six-yard line Swann took it over his shoulder, having outsped and outmanoeuvred his man. If anything can give the bomb a good name again that pass did.
In the first quarter the Colts' starting quarterback, Marty Dornres, had been knocked out of the game, the convergence of Holmes and White having turned him into the center of an Oreo cookie.
Replacement Bert Jones, who can also hum a football, made an unsuccessful effort to get into the aerial act, and the next time the Steelers got the ball Gilliam needed only three plays to go 64 yards. Each of these plays was a pass. One was to Frank Lewis for 20 yards. The second was to Swann for 40, and the third was a four-yard looper to Lewis over on the right side for a touchdown to make the score 16-0 at the half.
In the third quarter, Bert Jones squirmed out of one ambush for a one-yard gain - causing Holmes, who got up to game weight by eating "two lobsters, some crabs, a bunch of shrimps and two burgers," to bang the ground in frustration. An interference call in the Pittsburgh secondary and Jones' passes to Tight End Ray Chester and Wide Receiver Glenn Doughty brought the ball down to the Steeler 18. But that was about it for Jones and the Colts.
Mel Blount intercepted for the Steelers, and several passes and a couple of ground plays later (yes, ground plays) Franco Harris completed a 70-yard drive with a battering-ram run of four yards into the end zone. The Colts fumbled and Gilliam took over again, throwing this time to Frenchy Fuqua. Fuqua recently got a $10,000 bonus - which he has probably spent by now on several gold lame capes - from the New York WFL Stars by signing a contract for 1976 although the Pittsburgh front office maintains that he is bound to the Steelers until 1977.
He proved just as cute when Gilliam popped him with a short pass. The Frenchman juked, butted and squirted for 18 yards, and two plays later he ran for four yards through a bunch of people for the Steelers' fourth touchdown.
There were also a field goal and three extra points by Roy Gerela in there somewhere, but this was a game of arms and hands more than feet. Seldom last year did a Steeler quarterback pass for as many yards in a whole game as Gilliam did last Sunday in the second quarter alone, when he completed nine of 11 for 151 yards.
Everyone knows how deep the Steelers are in quarterbacks. Behind Gilliam are last year's starter, Terry Bradshaw, who lost his assignment after Gilliam's outstanding exhibition season and says now that he wants to be traded, and last year's No. 2, Terry Hanratty, who played the fourth quarter against the Colts.
Pittsburgh's depth in receivers and pass protectors is almost as impressive. Gilliam was able to find so many different targets that rookie John Stallworth, the Steelers' most impressive receiver during the exhibition season, caught only two passes and veteran Ron Shanklin, last year's team leader in receptions, had no receptions.
The men who held the Baltimore rush away from Gilliam included Tackle Jon Kolb, who has been emerging as one of the best and strongest offensive linemen in the game; Center Ray Mansfield; Guard Sam Davis; Tackle Gordie Gravelle; Jim Clack, who switched from center to guard and bowled over one tackier so beautifully that Gilliam broke up in laughter; Gerry Mullins, who played both guard and tackle; and Mike Webster, who is that rare thing, a rookie who seems to be holding his own as an offensive guard.
In the six exhibition games Steeler quarterbacks were sacked only three times. So solid is the Steeler offensive front these days that Coach Chuck Noll felt free last week to trade away injured eight year veteran Guard Bruce Van Dyke, who made the Pro Bowl last year and was described by a sad Steeler fan after the deal as "one of the well-likedest guys in town. Van Dyke, who got along with everyone in town but Noll, was best known for his work as a pulling guard, often in front of Franco Harris.
The Steeler offense this year is clearly going to be geared not to the run but to the classic drop-back passing which Gilliam has been a wonder at since his college days. Maybe "classic" isn't exactly the word. Gilliam often seems to be throwing off the wrong foot or with both of them in the air. He tends to hold the ball down low instead of up by his ear before he throws, but his delivery is so quick that he gets the ball off faster than most anybody anyway.
It is also not classic for a quarterback to smile and bounce around with both hands in the air after a successful play. But that too is Joe Gillie. So what.