It’s been said that every good story involves personal redemption. So maybe that’s why when former TSU and NFL great Joe Gilliam died on Christmas, the local media plucked the Hollywood ending: A talented black quarterback broke racial barriers, plunged into drug addiction, and then, after decades of poverty and despair, began to turn his life around.
But Tennessean columnists Larry Woody and Dwight Lewis, both of whom were friends with Gilliam, presented a more somber account. Shunning the feel-good storyline, they suggested that the former quarterback continued to be haunted by the same old demons.
“Joey dropped by a few months ago to ask for what had become a frequent loan,” Woody wrote in a column the Wednesday after Gilliam’s death. “He was malnourished, wearing old clothes and the sour smell of the street.”
Then on Sunday, Lewis reported a similarly sad anecdote: One of the last times he saw Gilliam, Lewis wrote, the former football star was walking toward a mysterious crowd convening by a closed liquor store.
Nearly all other news accounts, however, went with the uplifting story angle that Gilliam was said to have been pitching to book agents. WSMV-Channel 4’s Rudy Kalis noted in that folksy manner of his that Gilliam had appeared to have straightened out his life. The City Paper reported without attribution that Gilliam was in his “third year of successful recovery.” And The Tennessean’s own Jim Wyatt wrote that Gilliam “appeared to be on an upward swing.” In fairness to Wyatt, he quoted no shortage of people who testified to Gilliam’s good health.
Perhaps they were too willing to give Gilliam the benefit of the doubt. Woody says that during the decades he knew the football star, he would always fall back into addiction just when you thought he had turned the corner. “People who didn’t know Joey tended to be charmed by him. If he wanted you to believe he was fine, he could,” Woody says. “He convinced me dozens of times over the years that he was doing fine, and then the next week he was back in the news busted for drugs. It did not surprise me that a lot of people saw what they wanted to see in Joey.”
Naturally, not everyone was happy with Woody’s column. But the veteran sportswriter makes no apologies. “Some people are trying to portray him as a victim. But he is not a victim. He had chances that you and I would never have gotten,” Woody says. “Everyone in the world was pulling for him, but in the end all his problems were inflicted by him.”
At-large Metro Council member Howard Gentry went to Pearl Cohn High School with Gilliam and spoke to the former quarterback just a few days before his death. Gentry, who, like Gilliam, broke a few racial barriers himself in 1999 when he became the first black elected countywide to the Metro Council, says that his old friend seemed to be faring better. He wishes that Woody and Lewis held back a little. “I can’t say what they wrote was incorrect, but I would not have written that at this timeone, out of respect for the family during this time of bereavement and also, due to the fact that that’s not my last impression of Joe Gilliam.”
But perhaps by detailing the protracted ordeal of drug addiction and how difficult it is to overcome, Woody and Lewis did their younger readers a service. “People told me that I shouldn’t resurrect his drug problems after his death, but you can’t hide it or disguise it,” Woody says. “Hopefully some kid will read the column and say ‘look what happened to Joe Gilliam, drugs destroyed his life, and I’m not going to get into it.’ ”
Throughout the presidential election, local journalists grumbled about how poorly organized the Nashville-based Gore campaign was. They received one final reminder this past week.
When Al Gore dropped by TSU for a campaign appearance a few days before the election, his staff snapped photos of the candidate chatting with local anchors. WKRN-Channel 2’s Bob Mueller opened up the envelope from the campaign recently, only to find the mug of WZTV-Fox 17’s Ashley Webster. Mueller called Webster to see if they could just switch photos. Webster’s envelope, however, contained a picture of WTVF-Channel 5’s Chris Clark.
In a recent column, in which I wrote that the year 2000 was not a “banner year for the local media,” I identified GOP firebrand Tom DeLay as a Louisiana congressman. Actually, DeLay is from Texas. Thanks to everyone who kindly (and not so kindly) pointed out the mistake.
Matt Pulle can be reached at Mpulle@nashvillescene.com. Or call him at 244-7989, ext. 445.