I have heard the old saying “if you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it.” I prefer, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you going.” Without knowing our history, it is hard to appreciate those that have paved the way for you. I have always been taught to stand on my own two feet and blaze my own trails.
However, the influence of my parents, especially my father, has been tremendous to me throughout my life. I heard that having a father figure in your life is the closest thing we get to seeing God in the flesh. I could not agree more. As a youngster, I found myself holding my father up as the standard of how I wanted to live my life. Anything that was good enough for him was certainly good enough for me. I was taught to at least give things a try. He doesn’t know this but hearing his stories of his childhood gave me hope and justification in mine. If he could act a fool in school and still get good grades then surely I could go to school and excel. I had no choice in the matter.
Steeler Pride runs deep at my father’s house. I’m not even big on football but I always enjoy watching the Steelers play. Steeler Pride is so deep in my family blood that even when my former Tennessee State University track teammates played against them, I still rooted for the Steelers. To know why is a bit of a history lesson. In high school, my father played football and dreamed of going to the league. He told me once that in his day, TSU was known around the world for bringing the best black football players to the NFL. I am not going to try to name all the names of NFL greats that have played football at TSU that my father knows personally but the name that stands above all names is Joe Gilliam, Jr., the first black quarterback in the National Football League (NFL).
Joe Gilliam Jr. played football at Pearl High School and led his team to the very first integrated city championship in 1966. I know that well because I attended middle and high school at the historic Pearl High School building, now known as Martin Luther King Magnet High School. There’s a small shrine to Joe Gilliam in a room behind the auditorium that stays locked. How I know this is a subject for another story. The Gilliam name came to mean much more to me as I graduated and prepared for college. I visited numerous schools and I received many offers to attend other colleges but TSU was my first and only choice.
My only financial concern regarding school was my books. Imagine my surprise after being enrolled at TSU that my book purchases were paid for by a third party. I later learned that it was billed to the Joe Gilliam Foundation. It was then I began to piece my fathers lover of the Steelers, the Gilliam name and my family together.
I heard every story about every game, every long night at practice, about every “boy you gonna’ be a man when I get through with you,” in short, every and all things Coach Gilliam. The very idea of disappointing Coach Gilliam, my father’s hero, made me go to class even when I did not want too. After all, he was paying for my books! I had no choice.
After a few semesters, I moved off the yard. As fate would have it, I moved across the hall from none other than Coach Gilliam. I suddenly understood every conversation I heard my father tell about curfews.
Living across the hall from Coach Gilliam was an experience I will never forget. I read every book he read. I ate what he ate. I watched every football game ever played by anyone that was suited in a Big Blue uniform. And no matter how I tried, I could not leave my apartment without his door opening to make sure I was alone.
Living next day to Coach Gilliam I definitely learned perseverance.
In his time as a coach at TSU, Joe Gilliam Sr. helped develop 144 players who had professional football careers with the National Football League, including NFL Hall of Famer Richard Dent and former Dallas Cowboy Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones.
Living in my father’s house, on campus and across the hall from Coach Gilliam, I understand fully what it means to love TSU. I know without a doubt that I stand on the shoulders of those before me. I wouldn’t be where I am without my family. And my father would not be who he is without having men like Coach Gilliam who made sure he did not have to walk on grass but on the road that was paved by their sacrifices.
The day I met Coach Gilliam, I understood what legacy meant. My father’s legacy became mine as well.
Coach Joe Gilliam Sr. served as defensive coordinator at TSU and most likely one of the most influential men in my father’s life. My father, Roger Holmes, played football for TSU. all these years when my father repeatedly called the Gilliam name, from the time I was knee high to an ant, he was referring to Joe Gilliam, Sr!
Hailed for his greatness on and off the field, Coach Joe Gilliam Sr. was inducted into the TSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Tennessee Sports Hall Of Fame in 2007 before passing away on November 14, 2012. I thank him for every lesson he taught me about being a man in the game of life! The evenings spent with you Coach, will always be treasured.