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Local filmmaker takes on Steelers' quarterback legacy

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For more on local sports, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1.

Joe Gilliam broke barriers but faced resistance, trouble times

Saturday, December 8, 2012 - 6:37 am

Fort Wayne's Dexter Rogers became a filmmaker by accident.

A freelance writer, Rogers was researching a piece about Joe Gilliam, who broke barriers as an African-American playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the infancy of their 1970s dynasty.

As Rogers researched, the project grew.

“This should be a movie,” he thought.

So Rogers decided to make it. He has no formal film training. No track record to tout to potential investors. No corporate backing to kick the thing into motion.

Those roadblocks didn't deter him.

“My mind works a little different,” Rogers said. “I kind of work backward and I've always had a good attitude. I don't think about what I don't have. I think about what I have. I figure out what I need to do to accomplish what I need to accomplish.”

So Rogers began work on his first film, “Joe Gilliam: No Ordinary Joe.” He found archival footage. He interviewed people who knew Gilliam or had strong feelings about his plight, such as former NFL quarterback Warren Moon and NBC sportscaster Bob Costas.

Rogers now has a 45-minute feature moving toward 90 minutes. It's costly in time and money – he's open to help on the latter if anyone's inspired – but he's come too far now to back down.

“It belongs on an HBO or ESPN's '30 for 30' or PBS or NFL Network,” Rogers said. “It belongs on a national platform and that's the goal, to get a distribution deal on that level and see what happens.”

The story is wide-ranging one, encompassing Gilliam's life as the starting quarterback for the Steelers, through losing his job to a variety of factors, touching on the racial climate in sports at the time. It details Gilliam's descent into addiction to painkillers and other drugs. It talks about how he climbed back, only to die young.

Rogers, a Northrop High School graduate, has had his writing published in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online sites and spends most of his writing working on opinion pieces. While he has his opinion about Gilliam's rise and fall, he's trying to let the story tell itself.

A shorter version of his documentary won a Philo T. Farnsworth award for “sports entertainment/talk.”

“All of the writing I've done has been commentary,” Rogers said. “I let people know what I think. That's how I'm wired. But in this situation, I have to relax that. I don't want it to be about my opinion. This is how his life was and I want people to come to their own conclusion about what actually transpired.”

Terry Bradshaw, who took over as quarterback for Gilliam, has commented on the situation over the years, and Rogers has archival footage of Bradshaw talking. He still hopes to film a current interview with Bradshaw.

“Bradshaw has been very, very honest and very, very candid about what happened,” Rogers said. “He has stated he knew Joe was a better quarterback and never beat him out.”

Rogers would like to have the film done in six months, but he says it might take longer because of the costs involved for an independent first-time filmmaker.

“This guy deserves to have his story told,” Rogers said. “What Joe did led to championships. A lot of players in sports get screwed over, but it's very rare that those individuals that got screwed over had their efforts lead to igniting a dynasty.

“I asked Warren Moon, I asked Joe's best friend, Bradshaw has said it. If Joe had been the quarterback, could they have won multiple Super Bowls? They say yes without question. Bradshaw said it. Moon said it. Everybody says it.”

Rogers hopes the rest of the country will soon see Gilliam's story. Anyone interested in contributing to Rogers' film can do so by visiting www.indiegogo.com/projects/248592 or contacting him via email at drttcd@gmail.com.

An early draft of Rogers' documentary can be seen in the accompanying video.