The strains of a disco hit pierced the warm, muggy atmosphere of the Cardinal Gibbons High School stadium and excited the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Eagles.

"Ain't no stopping us now," went the lyric, "we're on the move...don't you let nothing, nothing, stand in our way..."

Along the sidelines, the quarterback, Joe Gilliam, began to dance to the music. He was in the midst of leading his semipro Atlantic Football Conference team to victory with five touchdown passes. Within the bounds of the 100-by-53-yard playing field, all was well in Joe Gilliam's world.

But the world is larger than the Cardinal Gibbons stadium.

The scene at Cardinal Gibbons, jubilant through it was, had a tragic aspect to it. For Joe Gilliam has known the larger world, and in that larger world is found the National Football League.

The man who is now finding joy in mauling mediocre semipro opposition was once a budding star for the Pittsburgh Steelers, good enough to beat Terry Bradshaw out of a job and earn the nickname Jefferson Street Joe after a street in his home town of Memphis.

But a trouble-plagued private life has shrunk Gilliam's world the last five years and so far stifled his attempt to return to the NFL. At the heart of Gilliam's problems is his unsuccessful struggle with heroin addiction.

These days, while Gilliam revels in the admiration of the Baltimore Eagle fans, he is also taunted occasionally by spectators and opposing players.

"We played a game against the Pittsburgh Colts and some of their players were yelling personal stuff about drugs and stuff like that," said Eagle wide receiver Frank Russell. "They were trying to get him into a fight and thrown out of the game because he was passing them silly. But Joe said to them, "You're not getting to my head.""

When the final "good game, Joe" was adknowledged after a recent home game, Gilliam sought solitude. He sat alone in the darkness outside the Eagle dressing room, perhaps wondering how long and how hard would be the road back to the NFL.

Gilliam refuses to share his thoughts on a comeback or anything else, telling reporters, "I'm not rapping."

""Street" should talk," said one player, "at least selectively. If not, hes going to end up like Duane Thomas. He's got to let people know what's on his mind."

Gilliam's NFL adventures began in 1972 when he was drafted by the Steelers in the 11th round out of Tennessee State. He spent his first two years as a bench warmer, but a fine 1974 preseason earned him the starting job ahead of Bradshaw.

His aerial shows produced three 30-point-plus games at the outset of the season - indluding one 348-yard passing game - and a 4-1-1 record.

"I never saw a young quarterback come in and dominate a game like Joe Gilliam," said Steeler center Ray Mansfield.

But many Pittsburgh fans became upset at the thought of a black quarterback guiding the team. Gilliam said then that half of his mail included racist comments.

Next the Steeler coaches began to get down on Gilliam because they did not feel the young quarterback was establishing the Steeler ground attack. Bradshaw started the final eight games, the team went 6-2 to finish the year and went on to win its first Super Bowl.

The vote of no-confidence by Steeler Coach Chuck Noll, plus the fact that, later that season, even Terry Hanratty played before Gilliam, further shattered Gilliam's team spirit.

Gilliam continued to ride the bench through the following season and by the '76 offseason was openly demanding to be put on waivers. Gilliam, who had amassed nearly $5,000 in team fines for being late to or entirely missing practices and team meetings, finally got his wish in June when the Steelers waived him.

It was about that time, according to Gilliam, that he began experimenting with drugs.

Not one NFL team claimed him off waivers and he became a free agent.

Gilliam then went to the New Orleans Saint camp but his drug habit forced him to miss several practices. By that time, he had been charged with possessing a small amount of cocaine in Nashville. In August, the Saints waived him for breaking club rules.

The following summer Gilliam again tried out with the Saints. In August, he was quoted as saying that faith had helped him kick his heroin habit. He had an excellent chance of becoming New Orleans No. 1 quarterback. But Gilliam ruined his chances when he failed to attend more than three consecutive practices.

"You can't help somebody if he doesn't want to help himself," said New Orleans Coach Hank Stram. "Joe had so much native skill and so many excellent qualities. I would have liked to see him succeed. But he just couldn't cope with those health problems.

Gilliam was again waived.

"I think that if somebody felt he was truly rid of his problems, he would get another shot with an NFL team," said Stram. "But until he proves he is, nobody's willing to take the chance."

During the next few months, Gilliam twice was arrested for alleged armed robbery and also for alleged possession of heroin.

Perhaps the final straw for any interested NFL coach was Gilliam's experience with the Pittsburgh Wolf Pak of the AFC last year. The Wolf Pak's executive director, R. J. Baker, recounted:

"For nine weeks everything was excellent. We opened the season in front of 8,000 in a driving rain. They loved Joe. We thought it was just a matter of time before he would be back in the NFL. That would have been a big feather in our cap.

"Then things deteriorated. I think he got back into the junk. His weight slipped from 198 to just over 170. He started skipping practices and arguing with the coaching staff. At one game in Buffalo, there was media present from all over the country. Joe did not play well, was removed and went into a tirade on the sidelines.

"Joe can be very engaging when he wants to, but he can also be just as difficult. He came to me afterward and demanded that the whole coaching staff be fired.

"Also, some old charges (armed robbery in Nashville) were brought to light by the media. People started delving into his past.

"A lot of people in the Pittsburgh area thought he had blown a golden chance. Nobody would have anything to do with him after those events. He could not even get a job in the area."

Gilliam and the Wolf Pak finally parted in August over "irreconcilable differences."

Baker said that prior to those incidents, at least four NFL and Canadian League teams had seemed interested. Since Gilliam became an Eagle, no NFL squad has contacted him, although Baltimore Colt Coach Ted Marchibroda watched one Eagle practice and Gilliam is a frequent spectator at Colt workouts.

Eagle owner Jim Sears had been informed by Baker that Gilliam had moved to Baltimore and early this summer persuaded him to play for the Eagles.

Gilliam has pleased everybody except opponents this season.

"He's got the finest arm of any quarterback I've ever played with," said Russell, a former University of Maryland receiver. "You might think that Joe would have a swelled head, having played in the NFL and now competing on this level. But he doesn't put on any airs. He works as hard as anyone else."

Gilliam earned $75,000 per year with the Steelers but receives only road-trip meal money for quarterbacking the Eagles. Sears also employs Gilliam as a public relations man for Sears' oil corporation.

"I'm happy to have Joe," Sears said. "He has put it together for us. As far as I'm concerned, what's in his past is gone. He's been cutting it both on and off the field."

Have any of Gilliam's NFL-caliber passing skills eroded?

Several Baltimore Colts watched the quarterback toss his five touchdown passes against an admittedly porous secondary at a recent home game. Colt receiver Glenn Doughty ventured an opinion:

"I'd like to see a horseshoe (Colt emblem) on his helmet." CAPTION: Picture 1, Joe Gilliam now is the biggest kid on his semipro block. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post; Picture 2, One Baltimore quarterback, Joe Gilliam, signs autographs