One week after he was picked up on waivers by the New Orleans Saints, Joe Gilliam was picked up on Interstate 40 in Nashville, driving 85 mph. The trooper who stopped the car found a tiny tinfoil packet thrown onto the road. It contained cocaine. The trooper also discovered two marijuana "roaches" in the ashtray. A .380 automatic pistol, wrapped in a towel, was under the seat.

Gilliam was arrested and charged with possession of a weapon and controlled substances.

The year was 1976 and Gilliam was 25, a former starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, having, two years before, beaten out Terry Bradshaw. He was known for his powerful arm and flamboyant "Jefferson Street Joe" image.

Coach Chuck Noll, however, returned to Bradshaw, who quarterbacked the team to Pittsbugh's first Super Bowl victory, and Gilliam's life soured. He amassed nearly $5,000 in team fines for being late or missing practices and meetings. He demanded a trade, and, finally, the Steelers waived him.

Matters did not improve in New Orleans. Gilliam's drug problems forced him to miss several practices. And then came the bust on Interstate 40.

Attempts at court-ordered drug rehabilitation failed, those who knew Gilliam well said. There were other brushes with the law, including one that was drug related.

For a few months in 1978 he seemed to be doing better, playing for the Pittsburgh Wolf Pak of the semipro Atlantic Football Conference. But those who knew him said that drugs still were a persistent problem, that it would take time before Joe Gilliam made it back.

Yesterday, after Gilliam had finished his second day of a three-day tryout with the Washington Federals, the slender, almost rail-like quarterback reluctantly described his road out of a horrifying life.

"I wish I could tell you it happened all of a sudden on a Sunday morning, but it was hard, it took time," he said. "The press never let up. They were always dwelling on the past. I didn't appreciate it and I know my fans didn't appreciate it."

Gilliam is 32 now. He is as wiry as a teen-ager, but the occasional scar and a few gray hairs tell otherwise. He credits his family, friends and religion for his ability to end his drug problem.

"My problems are over," Gilliam said. "There was a time when I just didn't think positive the way I do now. I was on a whole other page."

Gilliam cut the tape away from his ankles and smoked a menthol cigarette. He refused to discuss the specifics of his past. He said he was tired of talking about it, tired of hearing about it and reading about it.

"You guys (in the press) don't want to let me take that jacket off, and I haven't worn it for a long time," he said. "I'm older now, but I have no advice to give. When people have personal problems they shouldn't give too much advice. Nobody talks nobody out of nothing."

No one could talk Gilliam out of doing the thing he knew best. For the past five years, he has played quarterback semiprofessionally. He played last season for the New Orleans Blue Knights of the Dixie Football League. He makes his living as a stevedore on the New Orleans docks.

"The money is just enough to get me by," he said.

In January he tried out for the Denver Gold of the U.S. Football League, but as the regular season approached, Coach Red Miller released him in favor of keeping Jeff Knapple and Kenny Johnson.

"I knew I played well enough to make that team," Gilliam said. "But I knew Red Miller wanted Knapple, so what could I do about it? I should have made the team." Knapple played under Miller with the Denver Broncos, but recently Miller has been starting Johnson.

With Mike Hohensee out for at least a month with a fractured sternum, and Kim McQuilken having difficulties getting the Federals touchdowns, Coach Ray Jauch knew he needed help at quarterback. In fact, the Federals had been interested in Gilliam for months.

"We're glad to have him," said Jauch. "He's just getting used to our system and for a quarterback that takes a while."

Jauch and General Manager Dick Myers will have to decide soon whether they want to sign Gilliam to a contract or end the tryout.

"How well I play is for others to say," said Gilliam. "I'm just going to keep trying. All I want is a job as quarterback. That's all I want."