Marlin Briscoe: A Forgotten Football Pioneer
Marlin Briscoe became the first black starting quarterback of the Super Bowl era when he started for the AFL’s Denver Broncos in 1968. It was a long and tumultuous road for the man known as the Magician. Briscoe is one of the pioneers of the sport but is seldom talked about, so I decided to pen this article about the tragedy and triumphs of his career in honor of Black History Month.
Before I get into his career, I want you to understand how good Marlin Briscoe was so you can understand how raw of a deal he got.
At the 53-second mark, Briscoe takes a snap from under center at his own 40-yard line. Briscoe immediately sprints out to his left on what would look like a modern-day speed option. But, instead of receiving a pitch from Briscoe, the backs set out to block, and Briscoe avoids defenders, sprinting back to his 30-yard line. Without breaking stride, he fires a throw 60-yards with perfect placement to the Chargers 5 yard line.
While rolling to his left and bringing all of his momentum with him, he was able to get squared and fire 60 yards across his body. I don’t know how many quarterbacks could do that in 1968, but I feel the list is short. Talent at the quarterback position has jumped leaps and bounds in the last 50 plus years, but even in 2022, the list of quarterbacks that could make a play like that is concise.
Now what if I told you that the quarterback that did make that throw started just 5 games as an NFL quarterback before being converted to wide receiver? This is the story of Marlin Briscoe.
Meeting the Magician
Young Marlin Briscoe grew up in South Omaha, Nebraska, on a hill that overlooked a stockyard and a meatpacking plant. At the time, Omaha was the largest livestock market and meatpacking center on the planet. Jobs in the slaughterhouse or at the meat market were some of the only work offered to black Americans living in Omaha in 1955. In 1955 about half of the black workers in the city commuted to South Omaha to work at the plant. Briscoe decided to avoid a life in the packing center at all costs, dedicating his childhood to sports and committing to throwing a football like his idol Johnny Unitas. The Magician gets his nickname from his box of sports equipment he brought everywhere. He called it his “Magic Box.”
Briscoe had supreme athleticism at a young age, but he still had trouble convincing coaches to put him at quarterback. It wasn’t expected for a black kid to play quarterback, and Marlin had to assert himself to get an opportunity. The controversy was over once Marlin had done enough convincing to throw the ball in front of his youth football coach. The Magician was the QB.
When he got to high school, Briscoe again had to battle for a spot at quarterback. On top of being black, Briscoe also stood just 5 foot 8, so the odds were stacked against him. After splitting time at quarterback his junior year, Marlin was moved to running back for his senior year. Briscoe made all city and starred as both a defensive back and a running back and started to receive college interest. But Briscoe still longed to create a more significant impact at the next level. He wanted to play quarterback.
However, the only school willing to meet Marlin’s demands was the University of Omaha. So Marlin stayed in Eastern Nebraska and worked to make his dreams a reality. After spending a year on the bench, Briscoe made all-conference as a sophomore and tore up the school record books his next couple of years. The Magician then missed the 1966 season with a vertebrae injury that almost ended his football career. He returned in 1967 after being granted a 5th year of eligibility, and he once again tore up the school record books. In his comeback game, he threw for 356 yards; By the time the season ended, he owned over 20 school records, owning every record pertaining to yards or touchdowns. The Magician was an All-American and the most prolific player in school history by season’s end.
Legendary scout Gil Brandt raved about Briscoe’s quickness and said he was as good as any big-time college football player of the time. A scout for the Saints, Dave Smith, credited Briscoe with having the greatest arm he had ever seen. However, to play at the next level, Briscoe would have to convince the league that he possessed the mental leadership that they did not believe people like him could have.
“There were a few things society didn’t think a black man could do, and [that was] think, throw, and lead.” Briscoe later said.
Despite his resume and relentless pursuit, Marlon Briscoe was drafted in the 14th round as a defensive back.
To this point, Briscoe had been following in the footsteps of Sandy Stephens. Stephens became the first black quarterback to make an All-American team when he did so with Minnesota in 1960. Stephens led the Gophers to two Rose Bowls and a National Championship before being drafted in the first round of the AFL Draft and the second of the NFL draft. Both teams wanted Stephens to change his position; His only option to continue playing quarterback was to join the Canadian Football League. Briscoe was hellbent on playing QB, but he wanted to do it in America.
Briscoe negotiated his contract to force the Broncos to give him a three-day trial at quarterback in front of the fans and media. Unfortunately, what Briscoe received was far less than a fair shake. Briscoe broke down the process in an interview with Third and a Mile. When it was time for drills, He would go last, and if the other quarterbacks received ten reps, he would usually receive 5.
“I remember him being there, when he tried out,” receiver Eric Crabtree recalls. “We knew he wasn’t going to be a quarterback. At that time, there weren’t any Black quarterbacks. Everybody who was a Black quarterback became a defensive back. That was just automatic.”
Some Good Fortune
Briscoe received some good fortune when the Broncos quarterback situation was blown to hell in 1968. In an exhibition, the starter Steve Tensi fractured his collarbone, so the team’s next move was to bring Jim McCormick out of retirement. McCormick failed to score and was benched after three quarters. Next was Jim LeClair, who threw three interceptions in a shutout loss. After all the controversy, the Broncos were out of people to put ahead of him. Marlon Briscoe was finally going to get a shot; a #15 quarterback jersey was put in his locker. Now it was Marlon Briscoe’s time.
He was where he wanted to be, but had spent his offseason playing cornerback, rather than learning the offensive playbook. Briscoe was thrown into the fire late with no professional training- His team trailing the Boston Patriots by 7. Briscoe led a touchdown drive on his second series, and despite the team suffering a tough 3 point loss, he showed poise. He’s proven that he could help Denver move the ball. Aside from establishing himself in Denver’s crowded QB room, Marlin Briscoe had forever established himself as the AFL’s first black quarterback.
Steve Tensi got the starting job back but failed to hold onto it. In a game against the Dolphins, Tensi played so bad that the Broncos fans began throwing toilet paper following his third interception of the half. As a result, Tensi was benched for Briscoe. Briscoe used his arm and legs to lead Denver back from a 14-point deficit, before he used his mind to make the winning play. With 2 minutes left, the ball at the 10-yard line, Marlin audibled into a run. He’d noticed the safety and middle linebacker were outside the tackles, opening a lane up the middle. Briscoe snuck 10 yards up the gut for the winning touchdown. For his gutty performance, Briscoe was named AP Offensive Player of the Week, yet Tensi remained the starter for the next three weeks.
In a game against the Bills, Marlin completed a 60-yard pass while time dwindled to set up a game-winning field goal attempt. Briscoe took hold of the starting job down the stretch after his 335 yards, four-touchdown performance against the Bills. These franchise single-game rookie records stood until John Elway came through Denver, and even he could only tie Briscoe’s touchdown record. The other 3 Denver quarterbacks would combine for six passing touchdowns for the 1968 season. After throwing four touchdowns against the Bills and three against the Chargers, Marlin Briscoe had seven in two weeks. Over 50 years later, Marlin Briscoe still holds the Broncos single-season rookie touchdown passing record.
Chiefs hall of fame coach Hank Stram praised Briscoe after their late-season matchup.
“I’ll say that Marlin Briscoe is the most dangerous scrambling quarterback I’ve seen in nine years in the American Football League,” Stram said after the game. “He’s like playing against 12 men.”
Briscoe put up eyepopping numbers down the stretch and finished second in rookie of the year voting. Despite making just five starts, Briscoe finished with 17 total touchdowns, tying league MVP Joe Namath (14 starts). Briscoe struggled with interceptions throwing 13, but everyone did at the time (Namath won MVP with 15 passing touchdowns and 17 interceptions). Briscoe’s interceptions are understandable because he received minimal coaching and began the season playing defense. Due to the times, he studied defenses on a reel-to-reel projector in his apartment.
Over 11 games and five starts, Briscoe tallied 1,897 total yards and 17 touchdowns. However, it wasn’t enough for coach Lou Saban who went back to Tensi at QB for the 1969 season. The Broncos signed Pete Liske from Canada, despite Briscoe still being on their roster, and held their quarterback meetings without notifying him in the summer of 1969. Subsequently, Briscoe received limited reps during the team’s “quarterback competition”. Things got tenser when he sat down with Lou Saban at the negotiation table. The Broncos offered Marlin a cornerback salary and denied his clause only to be used as a quarterback. On top of that, they wanted him to handle kick and punt returns. Marlin demanded his release.
Briscoe would never get another chance at quarterback, so he used the remainder of his career to become elite at another position. Marlin Briscoe signed with Buffalo and agreed to play wide receiver. In 2 years, Briscoe went from out of the league to all pro. He spent three seasons in Buffalo, leading the team in receiving touchdowns each year. In 1970 Briscoe became an all-pro and finished second in the NFL in receptions and yards with 57 catches for 1,036 yards.
After the 1971 season, a familiar face was brought to Buffalo when the Bills hired Briscoe’s old nemesis, Lou Saban. However, Marlin would finally receive good karma as the old ball coach immediately traded him to Miami. In Miami, Briscoe would become a contributing member on 2 Super Bowl-winning teams, including being a part of the 1972 undefeated team, perhaps the most outstanding team in NFL history.
Despite his success, like many black quarterbacks of his era, Briscoe couldn’t help but feel unfulfilled. He never got a genuine opportunity to do what he had been training for his entire life. Post-retirement, Briscoe struggled with drug abuse and legal issues, but has turned his life around; Now, he’s helping to mentor the next generation of black quarterbacks, quarterbacks that he paved the way for. To encourage the growth of the fraternity among Black quarterbacks, Briscoe, Randall Cunningham, Vince Evans, James Harris, Warren Moon, and Doug Williams formed an organization called ‘The Field Generals’ in the early 2000s. In 2011 a young quarterback who attended their camps, Cam Newton, was selected first overall in the NFL draft.