40 years ago, Briscoe broke QB barrier

October, 6, 2008
10/06/08
4:52
PM ET
Darryl Norenberg/Getty Images
In 1968, Marlin Briscoe became the first black quarterback in the modern era to start a game.

Forty years have passed -- a long time, but not a lifetime.

What a big moment it was then. Now it's a weekly occurrence in multiple NFL stadiums.

A black quarterback starting in the NFL is no big deal these days. A couple generations have grown up with Doug Williams and Warren Moon and Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick running offenses.

But when Marlin Briscoe broke the Denver Broncos huddle and surveyed the Cincinnati Bengals defense as he walked to the line of scrimmage Oct. 6, 1968, he became the first black quarterback in the modern era to start a game.

"It's come a long way," Briscoe said from his home in Long Beach, Calif. "They thought a black man could not think, throw and lead at that level."

Now the United States could be on the verge of electing its first black president.

Willie Thrower was the first black quarterback to get into an NFL game in 1953, but stereotypes and small-mindedness prevented coaches from providing a real opportunity until Lou Saban, partially out of desperation, handed the job to Briscoe.

John Wooten recalled the feeling of anticipation upon learning Briscoe would make the historic start. Wooten, a star guard for the Cleveland Browns, was playing the last season of his 10-year career with the Washington Redskins in 1968.

"To see him get an opportunity was exhilarating to us," said Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that promotes racial diversity in NFL front offices. "You know that so much is riding on what he does. If he falls flat on his face, no one else might ever get this opportunity again.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Marlin Briscoe was converted to a receiver after his one season at quarterback.

"That nervousness, I liken it to being in a championship game that means so much to your organization and your teammates. But this, of course, meant so much to us as a race, as a people. There was pressure, but we were glad to be in the game."

Briscoe was 5-foot-10 and 177 pounds when the Broncos took a 14th-round flyer on him in the 1968 AFL draft. Marlin the Magician thrived at the University of Nebraska-Omaha but was eighth on the Broncos' QB depth chart in training camp. If he was to make the team, he would need to play defensive back or maybe receiver.

But starter Steve Tensi suffered a broken collarbone, and backup Joe DiVito was spotty. Saban eventually summoned Briscoe from the sidelines in the fourth quarter against the Boston Patriots on Sept. 29. Briscoe's first play was a 22-yard completion. On his second series he orchestrated an 80-yard touchdown drive. He completed a 21-yard pass and ran for 38 more himself, carrying it the last 12 yards for the score.

An account of Briscoe's relief appearance in the Broncos' Oct. 6 program said he "ignited both the Broncos and Bronco fans here last Sunday with a flashy fourth-period performance that had the Boston Patriots on the ropes when time ran out."

Briscoe threw 14 touchdown passes that year, still Denver's rookie record. He completed only 41.5 percent of his passes, but his 17.1-yard average led the AFL. He also ran for 308 yards and three touchdowns.

"What I recall was the scouting report created a whole different problem," said Dolphins safety Dick Anderson, a fellow rookie in 1968 who later became Briscoe's teammate. "He wasn't tall, but he added that extra dimension that he could run, sprint out and throw well. Fran Tarkenton was the only one like him at that time. You had to be concerned about it."

Briscoe lasted only one year before he succumbed to the fate of so many other hopeful black college quarterbacks. Just as Iowa's Wilburn Hollis, Minnesota's Sandy Stephens and Michigan State's Jimmy Raye before him, Briscoe was converted to another position.

"I should not have to have been the first black quarterback in the league," Briscoe said. "There were successful black quarterbacks who were switched to another position because that's what teams did."

The Broncos cut Briscoe before the 1969 season. The Buffalo Bills turned him into a receiver, though the move wasn't racially motivated. The Bills already had superstar Jack Kemp, former Pro Bowler Tom Flores and James Harris, another black quarterback and a more prototypical one at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds.

Briscoe never played quarterback again, but he enjoyed a splendid career. He led Buffalo in touchdown catches in each of his three seasons there and receptions twice. He was their lone Pro Bowler in 1970.

The Bills traded Briscoe to the Dolphins for a first-round draft pick that became Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure. Briscoe went on to win a pair of Super Bowls. On teams with Paul Warfield, Briscoe led the undefeated 1972 team with four touchdown receptions and had the most catches in 1973.

But Briscoe was bitter. He smoldered over not being a quarterback anymore.

"There was resentment he wasn't still a quarterback," Anderson said. "He felt he always should have been a quarterback. But with our team, in the end, we had Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, and those were going to be our quarterbacks. If Marlin was going to play he was going to be a receiver."

Not even the Super Bowl rings could ease Briscoe's bitterness.

He rather would've lost on his terms than win championships on somebody else's.

"It meant that much to me," Briscoe said. "But when I look back on it today, not really. Every athlete that plays a sport wants those championship rings. Those rings define your career, and I don't know if I would have been able to quarterback teams to Super Bowl rings.

"I cherish those rings. I cherish the memories of that close-knit team that we had. The rings mean everything, more so than not being able to compete at the position. But I do believe, deep down, that I could have been a successful quarterback in the National Football League."

He doesn't have the rings anymore either. He lost them while his post-retirement life spiraled out of control.

Briscoe made stops with the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots before he finished his career in 1976. He moved to Los Angeles and became a successful broker, dealing in municipal bonds.

"Marlin was smart," Anderson said. "Guys would be reading comic books, and he was reading the Wall Street Journal."

But Southern California in the 1970s was a fantasyland. Briscoe was a famous former football star, a two-time Super Bowl champion. He had money. He was popular.

"I got to partying," Briscoe said. "I never thought anything like that could overtake me. I didn't have to work out any more. I had a good job, a house, I was single. I put myself in an arena that I wasn't used to.

"The next thing I know, I was the only one partying. I was by myself, out of it. It started with the thought I would never get addicted, but it sneaks up on you like a linebacker I couldn't beat."

Briscoe started using drugs -- and heavily. He was overwhelmed by a crack-cocaine addiction. He lost his home. Dealers and street toughs mocked him with the nickname "Seventeen-and-oh" in reference to what should have been a glorious reminder of his NFL days. He went to prison.

He stressed he didn't lose his Super Bowl rings to drug dealers as many assume, although he admitted he lost them because of drugs. He put them up for collateral to secure a bank loan and defaulted. The rings were auctioned off.

Briscoe, who turned 63 last month, claimed he has been sober since 1990. He's the assistant director of the Long Beach Boys & Girls Club and co-owns a mini-storage facility. He plays golf at least once a week.

"My proudest accomplishment was to overcome drugs and to have my sobriety," he said. "Drug addiction is a curse I don't wish on anybody. I think back on it now. How did I ever get involved into that lifestyle?"

Decades passed without much mention of Briscoe's role in sports history. That has changed in recent years. A Nike ad campaign that starred LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Urlacher, Vick, Deion Sanders and Don Shula among others took place at the fictional Marlin Briscoe High.

A motion picture is being planned about Briscoe's life. "The Magician" is in pre-production.

"We always have to take our hats off to those guys, to the men that paved the way," Wooten said. "They could not afford to fail."

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