As we reflect on the accomplishments of pioneers throughout society and celebrate Black History Month, these five trail-blazing former Broncos players and coaches stand tall in team or league history for their accomplishments:
Gene Mingo: Pro football's first Black kicker
A triple threat as a kicker, return specialist and halfback, Mingo has a special spot in Broncos history beyond just his status as a pioneer. With a 76-yard return in the first game of the 1960 season, he scored the first punt return for a touchdown in franchise and American Football League history. With the score, the Broncos went on to win the first game in the AFL's existence.
"In that first year, being the first Black field goal kicker in the AFL and winning that first game for the Broncos, people tell me that I put the Broncos on the map," Mingo said in 2014.
Mingo led the team in scoring in three of its first four seasons and ranked third in scoring in pro football in that time. During his 1962 AFL All-Star season, Mingo broke Lou Groza's record of 23 made field goals with 27.
Marlin Briscoe: Modern pro football's first Black starting quarterback
Drafted by the Broncos with the intention of converting him to defensive back, Briscoe instead was able to stay at his preferred position because of an injury to starter Steve Tensi and poor play by the backup quarterbacks. The Broncos first inserted Briscoe in a Sept. 29, 1968 game against the Patriots, and he then made his first start in a Week 5 game against the Bengals on Oct. 6, which was the first time a Black quarterback started a game in modern pro football in America.
Briscoe would start the final four games of the season, as well, and end the season with 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He was the franchise's first quarterback to throw for double-digit touchdowns without throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. Briscoe would never start another game at quarterback, unfortunately, and while he would become a Super Bowl-winning receiver and a Pro Bowl talent later in his career, his love always lay in playing quarterback.
"With Marlin Briscoe, from talking to the people and seeing what I saw — Kyler Murray, that's exactly who Marlin was," Doug Williams said in 2021. "In 1968, they weren't ready for Kyler Murray. Hell, they weren't ready for Russell Wilson. They weren't ready for me in 1968."
Walter Highsmith: Pro football's first Black starting center
As Briscoe would later say, Walter Highsmith's moment of history "kind of went under the radar" in 1968. As with Briscoe, Highsmith played a position that carried stereotypical presumptions based on race. As such, he became the first Black center to start at the position in the same game when Briscoe made history.
"My dad told me about the history of offensive linemen in the NFL and how African-Americans usually played the left tackle position, and they didn't play guard and they didn't play center," Highsmith's son, Alonzo, said in 2021. "… It was no different than the Black quarterback — wasn't [thought to be] smart enough. Guards and centers were the smartest guys, and the athletic guys played tackle."
Charlie Lee: The Broncos' first Black coach
In 1981, Lee joined the Broncos' staff to coach running backs under Dan Reeves following four years coaching wide receivers at the University of Texas. Prior to his collegiate-coaching career, Lee spent five years leading Kansas City's Central High School football team to a 40-5 record. So, at 36 years old, Lee became the franchise's first Black coach.
The next year, Lee left coaching but stayed with the Broncos as he became the team's director of public relations. He would stay on the administrative side for about a decade before moving into the front office as a college scout. In that role, Lee helped change the franchise's trajectory by scouting a wide receiver named Rod Smith from Missouri Southern and urging the Broncos to sign him as an undrafted free agent.
Eric Studesville: The Broncos' first Black head coach
A longtime running backs coach with 13 years of experience by the time of his arrival in Denver in 2010, Studesville would make the jump to interim head coach after Denver decided to part ways with Josh McDaniels with four games left in the 2010 season. Given the Broncos' struggles before that point, Studesville's biggest impact as head coach may have been his willingness to start Tim Tebow for the final three games of the year; the move proved fruitful both in making the team more competitive to end the year and in giving Tebow and the team a level of confidence to make the same move the following year as he helped lead the team on a remarkable run to the postseason.
Studesville remained on staff as the team's running backs coach for seven more years, including the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 championship season, and he was also the assistant head coach in 2017 under Vance Joseph, who was the team's first Black full-time head coach. Since then, he has coached four seasons with the Dolphins.