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The Making of The Magician: How Marlin Briscoe broke the AFL's QB color barrier
In the second installment of our series about the life and legacy of Marlin Briscoe, modern American pro football’s first Black starting quarterback, we’re focusing on how he continued to play the position as he transitioned to the pros.
By Ben Swanson Feb 24, 2021

In 1968, a small quarterback from Omaha, Nebraska, took the field for the Broncos and made history as modern American pro football's first Black starting quarterback. He dazzled and delighted crowds at Mile High, but a year later, he was gone from Denver. As we celebrate Black History Month, we're taking a closer look at the life and legacy of Marlin Briscoe. Today's tale recalls how he put himself in position to make history in spite of the pressure of racist stereotypes.

Note: This is the second story in the series. Part I focused on Briscoe's youth in South Omaha and how he reached the pros.

For some time, Marlin Briscoe appeared destined to play at football's highest levels.

The only question was whether he'd be allowed to do it at quarterback.

At the position, Briscoe had become an NAIA All-American and etched his name atop nearly two dozen school records at Omaha University. Scouts from AFL and NFL teams ventured to eastern Nebraska to get a glimpse of the star quarterback who was also a thrilling scrambler, and they came away impressed.

Just days before the 1968 AFL-NFL common draft, Gil Brandt, now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his player evaluation career, was effusive with his praise in a discussion with the World-Herald’s Larry Porter[1].

"Marlin has the greatest quickness of any college quarterback we've ever seen," Brandt said. "… He's as good as any big-time quarterback in college right now and just one heck of a football player."

Dave Smith, a scout for the Saints, was awed even more by Briscoe's arm strength.

"He's got the greatest arm I have ever seen on any quarterback — college or pro," Smith told Porter. "He's the only man I have ever seen who can run to his left and throw the ball right-handed 55 yards through the air with complete accuracy."

Playing quarterback at the pro level was truly his goal, but the idea of being a pioneer at the position made him a bit nervous, too, he told Porter.

"Lately it's scared me," Briscoe admitted. "I'll have to show them that I have mental leadership first. A quarterback's brainpower is respected first … mechanics second."

In that moment of apprehension, Briscoe drilled to the center of the very issue for Black quarterbacks who hoped to continue on in the AFL or NFL. What prevented them from progressing further were not their physical or mental credentials so much as the perception of them. For decades, they could not overcome the stereotypes of racial inferiority and how those assumptions jibed with the intangible qualifications ascribed to quarterbacks.

Over the previous few decades as pro football evolved and became more pass-happy, the quarterback position became the focal point of every offense. Every team's vision of success revolved around having a player like Johnny Unitas, with his extraordinary passing skills, play-calling know-how and talent as a leader.

"The ineffable qualities that made Unitas respected by his teammates became the working definition of 'the right stuff' and were inextricably bound up in future discussions of which qualities a quarterback ought to possess," author William C. Rhoden wrote in his book, Third and a Mile[2]. "… To have an African-American take the position of responsibility — at a time when the nation was still polarized over basic questions of civil rights — was not merely a departure, it was a subversion of much of the conventional wisdom of postwar America."

Racist stereotypes regarding intellectual capacity worked against African-Americans in all of society, and especially so when it came to AFL and NFL teams considering whether to give them the reins for their offense.

"There were a few things that society didn't think a Black man could do, and [three were] think, throw and lead," Briscoe says now. "They didn't know how the fan reaction, manager reaction, player and teammate reaction — they didn't know how that was going to be."

So even as Black quarterbacks were finding success at the collegiate level, pro football's decision-makers balked at nearly every opportunity, at once skeptical of their physical or mental abilities and leery of what fans, players and coaches would think. Instead, they took those stereotypes and tried to retrofit the quarterbacks to other positions they felt better suited them based on race.

That, in short, is why Briscoe began his AFL career as a cornerback instead of a quarterback.

As Briscoe prepared to play college football, he hoped to follow in the footsteps of Sandy Stephens. As he prepared for the pros, he hoped not to.

During his youth, Briscoe had closely followed Stephens' feats in reading Street & Smith's college football magazine. The All-American quarterback for the University of Minnesota achieved remarkable success, leading the Gophers to two Rose Bowl appearances, one Rose Bowl victory and the 1960 national championship.

As a pro football hopeful, Stephens was determined to continue playing quarterback. To that end, his only option as a Black player at that time was to leave the country and play in the Canadian Football League. Although he was selected in the first round of the AFL Draft and the second round of the NFL Draft, those teams intended for him to change his position.

Briscoe approached the same juncture in his career shortly after the draft.

For all the chatter about his tremendous arm strength and agility, no one jumped at the chance to draft a potentially revolutionary quarterback.

"He clearly had a lot of physical tools," says Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald. "But I think the stereotype was really strong racially and also really strong because of how small he was. So it was kind of a double whammy in trying to be a professional quarterback."

Instead, the Broncos drafted him in the 14th round, intent on converting him into a cornerback. In the process of scouting Briscoe, Stan Jones, Denver's defensive line coach and a scout for the team, had been upfront with him. Jones told him he was a talented quarterback, but they were looking at him as a defensive back. The Broncos' defense truly did need help — no team in the AFL allowed more points than them in 1967 — but whether a converted quarterback could do the job was a leap of faith.

The Magician had one more trick up his sleeve, though, in hoping to prove his quarterbacking skills. His college coach, Al Caniglia, told him that Denver was one of a few teams that practices in view of fans and media, Briscoe later told Rhoden. Caniglia encouraged Briscoe to try to get a tryout at the position in hopes of drumming up media or fan support.

"They told me straight out that they were going to draft me, but they were going to draft me as a defensive back," Briscoe says. "And it was nothing I could do, because there was no Black quarterbacks in the pros. … I negotiated my contract, and I told the Broncos one thing. I said, I'll play defensive back, but you've got to give me a three-day trial at quarterback. They thought I was crazy. How are you gonna be drafted that late and demand where you play? I said, Well, that's my desire. I believe I can play the position."

The Broncos' decision-makers accepted the gambit.

The tryout, in some ways, was a success.

Briscoe recalls having an excellent performance, and it did help drive The Denver Post to write an article on him[3].

In other ways, it was not so successful. The trial had not exactly been fair, as he said in Third and a Mile, in that if the other quarterbacks at the trial each got 10 throws during a drill, he only got five.

The deck appeared to be stacked against him, and it was hard to imagine that the outcome wasn't predetermined.

"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."

Indeed, that's what happened.

To the press, head coach Lou Saban professed[4] that he was "very pleased with his progress" at quarterback, but four days later, a new headline appeared: "Briscoe to Get Test at Cornerback"[5].

Still, Briscoe took the move in stride, eager to make the team. In spite of a pulled hamstring, he continued to make progress and started an exhibition game against the Bengals. But during the action, Briscoe reaggravated the injury and then missed more time.

As he healed, the Broncos suffered more significant injury news. Their expected starting quarterback, Steve Tensi, fractured his collarbone in an exhibition game a little more than three weeks before the Sept. 15 season opener; by Sept. 11, Tensi had not healed enough to play, so Denver sidelined him for two weeks on the inactive list.

The Broncos scrambled to find a solution.

John McCormick, who came out of retirement to return to the Broncos in 1968, started the opener against the Bengals. McCormick failed to muster a scoring drive before he was benched early in the third quarter, and the Broncos lost by two touchdowns.

The following week, his backup, Jim LeClair, became the starter. Against Kansas City, he faced a much better team and suffered worse struggles; he threw three interceptions and zero touchdown passes, as Denver's offense failed to score a single point.

Denver's season was quickly falling apart. And it wasn't like they were losing close games; they weren't even competitive. Something had to change, both for the team's hopes and to keep fans coming to games.

Briscoe, meanwhile, was on the mend. At some point during the week of practice before the Broncos' third game, still expecting to play on defense, he went to the locker room and got the surprise of his life.

There, in his locker, was a new jersey — No. 15.

"I turn around and there's Lou Saban and Stan Jones," Briscoe says. "Stan was smiling at me. I was wondering what he was smiling at me for. Lou Saban said, My friend, you see that number 15 in your locker? I said, Yes, sir. He said, That's your jersey. You're now a quarterback. Man, my heart started pounding. If you'd ever see a 22-year-old have a heart attack, that was it. And he said, Put your jersey on, and let's get out to practice.

"And that's how it started."

Immediately, Briscoe made a strong impression.

"We used to have to defend against him in practice, and he was elusive then," All-Pro defensive end Rich Jackson says. "He had a spiral, he could throw the ball. He seemed like he was gifted — I guess that's why they called him The Magician, because he was able to do some things that other quarterbacks were unable to do."

Perhaps that's why, with only a few practices under his belt, Saban and the Broncos thrust Briscoe into action.

In the third game, LeClair trotted out to start once again, but he fared little better vs. the Patriots than he did the previous week. Entering the fourth quarter, LeClair had completed five of 16 passes with one interception. Denver trailed by just a touchdown, and soon after the period began, the Broncos blocked a punt and got possession at the Boston 16-yard line.

On the next play, LeClair threw his second interception of the day. Saban, fed up, pulled LeClair and decided to insert Briscoe into the game when the Broncos got the ball back, still only trailing by seven points.

The game within reach, Briscoe was getting an honest-to-God chance to prove himself at the position. He hadn't had time to learn much of the offense, so he'd have to rely on his raw ability.

"I didn't have the cerebral training at that position," Briscoe says. "I went out there that first game with about six plays. I didn't even think I was going to play. I didn't know I was going to play. But, hey, of all the remarkable things that ever happened to me as a player, [I was] able to go out there with no training with professional football at quarterback and still we almost pulled that game out."

On his first play, Briscoe found Crabtree for a pickup of 22 yards. The drive stalled shortly afterward, but he had helped them get into scoring range, though the 24-yard field-goal try sailed wide left.

The Patriots scored a field goal on their next possession, pushing their lead to 10 points as Briscoe prepared to go back under center. On the first play of Denver's next drive, Briscoe ran for 7 yards; on the second, he threw to Billy Van Heusen for 21 more. After the two-minute warning, Denver drew a pass-interference call that moved them to the Buffalo 31-yard line. Briscoe then gained 19 yards on the ground. Two plays later, he scrambled to the right for a 12-yard touchdown.

With little over a minute left, the Broncos held Boston to a three-and-out to get the ball back with 43 seconds remaining. At that point, with the clock and his pro inexperience working against him, Briscoe's nerves got the best of him. He scrambled on the first play and time ran out two plays later.

The loss stung, but he had shown that he could move the ball and put points on the board. And more than that, he showed that at a Black man could handle leading an offense.

He had made history as the AFL's first Black quarterback, following in the footsteps of Willie Thrower, who in 1953 became the NFL's first Black quarterback to throw a pass, and George Taliaferro, who was the first Black player to start at quarterback, though the position's role at that time was more as a blocker than the version we now recognize.

In the modern game, though, Briscoe's moment was different. With all the expectations of what a quarterback had to be, the added pressure of being the first of his race in that role is difficult to fathom.

"I prepared myself before I got in, but prior to the game it ran across my mind a lot," he said after the game in the New York Times[6]. "I think other Black athletes, like Jackie Robinson, must have had the same feeling."

Briscoe earned the start the next week against Cincinnati, but after he struggled in the first half, Saban substituted a mostly healed Tensi for him. With a fourth-quarter touchdown pass, Tensi saved the game for the Broncos and at last got them into the win column.

With Denver's expected starter back in the fold, Briscoe returned to a reserve role. A week later, Tensi threw a touchdown and Denver's defense picked off Joe Namath five times to top the eventual Super Bowl champs.

In Week 7, though, Tensi's collarbone woes returned. Midway through the second quarter against the Chargers, he left the game after reaggravating the injury. Though trailing 24-3, Briscoe gave a good showing. Now having practiced for about a month as a quarterback, Briscoe was able to rely on his arm more and completed 17-of-30 passes for 237 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He also added 68 yards on the ground.

Battling through his shoulder injury, Tensi remained the starter for the next game against Miami, but it didn't go much better.

Before what was then the largest home crowd in franchise history, Tensi completed one of nine pass attempts and threw three interceptions in the first half.

"The crowd had been booing the Broncs in general [and] the 6-5 Tensi in particular," the Omaha World-Herald’s Walter Provost wrote[7]. "A streamer of toilet paper had flown from the belligerent south stands when Tensi threw his third interception of the first half."

After halftime, the Dolphins promptly drove for a touchdown to go up 14-0. Saban called on the plucky backup to spark something, anything.

With running backs Floyd Little and Fran Lynch pacing the offense, Briscoe picking up yards here and there and a little help from a timely holding penalty, the Broncos moved into the red zone. On second down from the 12-yard line, Briscoe scrambled from the right side of the field to the left for a touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Broncos recovered a fumble and scored the tying touchdown soon after.

In the fourth quarter, with both teams knotted at 14 and less than five minutes remaining, Briscoe became a hero to the Mile High faithful. He found Van Heusen downfield for a 41-yard gain and then threw to Crabtree for 9 more yards as Denver drove deep into Miami territory.

On first-and-goal with 1:58 left, Briscoe approached the line and surveyed the defense's formation from the 10-yard line. Upon noticing that the safety and middle linebacker had vacated the middle of the field to better defend the outside threats, he changed the play[8] to a quarterback draw. Slicing through the defense, Briscoe scored the game-winning touchdown.

As the game ended, Provost took note of the crowd's reaction, as "more than a thousand fans were waiting in the south grandstand to hail the conqueror." Some even waited more than an hour to see him as he left the stadium. "You could run for mayor," a fan yelled to him.

Dolphins head coach George Wilson was equally impressed.

"There were 44,000 fans out there who thought Briscoe was great," he said. "Now you can make that 44,001, counting me."

The paper the next day was a whirlwind. Two of the three stories on the front of The Denver Post’s sports section[9] were devoted to Briscoe. Inside the section, four stories about him took up a full page[10].

Not long after, the Associated Press named him AFL Offensive Player of the Week[11].

Still, the Broncos retained Tensi as their starter for the next three games. For fans and media alike, the move was somewhat befuddling.

"We still can't figure out those Broncos," wrote K.O. Tee[12], a sports editor for The Louisville Times. "Marlin Briscoe gets scores, but Lou Saban seems to imply that Steve Tensi will forever be his number one quarterback. Maybe it's a choice between a helter-skelter offense that may explode for points at any time, or a set system that in the long run may produce a consistent winner. Briscoe's kind of offense is more exciting for the spectators."

The implication that Tensi would lead Denver to winning football in the long run wasn't looking too good either, though. In the three weeks after the Dolphins game, he helped Denver get a blowout win over the Patriots, but then he mustered just one touchdown in the two losses that followed. In the second, a game against Houston, Tensi completed just one pass before reinjuring his shoulder. This time, he was done for the year.

Regardless of whether the Broncos, pro football or the country were ready, here came Marlin Briscoe, starting quarterback.

Recommended companion reading and essential source material:

  1. Porter, L. (1968, January 21). Marlin Briscoe Gains Award as State College Athlete of the Year. Omaha World-Herald, 2C.
  2. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Page 44.
  3. Bowie, B. (1968, July 21). Small Briscoe Tries Two Jobs. The Denver Post, 50.
  4. World-Herald News Service. (1968, July 19). Marlin Briscoe's Progress Pleases Coach of Broncos. Omaha World-Herald, 27.
  5. World-Herald News Service. (1968, July 23). Briscoe to Get Test at Cornerback. Omaha World-Herald, 15.
  6. Amdur, N. (1968, September 30). Broncos' Briscoe in Historic Debut. The New York Times, 62.
  7. Provost, W. (1968, October 28). Heroic Briscoe Uncertain of Starting Role. Omaha World-Herald, 17.
  8. Associated Press. (1968a, October 30). Briscoe Busts Color Line as Bronco QB. Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 24.
  9. Connor, D. (1968, October 28). Miami Succumbs to Briscoe Magic 21-14; Briscoe's Sneak Turns Into Quarterback Streak. The Denver Post, 47.
  10. Connor, D., & Bowie, B. (1968, October 28). Marlin's Play "Exceptional"; Miami's Coach Wilson Joins Briscoe Fan Club; QB Sneak Becomes a Streak; "Magician" Pulls 21-14 Bronco Win Out of Hat. The Denver Post, 51.
  11. Associated Press. (1968b, October 30). Reading Defenses Toughest For Player-of-the-Week Briscoe. Omaha World-Herald, 45.
  12. Tee, K. O. (1968, October 31). Sports Spyglass. The Louisville Times, 6.
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