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The Making of The Magician: How Marlin Briscoe left Denver and his legacy in the NFL
In the final installment of our series about the life and legacy of Marlin Briscoe, we take a close look at his departure from Denver and the legacy he would leave on pro football.
By Ben Swanson Feb 26, 2021

In 1968, a small quarterback from Omaha, Nebraska, took the field for the Broncos and made history as modern 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, we delve into his departure from Denver and how he left an enduring legacy on pro football.

Note: This is the fourth and final story in the series. Part I focused on Briscoe's youth in South Omaha and how he reached the pros. Part II was about how he managed to break the AFL's color barrier at quarterback. Part III focused on the added context of Briscoe's historic season coming in 1968 and how he finished the year as Denver's starting quarterback for the final four games.

As America prepared for the new year, Ebony's January 1969 issue started to hit newsstands across the country.

There, on page 64[1], was Marlin Briscoe peering back at readers through his shoulder pads. The headline below the photo summed up the season he had just completed:

BREAKTHROUGH FOR A BLACK QUARTERBACK

For many people across the U.S. of the country who didn't live in Colorado or weren't avid fans of the fledgling American Football League, this was their introduction to the up-and-coming quarterback who had shocked pro football in becoming the league's first Black starting quarterback. And his pioneer status was just the tip of the iceberg; in his rookie season, despite training for much of the offseason to play defense, Briscoe was the most promising young quarterback the franchise had ever featured.

Now he was in the pages of Ebony, the subject of a six-page feature.

At that time, the Broncos were a floundering franchise that had yet to finish a season above .500. It's safe to say that it wasn't often that a national magazine featured any of their players.

It was unfamiliar ground for the Broncos and their young star, but as the AFL Rookie of the Year runner-up departed Denver to return to Omaha to finish his college degree, the forming impression was that Briscoe's future was quite bright.

Head coach Lou Saban and the Broncos clearly did not feel as warmly about their quarterback situation.

Even before Briscoe had finished his rookie season, the Broncos may have been maneuvering to acquire a new quarterback. On Jan. 19, 1969, The Denver Post's Dick Connor reported[2] that Pete Liske, the 1967 CFL Most Outstanding Player, had an informal agreement to join the Broncos before the 1968 season ended. Describing what he called "hearsay evidence" — the Broncos couldn't officially announce his signing until June — Connor wrote that as of early 1969, Liske already had purchased a home and opened a bank account in Denver.

Saban maintained that Briscoe would stay at the position and compete for the starting job along with Steve Tensi, who started much of the 1968 season until his season was interrupted by several collarbone injuries.

"I've talked with Lou," Briscoe's college coach, Al Caniglia, said in a January press conference a few days later[3], "and he believes Marlin will either make Steve Tensi an excellent quarterback or sit him down."

Then, in a March speech at Briscoe's alma mater, Saban said[4] he was "pleased — not surprised" with Briscoe's rookie season, but followed those comments up by saying if Briscoe wasn't the starting quarterback, the coaching staff would find another position for him where he could make an impact.

If it seemed like the winds were starting to shift for the youngster, they would soon be at a full gust.

That spring, Briscoe got a call from his cousin, Bob Rose, who was living in Denver at the time.

"He called and told me, They're having quarterback meetings … why aren't you there?" Briscoe recalls now. "What happened was they went out and got Pete Liske from Canada. So they had him and Steve Tensi. He had healed, his shoulder had healed. So he was there and they had a couple of other guys. They didn't invite me. So I told Bob that I was going to come to Denver and see what was going on. But I had to wait. I had to wait until after I got my degree."

At the time, the Broncos told The Denver Post[5] that these sessions were informal, but Briscoe told author William C. Rhoden in Third and a Mile that he when he returned to Denver, he made a surprise trip to team headquarters and stood outside of the coach's office as Saban, the quarterbacks coach and several quarterbacks walked out.

"They couldn't even look at me," Briscoe told Rhoden[6]. "If I didn't think it was wrong for a man to cry, I'd have cried. I was that hurt. I just turned and walked out. I knew I wasn't in their plans. It was like I'd never played that first year."

Rumors later emerged that the Broncos had unsuccessfully tried to trade Briscoe during the offseason[5].

In early June, the Broncos officially announced their acquisition of Liske. Still, Saban spoke of an open competition.

"Pete should give Steve and Marlin a battle for the starting quarterback job," Saban said[7]. "… It will still be a three-way fight. We like that. There is nothing better than real, honest competition for a job."

To Briscoe, it didn't seem very honest. Between those quarterback meetings, the Liske acquisition and the notion that Saban may feel obligated to play Tensi more because he had traded two first-round picks for him in 1967, it increasingly seemed like the odds were against Briscoe in spite of his rookie season. When he returned to practice, he found a situation much different from one to which he had hoped to return.

"They hemmed and hawed around," Briscoe says today. "I went out to practice with them. I knew they didn't want me there. They were just kind of cold. The reps that we'd have passing, the leadership role — none of that I got a chance to do. I knew that they didn't want me there."

Then came the contract negotiation for Briscoe's second season.

Hard feelings abounded. On one side, Briscoe wanted a fair chance to win the quarterback job, but it seemed like that may have already gone out the window. On the other side was Saban, a notoriously stubborn and belligerent coach who at times would challenge players to fights at halftime or threaten to fire them on the spot[8].

The negotiations went nowhere. Briscoe later told press[5] that the team offered him a cornerback's salary rather than a quarterback's. According to the same Denver Post story, Briscoe wanted a clause in his contract that he would only be played at quarterback. The Post reported Saban and the Broncos refused those terms; in addition to the salary disagreement, they wanted the option to have him handle punt and kick returns — an unthinkable proposition for any player seriously being considered to lead the team at quarterback — or to put him at another position should they feel it was best for the team.

There was no going any further. Briscoe left training camp and asked for his release. At that point, there was some kind of confusion. As Briscoe understood it, he signed a club release on Aug. 6; the team told media that they were unclear what he had signed, but would place him on waivers[9]. That process didn't begin until Friday, Aug. 8; because of the weekend, he didn't clear waivers and become a free agent until Aug. 12.[10]

"All I wanted to do was compete," Briscoe says today. "I didn't expect the Broncos to start me as their quarterback. All I wanted was a chance to compete for the job. I thought I deserved that. I didn't ask them to give me anything. But I could see that it wasn't going to happen. So I stayed in camp for about two weeks and, sensing that I wasn't going to be able to compete, I asked Lou Saban to release me. And I figured that somebody would take a chance on me. I had a hell of a year. Lou Saban said he would cut me, but he needed three or four days to cut me. And then he said he would release me. I'm trying to figure out why he would take three or four days to release a player. Just release me like you do everybody else. But what happened is somebody was spreading the word that I was a malcontent. So after four days nobody would touch me."

A few days later, Briscoe was spotted in the crowd at a Broncos exhibition game.

"Well-wishers descended on him like ants to a Sunday school picnic," columnist Vic Boccard wrote in the Broomfield Star[11]. "He'll be sorely missed by everyone who appreciated his exciting play last year. That should include about 99% of our sportsminded populace."

Saban, apparently, was part of the one percent.

Why Saban and the Broncos felt ambivalent about Briscoe's future at quarterback depends on who you ask.

For his part, Saban pointed to Briscoe's size at the position.

"Marlin was an exceptional athlete, but he didn't have great size," Saban told Rhoden in Third and a Mile[12]. "He was always throwing out of a well. I figured his best position was receiver, but we were searching for a quarterback. In the four and a half years I was with the Broncos, we never found a guy who could take over the position. We brought in quarterbacks by the dozens. It didn't make much difference what their backgrounds were, I was going to play whoever could win — because if you don't win, it's over."

The size argument was powerful at the time. The stereotype of the archetypal quarterback being tall was deeply entrenched, as the assumption was that a shorter player could not see or throw over linemen.

However, as Briscoe had told The Denver Post in 1968[13], "Nobody looks through a man.

"You don't look through his arms, either," Briscoe continued. "You look between them, through the creases. So do quarterbacks 6-2 or 6-3. Steve is 6-5 and he can look over them."

That ability didn't seem to help Tensi very much. In 1967 and '68, his first two seasons in Denver, Tensi completed 40.3 percent of his passes for 21 touchdowns and 25 interceptions.

Briscoe, meanwhile, had become the first Broncos quarterback in team history to throw for more than 10 touchdowns in a season without also throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. Detractors could point to his 41.5 completion percentage, but that was still better than Tensi's mark, and the circumstances of Briscoe's rookie season were unusual. Considering he trained as a cornerback during the summer and didn't even practice at QB with the team until the season had already begun, it seemed likely Briscoe could have done even better if he had the chance.

"We could have won a lot of ballgames with Marlin," Ring of Famer Rich "Tombstone" Jackson says. "No [telling], really, how far we could have gone. I just know that Marlin had all the physical tools to get the job done. He could pass, he was smart and he could move. That was an asset that none of the quarterbacks that we had possessed."

Yet, Briscoe couldn't shake the height conversation, nor the one the stereotype he was simply a running quarterback, despite stats that said otherwise. One of the few sports writers to point out this absurdity at the time was Wally Provost, of Briscoe's hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald.

"Denver Post columnist Jim Graham reflects the coach's attitude when he writes: 'Briscoe's threat is mainly as a runner,'" Provost wrote in 1969[14]. "[Joe] Namath became Player of the Year while hurling 15 touchdown passes in 1968. Briscoe backed into his job and threw 14 touchdown passes. Poor Briscoe, he's mainly a running threat."

Yet it wasn't unprecedented for white quarterbacks to deviate from the statuesque pocket-passer stereotype. After the 1968 season, "Scramblin' Fran" Tarkenton was a four-time Pro Bowler. Within a decade, he would add five more Pro Bowls, 1975 league MVP honors and help lead the Vikings to three Super Bowls.

"It took some imagination to believe in Marlin Briscoe," says Dirk Chatelain of the World-Herald, "and I don't think Lou Saban had that imagination."

The Broncos' judgment of Briscoe and the eventual breakup — as well as the decisions by other teams not to pick him up as a quarterback — is also deeply tied to the reality that race was an enormous factor, even if it wasn't said explicitly. Some of Briscoe's teammates, like offensive lineman Walter Highsmith, feel it's impossible to say there was any other real reason why Briscoe didn't get an honest shot at the starting job in 1969.

"We knew why," Highsmith says. "Because he was Black."

Doug Williams, a 6-foot-4 quarterback from Grambling State who entered the league a decade later in the prototypical pocket-passer mold, could see it for what it was.

"With Marlin Briscoe, from talking to the people and seeing what I saw — Kyler Murray, that's exactly who Marlin was," Williams says. "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."

Ultimately, the takeaway becomes that pro football in America was neither ready to accept that Black athletes could play quarterback nor the effects of that culture change.

"I don't know whether or not the league, the owners, the coaches, the general managers or the world was ready for a Marlin Briscoe," Williams says. "I think Marlin played in Denver because he had to. It was an emergency, and I think he did too well and they didn't want to live with the fact of what they'd have to go through if they kept Marlin around."

Aside from the institutional and systemic racism in pro football and society at the time, Briscoe himself is unsure whether Saban acted on any racial animosity.

"See, that's one thing that I always wondered," Briscoe says. "… He could have not played me at quarterback. I look at it that way. I look at it fairly even in times of yore. He was the head coach, and he was at a time where racism was rampant. He didn't have to play me. He could have just kind of scooted me out of the league. He figured if nobody else was going to touch me and he wasn't going to touch me, he didn't have to do it. That's one way I looked at it. I tried to look at it from two sides. But nevertheless, that was the situation at the time. In Black America and everything, we had to endure a lot of racism back then. I often wonder. … I know I played well enough to be able to play."

He would get another chance to prove it, but not at quarterback.

Shortly before the 1969 season, he landed with the Bills, who unfortunately were in no need of another passer. They needed a wide receiver.

Briscoe still wanted to play quarterback, but he also just wanted to play football. He accepted and proceeded to devote himself to learning the position.

After making the Bills' roster, Briscoe became one of their top threats alongside future Broncos Ring of Famer Haven Moses. In the years that followed, Briscoe continued to improve. He earned a Pro Bowl selection and a second-team All-Pro nod from the Pro Football Writers of America with a 1,036-yard, eight-touchdown season in 1970.

Then he was reunited with Saban, who resigned from the Broncos to become Buffalo's head coach in December of 1971. It was short-lived. Six months later, Briscoe and a defensive lineman were traded to Miami.

There, Briscoe promptly helped make NFL history. The 1972 Dolphins, of course, became the NFL's first — and so far, only — undefeated team, winning all 14 regular-season games before going on to win Super Bowl VII. The next year, Briscoe and the Dolphins won the Super Bowl yet again.

Still, it was somewhat bittersweet that he hadn't found this success at the position he wanted to play.

"But the thing is, I tell these young kids, I never quit," Briscoe says now. "They thought they had me out of the league, and within two years I made All-Pro. Not bragging or anything, but most people would have quit."

The Broncos had far less success during this time. Tensi started 12 games in 1969 and matched Briscoe's passing touchdown mark, though with seven more starts. Liske started the majority of games in 1970, but he too didn't lead Denver to much success. It wouldn't be until 1973 that the Broncos had their first winning season. Between Briscoe and Charley Johnson, their quarterback in '73, the Broncos tried six different starters at the position.

In 1951, Langston Hughes asked, What happens to a dream deferred?

At that time, the NFL was just five years removed from dissolving a 13-year ban on Black players[15] and still two years away from the first game in which a Black player threw a pass.

In the 17 years between the publication of Hughes' poem titled "Harlem" and Briscoe's historic start, an unknowable number of Black players' quarterback dreams fell prey to the prejudicial practices of pro football. And even after Briscoe broke modern pro football's color barrier at the position, things didn't just magically turn around immediately for Black quarterbacks. Briscoe never got another chance to start at quarterback after 1968. Quarterbacks who came after him still suffered from intense racism both in their professional and personal lives.

The injustice of it all was consuming for many of these men. As in Hughes' poem, their deferred dreams festered, they sagged and they exploded.

For someone like Charlie "Choo Choo" Brackins, not being able to chase his dream of playing quarterback "broke his heart"[16]. Sandy Stephens could only get the chance to play the position in the CFL in Canada; but he "never really got the desire to play quarterback in the NFL out of his system." [16]

Then there are those like Eldridge Dickey, Joe Gilliam and Briscoe, all of whom were early pioneers in pro football as Black quarterbacks and all of whom battled problems with drugs.

"Even though I was successful, won two rings, got out of the game unhurt, in a great financial position," Briscoe told Rhoden in Third and a Mile[17], "I often think that the pain and disappointment of not being able to continue my career as a quarterback might have seeped into my psyche."

Briscoe was able to eventually escape the clutches of addiction. Dickey and Gilliam, who died at the ages of 54 and 49, respectively, were not.

In the decades since Briscoe played for the Broncos, pro football has slowly made progress. In working toward an even playing field at quarterback, part of Briscoe's legacy is visible on the field during the football season.

But more than that, Briscoe's larger legacy may be in helping others avoid the crushing self-doubt, disappointment and frustration caused by racism in pro football.

"We're still not where we probably should have been a long time ago, because ain't no doubt about it — there were some opportunities that were missed by a lot of guys that didn't get that chance," Doug Williams says. "… You think about [Antwaan] Randle El, you think about Tony Dungy, you think about [Freddie Solomon]. All those guys today would be playing quarterback in the National Football League. … When you get these guys today and you think about all those names that I called out, and you say, Man, if the mindset was changed in 1968 to what it is today, ain't no telling where we might be as far as the number of guys who came through the league and still playing in this league at the position."

To encourage the growth of the fraternity among Black quarterbacks, Briscoe, Randall Cunningham, Vince Evans, James Harris, Warren Moon and Williams formed the Field Generals in the early 2000s.

For years, the group worked to foster a community, hosting football camps and speaking about the history of the game's Black quarterbacks.

In 2011, a quarterback who attended one of their camps[18] added to the fraternity's pro ranks when he was drafted first overall. That quarterback, Cam Newton, went on to earn NFL MVP honors in 2015 and lead his team to Super Bowl 50.

Despite the way things ended in Denver, Briscoe doesn't hold a grudge.

"Looking back on it, I could not have been able to do what I did, play in the National Football League, any other place than Denver," Briscoe says. "Denver was probably the only team in the league that I could make it happen."

Naturally, Briscoe still feels disappointed about the way things turned out, but as a "never-give-up kind of guy," he tends to be an optimist. When he returns for team alumni functions, getting kind words from his former teammates is nice enough.

"When I go to Denver Bronco reunions, all those guys come up to me and say, Man, we could've won with you," Briscoe says. "They say it now. Back in those days, you couldn't question anything. You did what the coaches and society told you to do. So you couldn't protest and nobody could lobby for you or anything like that. … After all these years, they respected what I was able to bring to the table. So I feel good about that."

And though Briscoe may not be as well-known as trailblazers in other sports, his impact remains felt just as strongly in the game today. When we watch Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray or Russell Wilson, we can see how Briscoe changed the game.

"You've got to give him some pioneer status," Williams says. "Even though he don't get that type of recognition. For what he did in 1968, he deserves way more recognition than he gets."

Marlin Briscoe's historic moment may be far behind us, but it's never too late for The Magician to get his ovation.

Recommended companion reading and source material:

  1. Breakthrough for a Black Quarterback. (1969, January). Ebony, 64–70.
  2. Connor, D. (1969, January 19). Little Things Tell a Lot About Jets' Super Bowl Win. The Denver Post, 50.
  3. Lee, D. (1969, January 23). Fischer: Colts Loss Not End of World. Omaha World-Herald, 21.
  4. Shadle, M. (1969, March 22). Performance by Briscoe Didn't Surprise Lou Saban. Omaha World-Herald, 15.
  5. Connor, D. (1969, August 8). Broncos "Willing" to Release Briscoe. The Denver Post, 65–70.
  6. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Page 92.
  7. Connor, D. (1969, June 2). Liske Officially Becomes a Bronco. The Denver Post, 47.
  8. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Pages 93-94.
  9. Ash, T. (1969, August 8). Denver "Willing" to Give Omahan Release. Omaha World-Herald, 27.
  10. Broncos Let Briscoe Become Free Agent Via Waiver Route. (1969, August 12). The Denver Post, 47.
  11. Boccard, V. (1968, August 21). Dry Rot. Broomfield Star, 8.
  12. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Pages 92-93.
  13. Connor, D. (1968, October 27). Briscoe Used to Handicaps. The Denver Post, 68.
  14. Provost, W. (1969, July 25). Fate a Trickster In Motor Racing. Omaha World-Herald, 23.
  15. Hruby, P. (2019, September 20). "We've come so far": how black quarterbacks defied a racist past to become the NFL's future. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/sep/20/black-quarterbacks-history-stereotypes
  16. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Page 170.
  17. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Page 172.
  18. Rhoden, W. C. (2019, January 11). The Thriving Fraternity of Black Quarterbacks. The Undefeated. https://theundefeated.com/features/the-thriving-fraternity-of-black-quarterbacks/

Special thanks

This series, of course, would not have been possible without Marlin Briscoe, who graciously and generously gave us so much of his time looking back on his youth, his days in pro football and more. In addition, I'd like to thank several of his former teammates — Eric Crabtree, Walter Highsmith and Rich Jackson — who shared their recollections of playing with Briscoe, as well as Doug Williams, who worked alongside Briscoe on the Field Generals. I'd also like to recognize William C. Rhoden, whose book "Third and a Mile" was absolutely essential for this series as an indispensable history of the Black quarterback. And finally, thank you to Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald, who wrote the 24th & Glory book and article series, for providing plenty of context about Briscoe's childhood and career in a subsequent conversation.

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