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The Making of The Magician: Marlin Briscoe’s path from packinghouses to the pros
In the first installment of our series about the life and legacy of Marlin Briscoe, modern American pro football’s first Black starting quarterback, we take a close look at his roots.
By Ben Swanson Feb 23, 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, we begin with his path from the housing projects outside Omaha's packinghouses to the cusp of pro football.

From his home in South Omaha, on a hill overlooking the meat packing plant and its stockyard, a young Marlin Briscoe could see one future before him.

For thousands of workers, the stockyard and the assortment of packinghouses held something rare — good money for pretty much anyone willing to take the job. In the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, that generated waves of migration from around the country by immigrants and African-Americans alike, all seeking better lives for themselves and their children.

For millions of steer, pigs, sheep and other animals, the stockyard held something else altogether. A hungry nation in the midst of a post-World War II baby boom yearned for sustenance, and they had a significant role in providing it. The Union Stockyards' yearly receipts showed that it processed 6,764,140 animals in 1955, as Dirk Chatelain noted in the Omaha World-Herald[1].

It was big business, the backbone of the city's economy. By the time Briscoe turned 10 in 1955, Omaha had overtaken Chicago as the world's largest livestock market and meatpacking center. On a bridge near the Union Stockyards, the company proudly championed the city’s newfound claim to fame for all passersby to see[2].

The work was gruesome, of course. It assaulted the senses, whether you were on the killing floors in the packinghouse or whether you were out in the stockyard. There was the smell of the thousands of animals packed together and the manure they produced, the smoke the slaughterhouses manufactured and the waste the plants made. It all combined to form one of those foul odors that you would have had to experience to understand. "The smell of money," as it would come to be called, made South Omahans like Briscoe the target of ridicule, but Briscoe noted that no one was too proud to avoid the drive down there on Fridays to pick up their checks.

That $200 a week was good money, and for Black workers, it was some of the only work available to them. According to Chatelain, about half of all Black workers in the city commuted to South Omaha that year. Briscoe was willing to do the hard work, and he eventually would for a little while, but he yearned for more.

"It would make you make a decision about your life," Briscoe says now. "… I said, There's no way in the world. I'm getting my education. There's no way in the world I was going to work in the packinghouse the rest of my life."

That decision, as it turned out, would change the course of his life and pro football.

Without a magic box, there would be no Magician.

The box, full of sports equipment, belonged to Bob Rose, Briscoe's cousin. Rose was a fourth-grade teacher at Omaha's Howard Kennedy Elementary School during most of the year, a packing plant worker during the other months and a youth sports coach in the community year-round.

At some point in Briscoe's childhood, around the age of 9, his mother enlisted Rose to teach him how to play a variety of sports. One day, during Rose's lunch break from the packing plant, the school teacher stopped by with his box, filled with boxing gloves, baseball bats and various balls.

The box, which Briscoe fondly calls "The Magic Box," opened his eyes to a new world.

Perhaps more than anything, Briscoe took to throwing. He committed himself to the skill, often taking a football to the front of his house. Time after time, he aimed for the thin tree out front. At first, he couldn't hit it, but his accuracy improved and the young quarterback began to shape himself in the mold of the best quarterback he had seen on television, the man with the Golden Arm.

"I used to watch Johnny Unitas, and he was the leader of the team and he was revered by his players, and so that gave me the desire to play quarterback," Briscoe says. "I even went out and got high-top shoes that my cousin gave me. They were old and raggedy because we couldn't afford to buy any shoes."

Regardless, they brought him just a little bit closer to his idol.

In watching pro football on TV, though, Briscoe noticed that there weren't any Black quarterbacks. Still, he was not discouraged from chasing the dream; in fact, soon he'd start playing the position competitively.

After all the time building his arm and his confidence, Briscoe decided to try out for the local youth team, and he was set on playing quarterback. Some of his neighbors tagged along just to see if he'd get the chance. Even though the league was integrated, just like the packing plant workforce was, the sport largely typecast Black players according to stereotypes when assigning positions. Briscoe was pushed up against this even at a young age.

When he arrived at the park, the coach directed the children to separate into groups by the position they wanted to play.

"I ran over when he said, Quarterbacks over here," Briscoe says. "So I went and ran to the quarterback line, and he looked at me all strange. He thought that was a strange request from a little Black kid, to want to play quarterback. When they went to separate the different positions, no Black kid had ever gone to the quarterback line. So he came over to me. Hey, son, don't you want to go this line, or what about that line over there? I said, No, sir. I want to go the quarterback line. He looked at me — but he never disputed it."

Briscoe soon got the chance to prove himself on the field, and the coach quickly became a believer.

"He had us throw the ball, and he got to me and he saw me throw," Briscoe says. "He said, Can you do that again? Yes, sir. So he had me throw and then he saw me run and all this stuff. But he liked the way I threw the ball. So he said, OK, you're a quarterback."

On Sept. 30, 1957, Marlin Briscoe's name appeared in his hometown newspaper for the first time.

Those paying attention to the Midget Football League's box scores that day[3] could see that the 12-year-old Briscoe had a nice game for his Ladcos team against the Mainliners. Briscoe helped lead a 48-0 rout with a 12-yard touchdown pass and two touchdown runs on a 50-yard sweep and a 5-yard plunge.

Over the next several years, Briscoe became a name to track in Omaha youth sports. In 1957, Ladcos earned a second-place finish[4] in their league. The next year[5], Briscoe threw two touchdowns to lead Highland School to a championship in a flag football league.

As he entered the high-school letterman ranks, though, Briscoe didn't have a clear path at the position at Omaha South High School. Another player his age, Joe Berenis, was noted for his accuracy as a quarterback, though the World-Herald also said[6] Briscoe "adds savvy at quarterback."

Two quarterbacks, one Black and one white. Aside from race, the two were quite similar. The World-Herald put both at 5-foot-8, with just 15 pounds separating the two in weight.

That 1961 season, the two juniors split time at the position, but for their senior year, Briscoe was asked to move to running back to replace their previous star halfback, who had just graduated. Briscoe was happy to do what was best for the team, but it rankled some in his neighborhood who wondered if there was more to it than just talent evaluation.

"I always had confidence in my ability," Briscoe says. "So I went on and played running back my senior year and went on to make all-city, and we won our division that year. So that was satisfying. My neighborhood thought it was a racist move because they knew that Joe and I would switch off through the years, our adolescent years. … But I was doing it for the good of the team."

Still, even though Briscoe didn't feel the sting of racism in that decision or in his days as a high school player, he could feel it when he stepped off the field and returned to life simply as a Black teenager.

That season, Briscoe played perhaps his finest game[7], scoring two touchdowns and recording two interceptions as a defensive back as he helped South break a 12-game losing streak to their rivals, who were rated as Nebraska's top prep team.

Afterward, Briscoe later recalled in an Associate Press story[8], he went to a bowling alley to grab a bite to eat.

"When we beat the No. 1 team in the state, I tried to get a sandwich there with a white guy," Briscoe said. "The man refused to serve me. He put the sandwich in a sack and gave it to me outside."

Even at a young age, he seemed to be accustomed to such discrimination.

"You just know how it is because you're black," Briscoe told the AP's Mike Rathet. "But I never let it worry me. There are good people and bad. My way is to show people what I am by performance. In essence, that's what it's all about."

His performance that season certainly drew admiration from his peers and coaches from around the city, as they voted to name Briscoe one of the 11 best players on the World-Herald's 1962 All-Intercity Team[9].

"An exceptional runner, this little fellow (5-9, 165) put the real sting into the South attack," Don Lee wrote for the paper. "A former quarterback, he was an expert passer, able to break up a game with a flip or two."

But Briscoe didn't view himself as a former quarterback — just a temporary running back. He had agreed to play halfback for the good of his team for that season; now that it was over, he wanted to return to the position he had otherwise played his whole life, but he didn't receive many suitors.

"Nobody would offer me a scholarship because they wanted me to play running back and I wasn't going to play running back," Briscoe says. I said, I want to play quarterback. So Al Caniglia, the coach at Omaha University at the time, he came over to my house and he said, Listen, I'll give you two things I'll do for you. First of all, you'll get an education, you'll get a diploma. And you can play quarterback. That's all I needed to hear."

Caniglia appeared to be a rarity in Briscoe's world — someone who saw his talent and potential as a quarterback, and someone who didn't care about the predominant way of thinking about what a quarterback should look like or how they should play.

"Al Caniglia was known as being certainly progressive for his time," Chatelain of the World-Herald says. "… Omaha University was not a dominant football program. I don't think they ever made any deep postseason runs or anything like that. But they were pretty progressive, and it wasn't just the football program. The wrestling program on campus had the first African-American coach at a [predominately] white university in the country. So, Omaha University was always sort of a progressive, activist type of place. And I think that's one of the reasons Marlin got a shot. … I mean he was only like 5-9, 5-10 so he probably wasn't like a natural Division I quarterback prospect.

"But I think Omaha and Caniglia recognized that he could really play."

Copyright 2021 Omaha World-Herald

Reprinted with permission from The Omaha World-Herald.
Copyright 2021 Omaha World-Herald Reprinted with permission from The Omaha World-Herald.

It didn't take long for Marlin to receive the nickname that he would carry for the rest of his life.

After spending his freshman year backing up Omaha University's all-conference senior quarterback, "The Magician" entered the fray as a sophomore and immediately earned first-team honors on the Central Intercollegiate Conference's all-star team[10] as the conference's leader in total offense, according to a story in The Gateway, the university's student newspaper.

Briscoe continued his ascension during his junior season. In leading Omaha to a conference title, he set new school records[11] in passing yards and total yardage and was named an honorable mention[12] for the Associated Press' Little All-American team.

As he neared his final collegiate season, pro football scouts started to take note of the rising star. Even then, they started to whisper[13] about Briscoe's chance to break the color barrier at quarterback in the pros.

Amazingly, Briscoe also apparently drew interest from the MLB, too, despite not playing the sport during any of his years at the university. The World-Herald reported[14] the Pittsburgh Pirates held a tryout in 1966 in nearby Papillon, Nebraska. One of Briscoe's friends encouraged him to join in, and even though Briscoe originally didn't intend to take part in the workout, by the end of the session, the Pirates offered him a contract. Naturally, he declined.

The pro sports world — all of it — would have to wait. Briscoe missed most of the '66 season with a fractured vertebrae that could have ended his entire football career. Only after being granted eligibility for a fifth year because of the injury was he able to return for his senior season in 1967.

And like any good performer, "The Magician" saved his best feats for last.

In his senior season, Briscoe was able to fully unleash his fantastic arm.

He began the season by throwing for a school record 356 yards against North Dakota State and finished it by holding nearly two dozen school records, according to the World-Herald[15]. That included new marks for single-season passing yards, single-season passing touchdowns and single-season total yardage, as well as several career yardage and scoring records.

Briscoe capped his college football days with selections as an NAIA All-American, a unanimous all-conference selection and the World-Herald's State College Athlete of the Year.

He had been the school's most prolific player in its history, the stuff of legends. As he prepared to leave college behind, it seemed like he would soon turn pro football upside down.

That is, if he would get the chance to continue playing quarterback.

Recommended companion reading and essential source material:

  1. Chatelain, D. (2019, June 23). 24TH & GLORY: PART THREE - Gruesome packinghouses made Omaha's black athletes aspire for more than the kill floor. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1A. Available from Omaha.com: https://omaha.com/sports/gruesome-packinghouses-made-omahas-black-athletes-aspire-for-more-than-the-kill-floor/article_4a601f11-88b7-5dd7-b3b0-0e815eba3b6a.html
  2. In 1955, Omaha surpassed Chicago as the world's largest stockyards. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Living History Farm. https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/money_14.html
  3. Brandeis Hits Roberts, 13-0. (1957, September 30). Omaha World-Herald, 10M.
  4. Ladco Trio Eyes Sunday Challenge. (1958, September 27). Omaha World-Herald, 9.
  5. Highland Wins Flag Title Again. (1958, October 31). Omaha World-Herald, 43.
  6. Tech Gridders to Rely on Farthing, Rutledge. (1961, September 5). Omaha World-Herald, 17.
  7. South Jolts Vikings, 21-6, Before 9,000. (1962, September 30). Omaha World-Herald, 1C-2C.
  8. Rathet, M. (1968, November 15). Negro Quarterback Says "Just Win." The Tuscaloosa News, 11.
  9. Lee, D. (1962, November 11). Churchich Unanimous Pick for All-Intercity. Omaha World-Herald, 7C.
  10. "Three Indians Named to Team," UNO Libraries' Archives & Special Collections Online Exhibits, accessed February 23, 2021, https://unomaha.omeka.net/items/show/81.
  11. Aden, Briscoe Honored as Top Omaha U. Gridders. (1965, December 7). Omaha World-Herald, 30M.
  12. Iowan Schultz Picked as Little All-America. (1965, November 30). Omaha World-Herald, 20M.
  13. Provost, W. (1966, July 24). "Sweet Combination" for Scarlet Opener. Omaha World-Herald, 3C.
  14. Porter, L. (1967, September 19). Lucky for OU Briscoe Declined Buc Contract. Omaha World-Herald, 22E.
  15. Indian Aerial Magician Briscoe Gains NAIA All-American Spot. (1967, December 29). Omaha World-Herald, 19E.

Photo credits:

Pictures 1 and 4: Reprinted with permission from The Omaha World-Herald.

Pictures 2 and 3: Photos circa 1938 by John Vachon via the Library of Congress [Stockyards image link] [South Omaha street]

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