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The Making of The Magician: Marlin Briscoe's pioneering path in pro football
In 1968, Marlin Briscoe became the first Black starting quarterback in modern pro football in America. This is the story of how he came to achieve that, and the legacy he left.
By Ben Swanson Oct 06, 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. Today marks 53 years since Briscoe's first start, so to honor this anniversary, we've put our four-part series chronicling Briscoe's path to football history all in one place.

CHAPTER I: FROM PACKINGHOUSES TO THE PROS

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."

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.

CHAPTER II: BREAKING THE AFL'S QB COLOR BARRIER

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.

A scan of a Broncos draft notice memo from director of public relations Val Pinchbeck Jr. notifying media that the team had drafted Marlin Briscoe.
A scan of a Broncos draft notice memo from director of public relations Val Pinchbeck Jr. notifying media that the team had drafted Marlin Briscoe.

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.

CHAPTER III: THE MAGICIAN MOVES INTO THE SPOTLIGHT

Every day, Eric Crabtree checked the mail.

Early in the morning, after he had arrived at the Broncos' headquarters, he sifted through the letters addressed to players. Maybe there was a note here and there for him, but that's not what he was looking for. He was searching for envelopes addressed to Marlin Briscoe.

Fan mail was fine. He left those. He was looking for the death threats.

It wasn't a constant stream. Some days he'd take a peek and leave, happy to be empty-handed. On the bad days, he took what he found and deposited it in the trash.

"He got not that much, but enough to demoralize you," Crabtree says. "… I was trying to protect him."

For nearly 50 years, Briscoe never knew. The subject would come up at times in his conversation with other Black athletes, and he'd marvel at his luck compared to his contemporaries. After the Broncos announced his first start in October, he received plenty of mail, but he said the only letters he got were nice. ("They were all wishing me luck," he told the Omaha World-Herald[1]. "A lady in Boston even sent a prayer.")

It wasn't until maybe six years ago that Crabtree revealed the truth.

Such was the territory that came with being Black and playing quarterback — and racial tensions were especially high in 1968. About six months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, setting off demonstrations across much of the country.

Denver, despite its reputation even at the time as a progressive haven, was not exempt from conflicts either. As close to three days before the Broncos' season opener, unrest exploded in north Denver after an incident between a Black teenager and a white store owner[2].

"You know, '68 was a volatile year on every front," Briscoe says. "On every front, Black people, we had to undergo a lot of stuff. Having the first Black quarterback in 1968, when '68 was the most pivotal year in our country's history, to break the barrier at that position was unique. A lot of it was divine intervention, I don't know. … Bobby Kennedy, you had Dr. King, you had just so many different scenarios for Black and white life back in those days."

Amid all of this, being a pioneer for Black Americans put a spotlight on Briscoe, and whatever potential for glory Briscoe held was balanced by a potential for animosity.

The sport had been integrated at almost every level for some time, but that wasn't necessarily the case at every position. The game's decision-makers deeply abided by racial stereotypes in shaping their rosters, and as such, they decided — whether consciously or not — that Black men were not capable of playing positions that were seen as the realm of the intellectual athlete. When Briscoe broke that barrier at quarterback, some could not handle what they viewed as an intrusion on the natural order of things.

To many fans at what would come to be known as Mile High Stadium, though, Briscoe may have been considered a welcome interloping figure.

To them, he was nothing short of a rookie sensation for a Broncos needing an injection of excitement. In his first career game, he came off the bench and nearly led a successful comeback against the Patriots; the home crowd gave him a standing ovation, according to the World-Herald[3]. About a month later, he again came off the bench; this time he scored two touchdowns in battling back from a 14-0 deficit to beat the Dolphins. After the game, a fan told him he could run for mayor, some 23 years before Denver would elect its first African-American mayor.

In his role, Briscoe took on an enormous weight, both in trying to lead a pro football team as a rookie and in essentially representing his entire race.

"When James Harris, when Marlin Briscoe and Joe Gilliam took the snap from center, it was like all of Black America was taking that snap," journalist Roy S. Johnson told William C. Rhoden in Third and a Mile[4]. "When they completed a pass, it was as if all of Black America was completing that pass. When they fumbled, it was if all African-Americans were fumbling that ball. They carried that burden with them, just as many other pioneers did."

Briscoe understood that, but he tried not to think about it.

"Both for Black and white people, I had to prove something to every race," Briscoe says. "But I never really let it be a burden. I couldn't be a quarterback and think, If I throw an interception, is somebody going to come at me? Verbally or whatever. If I throw an interception, it's part of the game. I'm not going to let it get me to the point where I can't perform."

Beyond that, there was also the implicit understanding Black athletes carried with them when they were compared to whites. Many evaluators — coaches, managers, fans, media, whoever (many of whom were white at the time) — already saw Black players like Briscoe at a disadvantage compared to white counterparts simply because implicit biases predisposed them to such thinking.

This is something that Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, knows Briscoe comprehended.

"As a Black man playing quarterback," Williams says, "he knew in 1968 it wasn't [about being] two times better than the guy behind you — he had to be five times better."

On the field, there were basically three areas Briscoe had to prove himself because of the racial bias at the time.

"There were a few things that society didn't think a Black man could do, and [three were] think, throw and lead," Briscoe says.

Briscoe didn't need to do much work on his throwing ability. His unique elusiveness may have been his calling card, but his arm talent was evident. In Rhoden's Third and a Mile[5], Floyd Little said, in addition to Briscoe running with the ball like Barry Sanders, "he had a better arm" than Michael Vick.

"For moving around, left or right, he throws as accurately and as long as anybody," one teammate told Ebony Magazine[6]. "He's all over the place. He confuses the defense."

The next of the three aspects that came was the leadership. The concern was that a Black quarterback, expected to garner the unquestioned commitment from other players as the maestro of the offense, would have trouble leading white players.

"Those guys from southern [schools], the Black kids from southern [schools], they played with all Black players and all Black quarterbacks, so they were used to Black quarterbacks," Briscoe says. "… So to them it wasn't a big deal, but it was hard, I think, for some of the white players, probably. But I never thought about it."

Some white players took quickly to supporting Briscoe. Left tackle Sam Brunelli was a good friend "from the beginning" who encouraged him and "urge[d] the guys to give it extra effort," Briscoe said in 1968[1].

"Don't let 'em touch The Magician," Brunelli would exhort to his teammates, Briscoe recalls.

Not all were so open-minded. Crabtree recalls going to a dinner with several of the team's white players and hearing one of his teammates call Briscoe the N-word. For some rookies who attended southern universities, it was possible they had never even played with or against a Black athlete, as the majority of the SEC schools had yet to integrate.

But Briscoe thought little of these concerns. From the time playing youth football to his high school and college years, he had always played alongside white and Black players alike.

"It never occurred to me that there would be any level of racism," Briscoe says now. "It just never occurred to me. The reason was I played quarterback all my life on integrated teams."

Instead, Briscoe preferred to let his play speak for him. If he could help them win, he figured, they would have to give him at least some modicum of respect — even the racists who called him the N-word behind his back.

In his first action, when he came off the bench and nearly beat the Patriots with a fourth-quarter comeback, Briscoe began to sense a sea change.

"We almost pulled it out, and I could see the difference in how these guys were treating me than they were before — not from a slanted position, but in professional sports or any sport at any level, you learn respect for each other," Briscoe says. "So with each week, I started to progress. … Each week the players, Black and white, began to see if you can play the game, you gain respect. That's basically what I had to do and did do."

The final aspect was the game's mental facet.

Since the Broncos had him practicing at cornerback until three weeks into the season, he did have some ground to make up as far as learning the offense.

"I didn't have the cerebral training at that position," Briscoe admits. "… As the season went along and I began to get more training, things developed for me. I threw quite a few interceptions, but that was because I didn't know what exactly was I supposed to do against these teams."

As he re-settled into the position, he set to catching up on what he'd missed. This may be easy for players today as they peruse as much video as their heart desires on team-issued tablets, but Briscoe had to take home a reel-to-reel projector and canisters of film in 1968.

"I would go home every day," Briscoe says. "Other guys on the team, they'd go out and have a few beers and chase women or whatever if they're single. … I would take a projector and film, I'd go home and study film. They didn't know what I was doing at night. I was at home in my apartment."

Reading defenses was probably his greatest challenge, but he caught on quickly.

"He hasn't played that much, so he's inexperienced," head coach Lou Saban said in an Associated Press wire story that year[7]. "But he's like a sponge. He absorbs everything."

A record home crowd saw the evidence of this on Oct. 27 when he won the game with a 10-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw — Briscoe had changed the play at the line of scrimmage when he saw the Dolphins' formation.

From one week to the next, Briscoe was showing he could handle the game at its most important position. Now, with a chance to settle into the starting role for the final four games, it was time to prove he could handle the duties on a weekly basis.

It took a little time for Briscoe to get settled.

After re-entering the starting lineup for the final stretch of the season, it seemed like little was going right. In the first quarter of this game against the lowly Bills, Briscoe followed up an underthrow with an overthrow on the first drive and didn't attempt a pass on the second. Then an open receiver dropped a deep throw. As the quarter's end neared, Briscoe had started 0-for-5 and had been sacked once. After an offsides call, Denver faced second-and-20.

That pressure was all Briscoe needed. From the Broncos' own 10-yard line, he dropped back and threw to Denson for 38 yards. Two plays later, they connected for 17 more. On the first play of the second quarter, Briscoe scrambled and found Brendan McCarthy for a 40-yard touchdown.

He followed it up with two more efficient touchdown drives in the second quarter. Briscoe found Crabtree for a 15-yard score on the first, and on the second, he floated a screen pass over a leaping defensive lineman for a play that Little took to the house from 66 yards out.

In the second half, the Broncos struggled to continue their hot streak. Briscoe threw a painful pick-six, though he soon atoned for it with a his fourth touchdown of the day.

Entering the final quarter, the Broncos held a commanding 14-point lead, but it would soon evaporate. The Bills quickly scored a touchdown and converted the two-point try. After Denver missed one of two field-goal tries, Buffalo blocked a punt and scored on the next play, cutting the lead to two points.

After a failed onside kick with 1:15 left, the Broncos seemed at last to have the game wrapped up.

Then disaster struck. Little, running to his left on sweep, tried to elude a tackler behind the line, but he stumbled and lost the ball. Buffalo recovered and took it to the 10-yard line. For whatever reason — perhaps to avoid losing yards or losing the ball themselves — the Bills opted to immediately kick the field goal and go up by one point with about 30 seconds left.

All this set up one of the great legends of Broncos history.

After the fumble, the notoriously explosive Saban fired Little on the spot. As Little walked toward the locker room, the offense gathered for their first play.

"I'm in the huddle and Floyd wasn't in there," Briscoe recalls. "Fran Lynch, his backup, was in the huddle. I called a timeout."

Halfway to the locker room, Little decided he had nothing to lose. He put himself back in the game and told Lynch to go back to the sideline. In the huddle, Briscoe dialed up a play just for Little to capitalize on his speed in a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker deep down the right sideline.

Briscoe scrambled to his left as the pass rush closed in, eventually heaving a bomb from near the numbers at his own 27-yard line to the 18-yard line on the numbers on the right side — a throw that traveled about 60 yards through the air. Little made a spectacular catch and then drew a facemask penalty. With 10 seconds left, kicker Bobby Howfield made the 12-yard field goal to win the game.

"Briscoe has a strong arm for a little guy," Bills head coach Howard Johnson said afterward. "The little guy really moves around, and with guys like Denson and Crabtree, who are fast and can move, it's tough to cover."

To the victor went the spoils, and on top of a hard-fought win, Briscoe earned several records. Until John Elway arrived in Denver, Briscoe held the franchise's single-game rookie records for passing yards with 335 and touchdown passes with four. Today, those marks are second and tied for first, respectively, in team annals. Until 2019, Briscoe was the youngest player in team history to throw for at least 300 yards.

It was quite the start.

Unfortunately for Briscoe and the Broncos, the road got much harder from there.

After topping the Bills, Denver prepared to take on their three division rivals, each of whom were far above .500.

Against the high-powered Chargers, Briscoe did his best to keep pace and threw for 218 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, though his 45.5 completion percentage left something to be desired. Still, with San Diego putting up 47 points, you couldn't put the blame on Briscoe.

After those two starts, he was making history, and not just because of his race. Briscoe was the first Broncos quarterback ever to throw seven or more touchdowns across two consecutive games. To this day, he is still the only rookie in franchise history to accomplish that feat.

For Broncos fans, Briscoe was a welcome departure from the Broncos' hapless run of searching for a quarterback who could capably lead their offense. In just the previous two seasons, Denver started an astounding six different players at the position.

"If our memory serves us right," Vic Boccard of the Broomfield Star wrote on Dec. 5, 1968[8], "it was only a few years ago that Bronco quarterbacks were hard pressed to complete seven touchdown passes in one season."

The next week, Denver faced the mighty 10-2 Raiders, the AFL's defending champions.

The young Broncos were far outmatched against Oakland's team of veterans, including quarterback Daryle Lamonica, who was AP AFL Player of the Year the previous year. Yet, Denver mustered perhaps it's finest effort in going toe-to-toe with the Raiders on the road.

Briscoe had his ups and downs in the game, but it's unquestionable that his efforts were key to Denver playing the game as close as it did. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos trailing by 10, Briscoe led an eight-play, 70-yard drive. He accounted for 55 of those yards — 15 on the ground and 40 through the air — including the 26-yard touchdown pass to cap the drive.

On the next drive, though, Briscoe watched as one of his passes bounced off the hands of one of his receivers and those of a Raiders cornerback into the grasp of Oakland linebacker Dan Conners. The Raiders turned the takeaway into three points, pushing their lead to six.

Late in the game, Denver got one more chance, needing a touchdown. On fourth-and-15, Briscoe threw his fourth interception of the day.

Despite Briscoe's struggles, it was still a promising performance by the team to play the Raiders that close.

In the season finale, Denver got no such warm and fuzzy feelings.

The 11-2 Chiefs' top-rated defense was dominant, forcing Briscoe into a 10-for-31 passing day. He threw for 202 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, but Kansas City's pass rush gave him fits all day.

It was humbling, but Chiefs head coach Hank Stram, a future Hall of Famer, was nonetheless impressed.

"I'll say that Marlin Briscoe is the most dangerous scrambling quarterback I've seen in nine years in the American Football League," Stram said after the game. "He's like playing against 12 men."

Briscoe may have won only one of his four final starts, but that record could not diminish his accomplishments nor the talent that was so easily visible.

A runner-up for 1968 AFL Rookie of the Year honors[9], Briscoe finished his rookie season with 1,589 passing yards, 14 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions, 308 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns — all in just five starts and 11 games. The passing touchdown mark still stands as the franchise's single-season rookie record.

"That last month of the season in '68 — I mean, the Broncos were not a good team — but he was putting up huge numbers," says Dirk Chatelain, a writer for the World-Herald. "I think numbers that were sort of representative of what you'd see from quarterbacks today. Very few quarterbacks were putting up numbers like that back then. I think he at least deserved a chance in '69 to try to win the job."

Some Broncos players, like Rich Jackson, walked away from the season wondering what could have been, had Briscoe been given the chance from the get-go.

"I was highly disappointed, and many of my teammates were disappointed that they didn't allow Marlin the opportunity to really play quarterback and start from the beginning," Jackson says. "When he came in, he didn't have the same training or pre[season] training when he came in. … And we won, I think, about four or five ballgames with Marlin — could have won more.

"The thing about it was, the guys who played against us at that time, man, they would run to us and say, Man, where did you all get that guy? Where did he come from?"

It seemed like just the beginning of a promising and historic career for the young quarterback.

But six months later, no one was asking where Marlin Briscoe came from.

The question was, Where did he go?

CHAPTER IV: LEAVING DENVER AND LEAVING A LEGACY IN THE NFL

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.

END NOTES AND RECOMMENDED READING

CHAPTER I

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

CHAPTER II

  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.

CHAPTER III

  1. Provost, W. (1968, November 3). How Nebraska Missed Briscoe. Omaha World-Herald, 3C.
  2. Forty Arrested in Disturbance. (1968, September 13). The Denver Post, 3.
  3. World-Herald Press Services. (1968, October 30). Briscoe Adds Life to Losing Broncos. Omaha World-Herald, 17.
  4. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Page 172.
  5. Rhoden, W. C. (2007). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback: An Oral History. ESPN Books. Page 89.
  6. Breakthrough for a Black Quarterback. (1969, January). Ebony, 64–70.
  7. Rathet, M. & Associated Press. (1968, November 10). History Maker's Talent Snips Color Line. Omaha World-Herald, 10C.
  8. Boccard, V. (1968, December 5). Dry Rot. Broomfield Star, 19.
  9. Associated Press. (2018, September 30). After 50 Years, Barrier Breaker Is Still Inspiring His Successors. The New York Times, SP.4.

CHAPTER IV

  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/
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