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The Making of The Magician: Marlin Briscoe moves into the spotlight
In the third installment of our series about the life and legacy of Marlin Briscoe, modern American pro football’s first Black starting quarterback, we’re focusing on the last month of his rookie season, when he started the final four games.
By Ben Swanson Feb 25, 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 delve into the pressures he faced as a Black quarterback and how the rookie sensation finished out the year as Denver's starter.

Note: This is the third story in the series. Part I focused on Briscoe's youth in South Omaha and how he reached the pros. Part II was about how he managed to break the AFL's color barrier at quarterback.

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 "urged] 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?

Recommended companion reading and essential source material:

  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.
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