Skip to main content

Denver Broncos | News

Way Back When: The pioneers who played for the Broncos and Rams


The Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Rams have played one another far less frequently than many other teams, largely due to the teams being in different conferences.

One connection these two teams share is of great social significance, that each of these two teams had significant roles in the integration of modern pro football.

Broncos fans are aware of the late Marlin Briscoe, who was drafted by Denver in 1968 and who became the first African-American starting quarterback in the modern era when he started for Denver against the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968.

Though on the small side, Briscoe was a truly great athlete and had a tremendous arm. The Broncos were not a good team in 1968, but I well remember Briscoe's passing and scrambling abilities. He created the mold which many other players have followed in the following years and decades.

Meanwhile, it is possible that many fans do not think of the Los Angeles Rams in terms of integration, but they gave pro football its lead in 1946.

In 1945, the Cleveland Rams won the NFL championship, and the future Broncos GM Fred Gehrke led the league in rushing average as Cleveland's starting halfback.

But team owner Dan Reeves (the future Pro Football Hall of Fame owner, not the Broncos head coach) was wary of competing with the newly formed Cleveland Browns. He did not think Cleveland could support two pro football teams, so the Rams became the first (and still only) team to relocate to another city immediately after winning the NFL's championship game.

The plan was for the Rams to play in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But when the first meetings were held between the Rams and the Coliseum board, Black journalists pointed out that the Rams must integrate to play there.

"There were several African-American newspapers (the Sentinel, the California Eagle, and the Tribune) in Los Angeles at the time and the sports editors of those publications got together and appointed Los Angeles Tribune sports editor Halley Harding to ask at the meeting of the Coliseum Commission for the Rams to sign an African-American player," Bob Timmermann, a senior librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library wrote in 2017. "If the team did not acquiesce to that request, Harding would inform the team that it would face legal action because, since the Coliseum was taxpayer-supported, it could not host a segregated for profit sports team."

As a result, on March 21, Reeves and the Rams signed halfback Kenny Washington, and they followed that up with the signing of end Woody Strode not long afterward. Washington and Strode became the first Black men to play in the NFL in the post-war era.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference signed lineman Bill Willis and halfback Marion Motley in August.

But since Cleveland was in a different league, the Rams were officially the first NFL team to have Black players in the post-war era of pro football.

As an interesting side note, both Motley and Willis were later elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as was the owner of the Rams.

The Broncos have only played the Rams in Los Angeles four times (1972, 1982, 1985 and 1994), so this is Denver's first regular-season appearance against the Rams in Los Angeles in almost 30 years.

The first time we faced the Rams on the in Los Angeles future Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen was still anchoring the Rams pass rush, and future Ring of Famer Charley Johnson was the Broncos' quarterback.

That was a long time ago. But still longer ago was 1946, when the Rams re-integrated pro football, and 1968, when the Broncos had the first Black starting quarterback of the modern era.

A team can only be the first one once, and the Broncos and Rams share those great moments of social change in pro football.

Related Content