Marlin Briscoe didn’t want to be pigeonholed simply because of stereotypes against black men. He was a star quarterback in college and he believed he had the talent, intelligence and leadership skills to be one in the pros.
Fifty years ago, during an era of massive social upheaval in the United States, just getting a chance to prove it took a risky ultimatum.
Briscoe refused to switch positions after being drafted as a cornerback by the Denver Broncos, telling his team that he’d return home to become a teacher if he couldn’t get a tryout at quarterback. Denver agreed to an audition, and that season the 5-foot-10 dynamo nicknamed “The Magician” became the first black quarterback to start a game in the American Football League.
“It’s just so many different historic things that happened in the year 1968, it was unfathomable,” Briscoe said. “It just seemed poetic justice, so to speak, that the color barrier be broken that year at that position. For some reason, I was ordained to be the litmus test for that. I think I did a good job.”
Briscoe’s groundbreaking accomplishments were somewhat lost in the shuffle during one of the most transformative years in U.S. history. Civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Civil rights riots broke out across the country and there were numerous protests of the Vietnam War. And less than two weeks after Briscoe’s first start, U.S. track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the Olympics to protest America’s social injustices.
But Briscoe’s legacy resonates among his contemporaries 50 years later, hitting on race as well as the pressures athletes face in pro sports. The Pro Football Hall of Fame calls Briscoe the first African-American starting quarterback in modern pro football history. Carolina’s Cam Newton and Seattle’s Russell Wilson have both considered Briscoe’s past as they contend for championships.
Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, counts Briscoe as one of his most important inspirations.
“I know the little bit that I had to go through, so I can imagine what he had to go through,” said Williams, who won the 1988 Super Bowl with Washington. “People were a little more accepted when I came through than when he came through.”
Wilson and Newton can relate to Briscoe’s resistance to switch from quarterback. Both dealt with being steered toward other positions.
“I had a couple opportunities —well I wouldn’t say opportunities, I think quarterback’s the opportunity I wanted — but more so, people wanted to change me to play defensive back,” Wilson said. “Even my freshman year in college. But I had other plans, and I guess God had other plans.”
Though he’s happy more black athletes are playing quarterback at the professional level, Briscoe sees parallels with his experiences even five decades years later. Last week, a white Texas school superintendent resigned after posting on Facebook that “You can’t count on a black quarterback,” while talking about Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“It’s unfortunate because in sports is the one realm in which race, you forget about it for the good of the outcome of a game or whatever you have from a sports standpoint,” Briscoe said. “To have that broken with attitudes like that from an executive — it’s mind boggling. It hurts. It really does.”
GETTING ON THE FIELD
Briscoe said the pedestal for quarterbacks in the hierarchy of sports made his quest about much more than football.
“People of color were only expected to reach certain heights in life,” Briscoe, now 73, told The Associated Press. “In my particular instance, it was the packing house. They (white people) thought that was our end-all, be-all. It came back to my wanting to play that position.”
Though Briscoe starred at Omaha University and eventually landed in the College Football Hall of Fame, the odds were stacked against him in Denver. He was drafted as a cornerback in the 14th round, and during his three-day tryout, Briscoe started last among the eight quarterbacks during drills.
“When it got to me, all of a sudden, the reps got shorter. Instead of 10 reps, I got five,” he said. “So I made sure that all of my passes were completions with zip on the ball. When it came to the long bomb, I’d wait till the receiver would get damn near out of sight. They couldn’t believe a kid this small could throw the ball that far.”
Though the AFL was considered more progressive than the rival National Football League, a black man didn’t play quarterback in a regular-season game until its ninth season.
Briscoe broke through helped by injuries and erratic play. He eventually stepped in for the Broncos as a reserve on Sept. 29, 1968, nearly leading a comeback against the Boston Patriots. He earned the next start against the Cincinnati Bengals, making him the first black quarterback to start in the AFL.
Briscoe started five games that season and was runner-up for AFL rookie of the year, attracting strong crowds to games and energizing a franchise that had yet to establish a winning tradition.
But when the games ended, reminders of racism came quickly.
“Here you are just playing a professional football game and endeared by the public as an athlete, then you go to a restaurant and you can’t get something to eat,” Briscoe said. “Those were the times that we lived in.”
Despite his electrifying season — he passed for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 308 yards and three scores — Denver didn’t give him a chance to compete for the quarterback job in 1969. He said he was never given a reason why, so he asked to be released.
“The more I’ve known him and been around him and talked to him, you’ve got to give him respect for what he did during that time and what happened to him after that time,” Williams said. “That’s the part that gets me. But that’s the time he was in.”
Briscoe headed briefly to British Columbia but decided Canadian football wasn’t for him. He returned to the United States and was picked up by Buffalo. He became a Pro Bowl receiver with the Bills and won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.
Briscoe played on the 1972 Dolphins team that had a perfect season. But he never started at quarterback after 1968.
As a senior at Grambling, James Harris kept up with Briscoe’s 1968 season by going to the library to look up his statistics.
As fate would have it, Buffalo drafted Harris as a quarterback in 1969, putting him on the same team as Briscoe. It was Harris who became the AFL’s first black quarterback to open the season as a starter, and he said his roommate Briscoe was a critical mentor.
“We used to talk a lot about the dos and don’ts and things that he had been through. He was telling me the things I needed to be prepared for,” Harris said. “I felt that Marlin was the only person on the team that understood what I was going through.”
That included death threats, Briscoe said. “We had the race card on our careers because we were the first,” he said.
Harris refused to show the Bills the full range of his athletic ability because Tennessee State’s Eldridge Dickey and Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye, two quarterbacks he considered capable, were drafted in 1968 and forced to switch positions.
Grambling coach Eddie Robinson noticed the trend and told Harris not to run the 40-yard dash for scouts. The Bills still wanted him to practice at receiver while learning to play quarterback, and Harris responded by running less than full speed in drills.
“I knew they were looking for the opportunity to switch me, and I didn’t want to face that,” he said. “So when we’re out there just working out, if anybody was around, I didn’t want anybody to think about my speed.”
Harris blossomed at quarterback. In 1974, he played for the Los Angeles Rams and became the first black quarterback to win an NFL playoff game. He also was Pro Bowl MVP that year.
GROWTH OF BLACK QUARTERBACKS
The list of prominent black quarterbacks eventually grew.
Warren Moon is in the Hall of Fame. Steve McNair was the first black quarterback to be named NFL MVP. Michael Vick is the NFL’s all-time rushing leader for quarterbacks. Randall Cunningham, one of the most electrifying players in NFL history, was a first-team All-Pro twice. Wilson became the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
Newton said the strategy of the position itself has shifted dramatically along with racial dynamics.
“It doesn’t even have to be African-American,” said Newton, who met with Briscoe at a quarterback camp about 10 years ago. “The quarterback position is kind of molding and changing over the years. You see the Carson Wentzes taking a more athletic approach to that position and making it more dynamic for teams to prepare for.”
Briscoe said more work needs to be done both in the league and society. He has noticed that Colin Kaepernick has not been given a contract since his decision to kneel during “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest racial and social inequality. He believes President Donald Trump, who has been an outspoken critic of Kaepernick and other black NFL players who have protested to draw attention to issues like incarceration and the shootings of unarmed black men by police, also bears some responsibility for the Watson quip and others like it.
Trump’s rhetoric toward people of color, Briscoe says, has made some people feel safe expressing overt racism. After all these years, Briscoe still sees shades of his old struggles.
“I grew up in the ’50s and the ’60s, when all that stuff was rampant, but you knew where you stood,” Briscoe said. “Today, you thought that all those attitudes were nonexistent or filtered away to some degree, but with the Trump-isms, his philosophy has brought out of the woodwork that old-time thought process. That’s scary — it really is.”