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Marlin Briscoe gave the NFL a glimpse of its future at quarterback

Briscoe, 76, was the first Black quarterback to start in the AFL, inspiring African American athletes who followed at the position

When I heard the news Monday that pioneering quarterback Marlin “the Magician” Briscoe had died, the first person I reached out to call was James “Shack” Harris. The news had caught Harris by surprise as well. Even though we knew Briscoe had been ill, the news was jarring.

His death marked the end of an era, the end of a journey. But it also served as an opportunity to reflect on Briscoe’s legacy and significant role in football history.

I first met Briscoe in Atlanta in 1995 when he, Harris, Warren Moon, Doug Williams and I collaborated on Third and A Mile, a book about the history of Black quarterbacks.

Harris and Briscoe had formed a bond 26 years earlier. Harris credits Briscoe with helping him salvage his professional career as an NFL quarterback.

They met in the summer of 1969. Harris was a 22-year-old rookie quarterback with the Buffalo Bills. He played at Grambling State University in Louisiana and was attempting to break through the granite ceiling of Black men playing quarterback. Briscoe was a 24-year-old quarterback-turned-wide receiver who joined the Bills after experiencing the realities of race and racism in professional football.

However, long before they met in person, Harris knew who Briscoe was. While at Grambling, Harris paid close attention to what fellow Black quarterbacks were doing.

“I followed three guys: Marlin, Jimmy Raye and Eldridge Dickey,” Harris said. 

Harris originally thought Briscoe was white because he played at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Playing from 1963 to 1967, at a time when playing quarterback was barely an option for Black athletes, Briscoe led Nebraska Omaha to three conference titles and set 22 school records in a career that got him inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

Harris was pleasantly surprised to discover that Briscoe was Black, though he became disheartened by what became of the young Black quarterbacks he followed.

Raye was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams out of Michigan State and switched to defensive back; Dickey was drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders out of Tennessee State.  

“When Dickey got drafted No. 1, I felt that I may have a chance to play quarterback,” Harris said. “When he moved to wide receiver, I started thinking they still may not be ready.”

Marlin Briscoe threw 14 touchdown passes in 1968 in five starts as a quarterback with the Denver Broncos.

Bill Johnson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

By the time Harris and Briscoe met in 1969, Briscoe had been through a lot already in pro football.  

Briscoe’s size (5-foot-10, 177 pounds), compounded by his race, negated the possibility of him becoming a pro quarterback. What coaches could not have anticipated was Briscoe’s heart, audacity and determination to play the position.

This is a trait I always admired about Briscoe: his refusal to be deterred.

Denver drafted Briscoe in the 14th round of the 1968 draft with the idea of making him a cornerback. But as part of the contract negotiation, Briscoe convinced Denver to allow him to compete for the quarterback position. He earned a starting spot at cornerback but was thrust into action as quarterback when the starter was injured. His first play was a 22-yard pass completion. He then led the Broncos on an 80-yard touchdown drive.

He played well enough in relief that he earned a start the next week, becoming the first African American to start at quarterback in the American Football League.

Briscoe played brilliantly and with flair in the Broncos’ next five games. Employing a wide-open, almost-playground style that had not been seen in pro football, Briscoe threw 14 touchdown passes, and a rookie record 335 yards in one game, a record that stood until 1983.

But that wasn’t enough. The Broncos had no intention of allowing him to compete for the starting quarterback position. When it became clear after the season that he was not in Denver’s plans as a quarterback, Briscoe asked for and received his release. When no other teams would sign him as a quarterback, Briscoe signed with Buffalo with the understanding that he would play wide receiver. That’s when Briscoe and Harris met and became roommates.

“Marlin got the opportunity and played well,” Harris recalled Monday. “That gave me new hope that I’d get a chance to play quarterback. I thought Marlin had entrenched himself. Then the next thing I read was that Marlin was no longer with Denver. That was unbelievable that a guy would play like that and wouldn’t get a chance to come back. At that point, I thought my opportunity would be blown, too.”

From left to right: Former NFL quarterbacks Warren Moon, James Harris, Marlin Briscoe and Doug Williams at the Field Generals news conference at the Super Bowl media center on Feb. 1, 2007, in Miami Beach, Florida.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Harris was having problems of his own adjusting to life as a pro quarterback on and off the field. He was having difficulty adjusting to life in a setting with white people as head coaches and teammates. Briscoe was raised in a more diverse environment in Omaha and was used to interacting with white teammates and white coaches. He helped Harris decode white people.

“Marlin could network and communicate, and I was finding real challenges with that part,” Harris said. “I would just observe the way he was more comfortable in that environment than I was.” 

Briscoe became a sounding board for Harris. 

“He was a big help to me, telling me about some of the things he went through. He was the one guy there who understood what I was going through,” Harris said. “He let me know that I couldn’t take anything for granted, that I was going to have to be prepared and let everything else take care of itself.”

On one occasion, the Bills released Harris after practice and Harris left camp.

“Marlin left camp and came and spent some time with me. That helped me regroup. They called me back the next day,” Harris said.

On the field, Briscoe became a stellar example of not just surviving but prospering. In three seasons with Buffalo, he led the Bills in touchdown catches and in 1970 made the Pro Bowl. Briscoe was traded to Miami and won two Super Bowl championships with the Dolphins, including the Dolphins’ undefeated season in 1972.

Harris eventually made history of his own. He became the first African American to start a football season at quarterback. After three seasons in Buffalo, Harris was signed by the Rams and in 1974 became the first Black quarterback to start and win an NFL playoff game.

Briscoe eventually moved to Long Beach, California, and worked as the director of the Boys & Girls Club there. There was a stretch after his retirement in 1976 when Briscoe struggled with drug addiction, but he eventually came through that after an extensive and painful period of rehabilitation. I wondered if frustration contributed to his drug issues. Quarterbacks such as Joe Gilliam and Dickey, talented players who were denied fair access to becoming pro quarterbacks, also fought drug addiction.

“I think it took its toll later in life,” Harris said. “Marlin continued to be frustrated by that.”

Marlin Briscoe attends the eighth annual NFL Foundation Celebrity Bowling Classic in 2013.

Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

“It’s kind of bittersweet, because my style of play was like Russell Wilson’s and [Lamar] Jackson’s. But that wasn’t the style of play that fit the American ideology at that position.”

I last saw Briscoe in person two years ago, at a quarterback symposium hosted by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. The panel included Moon, the first Black quarterback to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Williams, the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

The other panelist was Dwayne Haskins, the young quarterback who died tragically in April after being struck by a truck. Haskins was 24. As I thought about Briscoe’s death, I thought about how two quarterbacks from that panel were gone — one of them far too young.

Haskins represented the opportunity that Briscoe never had but helped create. Haskins was a first-round draft choice out of Ohio State. He played two seasons in Washington before being released and was looking forward to attempting a renaissance with Pittsburgh at the time of his death. Haskins represented so much untapped potential and so many unwritten chapters.

Briscoe, on the other hand, has had a book published, is the subject of a film and even has a statue in his honor in Omaha. He lived long enough to see his legacy live on in the likes of Michael Vick, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray — each of whom has the same style of play and has made the ability to extend plays no longer a luxury but a mandatory part of playing the position.

Yet I always sensed an underlying melancholy in Briscoe whenever we discussed his career. There was a sense of not fully being appreciated, not being able to recover the years that were unfairly taken, never having the opportunity to be an NFL quarterback.

I remember calling Briscoe one afternoon after listening to a commentator refer to Baltimore’s Jackson as a magician. Briscoe, the original magician, described having mixed feelings about the sensational young quarterbacks playing the wide-open style that was once so objectionable.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he said at the time, “because my style of play was like Russell Wilson’s and Jackson’s. But that wasn’t the style of play that fit the American ideology at that position. That position was the Joe Namath dropback, the Johnny Unitas dropback. They were great players, but they wouldn’t have been able to play today. Not with linebackers running 40-yard dashes in 4.5 seconds. With my style of play, I could play today.”

Briscoe’s spirit lives on, in every Jackson scramble, every Patrick Mahomes acrobatic throw, on every Wilson last-gasp heave. Briscoe was the epitome of resilience — of overcoming disappointment and unfairness — and thriving.

“His legacy should be that he overcame impossible odds to become a high achiever,” Harris said. “He was undersized for the position, there were no Blacks playing the position — they said we weren’t smart enough — he was extremely smart.”

It’s difficult to know how — or even if — you’ll be remembered. But during one of our last conversations, Briscoe indicated that he understood the importance of opening a door more than five decades ago during a five-game stretch when he gave the league a glimpse of the future.

“I’m proud of that,” he said. “Even though they only gave me one year, I was successful. I set the tone for the acceptance of a Black man to play that position. I’ll take that to my grave.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.