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QB pioneer Marlin Briscoe sees so much of himself in Lamar Jackson

Briscoe eventually played wide receiver for Buffalo and won two Super Bowls

Occasionally, history comes back to retrieve a forgotten pioneer.

During a telecast last week, an announcer described Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson as a magician, referring to Jackson’s deft ball-handling skills.

I immediately thought of Marlin Briscoe.

As a dynamic quarterback at the University of Nebraska Omaha in 1967-68, Briscoe was so electric and such an adroit ball handler that the local news media nicknamed him Marlin the Magician.

At 5 feet 10 inches and 177 pounds, he was the Russell Wilson of his day.

Unfortunately, Briscoe played in an era of professional football when African American players were the victims of practices designed to limit their numbers and protect jobs for white players. There were quotas, stacking black players at certain positions while steering them away from others. When it came to quarterback, black players were denied altogether.

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

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

On Sunday, Briscoe watched Jackson throw three touchdown passes and lead Baltimore to its 11th victory of the season, 24-17 over the Buffalo Bills.

The overwhelming success of black quarterbacks in the last two seasons has prompted the media to revisit black quarterbacks of the past who were overlooked, marginalized and pushed aside simply because of the color of their skin.

If he played in today’s NFL, Briscoe’s athleticism would be embraced and celebrated as Jackson’s has been.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,“ Briscoe told me over the weekend, “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 play today. Not with linebackers running 40-yard dashes in 4.5. seconds. With my style of play, I could play today.

“I could’ve played back then,” he added. “The tide has changed.”

Briscoe had a lot to do with bringing about that change.

After a stellar college career, Briscoe was drafted by the Denver Broncos Denver on the 14th round of the 1968 draft. Like nearly every talented black college quarterback fortunate enough to even be drafted, Briscoe was asked to switch positions. He negotiated the right to compete at quarterback but nevertheless became Denver’s starting cornerback.

When an injury knocked starting Denver quarterback Steve Tensi out of the lineup in a game against the Boston Patriots on Sept. 29, Briscoe stepped in and played well enough to become the Broncos starter for the rest of the season. The next week, in a game against Cincinnati, Briscoe became the first black player in T-formation era to start and play regularly at quarterback. After leading Denver to a 10-7 victory, Briscoe set a rookie record with 14 touchdown passes in only five starts. He ran for three more touchdowns.

“The game was so different in 1968 when I came up through the ranks,” Briscoe recalled. “There really weren’t any quarterbacks who ran and threw. When they put me out there in 1968, I was just playing college ball. There was no playbook, I had to go on the fly.”

Despite Briscoe’s strong performance in five starts, the Broncos did not see him as a legitimate quarterback contender. The organization, especially head coach Lou Saban, had no intention of allowing him to compete at quarterback.

Angry and distraught, Briscoe asked for and was given his release though no other team would sign him as a quarterback. The Buffalo Bills offered Briscoe a contract, but head coach John Rauch said he needed Briscoe to play wide receiver. Briscoe made the transition and became one of the NFL’s best receivers. Briscoe was finished as a quarterback, but his impressive showing in 1968 opened the door for other black quarterbacks to be considered.

In 1969, the Boston Patriots drafted Onree Jackson from Alabama A&M in the fifth round. The Buffalo Bills drafted James Harris, a strong-armed 6-foot-3 dropback quarterback from Grambling State. Harris had been groomed by coach Eddie Robinson for the NFL style of play. If there was going to be a black quarterback in the NFL, the player would have to be the black version of the traditional white quarterback.

In 1969, Harris became the first black quarterback to start the regular season at quarterback and in 1974, he became the first to start a playoff game.

Buffalo Bills receiver Marlin Briscoe on the sideline during the 1970 season.

Because of Jackson’s success, Briscoe, 74, said that he has received renewed attention from reporters, though originally most wanted to know if he thought Jackson should play wide receiver.

Briscoe remembers receiving a call from reporter who was determined to make the point that Jackson would be an outstanding wide receiver because he had tremendous athletic skills.

“That’s what they always said about blacks back in the day; you’re an athlete, you can play any position,” Briscoe said.

“We’ve come along way. You look at TV today and you see all these black quarterbacks in the league being successful in changing the face of the league at that position, able to utilize their feet as well as their arms. It makes it quite interesting.”

Had it not been for racism, the NFL could have had this level of excitement at quarterback 40 years ago and African American athletes who aspired to play quarterback would not have had their careers — and dreams — short-circuited.

Briscoe’s success in 1969 set the tone for other NFL teams to consider drafting black quarterbacks and opening them to the possibility that African Americans could play the position.

After Briscoe’s history-making start in 1968, there would be a succession of other milestones.

  • In 1988, Washington’s Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl championship.
  • In 2003, Steve McNair became the first African American quarterback to receive the league’s MVP Award, which he shared with Peyton Manning.
  • In 2001, Michael Vick became the first African American quarterback to be drafted No. 1 overall.
  • In 2006, Warren Moon became the first black quarterback to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Briscoe has a statue at the University of Nebraska Omaha and should be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had his dreams dashed because of racism, switched positions, yet became an All-Pro and won two Super Bowl titles.

At the very least, the Pro Football Hall of Fame should convene a truth and reconciliation committee to consider black quarterbacks who entered the league — or tried to enter the NFL — in the 1960s and ’70s.

Briscoe’s success in 1968 opened a door of possibilities. “I’m proud of that. 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.”

At least, history has come back to Briscoe.

Some would argue that Marlin the Magician was ahead of his time. Briscoe was on time. The NFL is just catching up.

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.