Marlin Briscoe was on top of the world. He had set rookie records as the first black quarterback to start in the NFL and won two Super Bowl Rings as a wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins. However, drug addiction almost ruined his life.
Briscoe was a fourteenth-round draft choice out of the University of Nebraska – Omaha. Briscoe recalled, “I came into the league as Denver’s starting cornerback.” However, after an injury to the Broncos’ starting quarterback Steve Tensi, Briscoe received his opportunity. He had played quarterback from Pop Warner through college, so the position was familiar to him. However, there was a stigma that African-Americans could not play quarterback. According to the critics, African-Americans did not have the “mental capabilities” that were required of the position. Briscoe proved them wrong.
That rookie campaign saw Briscoe throw for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns in only a partial season. While those numbers do not look gaudy by today’s standards, let’s put them into perspective. Briscoe still holds the following Denver Broncos records:
• 1st in total offense by a rookie (1,897)
• 1st in touchdown passes by a rookie (14)
• 1st (tied) in most touchdown passes in a game by a rookie (4). (He also holds positions two and three with two games with three touchdown passes.)
He also ranks (Broncos all-time records):
• 3rd in most passing yards by a rookie in a season (1,589)
• 3rd in most completions by a rookie in a season (93)
• 4th in highest average gain-per-attempt by a rookie (7.09 yards)
Even with a record-setting performance his rookie year – records that still stand 45 years later – head coach Lou Saban did not want Briscoe to return as the starting quarterback. Broscoe recalled, “It was obvious that they did not have me in their plans.” He continued, “I had gone back to Omaha to finish up six hours that I needed to graduate. At that time, they had acquired Pete Liske from Canada. I heard it through the grapevine that they were having quarterback meetings and I was not even invited, even though I was the starting quarterback at the end of the season. That meant that they did not even have plans for me to compete. That is all I wanted. To be able to compete. I had no misgivings about feeling that I was going to be the starting quarterback. Steve Tensi was the quarterback, but he got hurt the previous year. All I wanted to do was to be able to compete, but they had no plans for me. The fact that they did not even invite me to the meetings, that was a swipe. It was highly unfair. As a matter of fact, when I found out about the meetings, I flew back to Denver and stood outside of the office where they were having the meetings. When they came out, Saban could not even look me in the face. He did not even know I was coming.”
The situation did not improve at training camp. “When I got to camp, it was apparent that they had no plans to even let me into the fray. I asked for my release, because I thought that with the success that I had, it would give me an opportunity to play for another team. However, that was not the case. I heard through the grapevine that I was blackballed. [Saban] wouldn’t release me right away. He said, ‘Wait four days.’ I was trying to figure out why he wanted me to wait four days. By the end of those four days, my name was tainted. It was spread around the league that I was a malcontent. That I wouldn’t play another position. That is what they wanted me to do. I had no offers. Not even a sniff at quarterback.”
However, with Briscoe’s success as a starting quarterback, attitudes started to change around the rest of the league. “They drafted James Harris in 1969 as a quarterback. I don’t think that it would have happened if I had failed to show that a black man could lead on that level. There were a lot of naysayers out there that thought that a black man couldn’t throw and that they didn’t have the mental capabilities of leading on that level. They thought that there would be fan backlash and that fans would not come to the game. Also, they didn’t think that white players, particularly, would follow a black quarterback. Now, look at my line in Denver. They were all white and three-quarters of them played on teams from the south. The teams they played on didn’t have a black quarterback. They didn’t have black players at all. A lot of the guys, I still see them today, say that, ‘We could have won with you.’ Not only did you have to have respect of the white players, but you had to gain the respect of black players. You had to gain the respect of all of your teammates that you could play the position. I was in a situation where I had a heavy burden to prove that I could play that position and be a leader. Luckily where I went to college, it was a majority white school, but I was able to quarterback a multicultural team. I never thought of myself as a black quarterback. I think that is what saved me. Ethnicity never entered my mind. I was the quarterback. I was the leader of the team. So, when I got the opportunity, the pressure of being a black quarterback really didn’t enter into the picture. Fortunately, I had already been through the scenario of leading players, whether they be black or white or whatever. “
Briscoe was the first black quarterback to start in the NFL or AFL. However, he was not the first black quarterback since reintegration of the league. That distinction goes to Willie Thrower of the Chicago Bears. Thrower played sparingly for the 1953 Bears team, only throwing eight passes. But he blazed a trail for all African-American quarterbacks.
Briscoe recalled, “You won’t believe this. Right after my rookie season, one of my receivers was named Jimmy Jones. He used to play for the [Chicago] Bears. I went to Chicago to see my girlfriend. I contacted Jimmy and he took me to this bar called The Presidents. So, Jimmy is introducing me to the bartender, ‘This is Marlin Briscoe. He is the first black quarterback in the NFL.’ This guy was sitting next to me. He said, ‘You weren’t the first black quarterback.’ I said, ‘I was.’ He said, ‘No, you weren’t.’ I said, ‘Well, who was?’ He said, ‘I was. My name is Willie Thrower.’ It couldn’t happen in a million years. I knew that he existed, and he was sitting right next to me. We sat there and we talked for a couple of hours. I met him by happenstance going to this lounge with my receiver. I knew who he was, and for him to be sitting right next to me. It was kind of crazy, but I am glad that I got a chance to meet him. That was one of the highlights of my life.”
But, Briscoe was out of a job. He contemplated going to the Canadian Football League (CFL) to play quarterback. Did he think that he would have a shot to play in the CFL as a quarterback? “Yes. I went up to practice one day. I practiced at quarterback and some at defensive back. After that day’s practice, I went back to the hotel and got to assessing things. I decided that the CFL wasn’t for me. No disrespect to Canadian football, it’s just that with the success that I had in the NFL, I felt that I belonged there.”
He never gave up on trying to get back into the league. “I called around to the teams that I had success against my rookie year to see what was out there,” recalled Briscoe. “I almost beat the Oakland Raiders. I beat the Buffalo Bills twice. John Rausch, who was the coach of the Oakland Raiders, moved on to Buffalo. So I called him. He indicated that he had no need for a quarterback. He drafted James Harris, and he had Tom Flores and Jack Kemp. He said that he needed help at wide receiver. I told him that I never played wide receiver before, but that I would try it. They put me on a flight to Buffalo and the rest was history.”
Briscoe played wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills from 1969 through 1971. In that time, he racked up 2,171 yards on 133 receptions and was named to the Pro Bowl. Not bad for someone who never played the position.
After three years in Buffalo, his time was up. At the conclusion of the 1971 season, Buffalo traded Briscoe to the Miami Dolphins. “I felt like I hit the lottery,” recalled Briscoe. “It was kind of amazing, because Lou Saban was my coach at Denver. He denied me the opportunity to compete. He blackballed me from the league, I believe. There is no way in the world that you can be in the running for Rookie of the Year and to do all of the things that I did that year, and not get an opportunity to compete. That is all I wanted. So, after I was released and I go to Buffalo, I ended up being the Most Valuable Player over O.J. Simpson, at a position I never played before. A year later, I lead the league in receptions and made All-Pro. I also got entrenched in the community doing community work. Now, I am pretty much a fixture in the Buffalo community, but I was playing out my option and negotiating a new contract. Now, who do they hire to be head coach, but Lou Saban. So now, he is coming in and he has to deal with me on another level. He can’t just deal with a fourteenth-round draft choice that he could just mouse around. I was arguably one of the top receivers in the league.” In the 1970 season, Briscoe was ranked second in the league in receptions, second in receiving yards and seventh in receiving touchdowns. In 1971, he was the team’s leading receiver based on receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Briscoe continued, “At the end of the year, the [Miami] Dolphins were playing [the] Dallas [Cowboys] in the Super Bowl and I went to the game. I ran into Don Shula, and the only game we won was against the Dolphins.” The Bills went 1-13 in 1971. Briscoe continued, “I always had great games against the Dolphins, win or lose, in Buffalo. Even as a quarterback, I always had great games against the Dolphins. [The Dolphins] felt that they needed somebody to take the pressure off of Paul [Warfield] and I was playing out my option and I was available. [Shula] contacted Saban and said, ‘Saban, hurry up.’ [Saban] traded me to Miami and the rest is history.”
Briscoe immediately noticed a difference in attitude with the Dolphins. When asked about the differences, Briscoe commented, “Preparation. I led the league in receptions, but I didn’t know anything about playing wide receiver until I talked to Paul Warfield and got tutelage from him. I was just playing on natural ability. That is the only reason why I was able to make the transition from quarterback to receiver. I realized, in four years between Denver and Buffalo, that I knew nothing about football. I was just playing on talent and innate ability. When I got to Miami, everything was detailed. Conditioning was superior. When I got down there, I learned about professional football. I learned that everything that you do, you do for a reason. When I was in Buffalo, I used to make all of these circus catches. When I got to Miami, I heard Paul Warfield, ‘1…2…3…4…5…’ He was counting his steps. It was always a precise distance. I took heed of that. I learned to block better. I learned the philosophies of the game. Time management. We didn’t have that [in Denver or Buffalo].”
It was all business on the Dolphins. According to Briscoe, “We didn’t hang out a lot together. There were certain cliques. We didn’t go out and have a beer together. It wasn’t like that. But, when we got on the field for practice, it was like we were all one. Off the field, we had guys go different ways. Everybody had their own clique of one or two guys. When we went to the practice field, it was all business. How that happened is that Shula was such an organizer, we didn’t have time to think about other things other than doing our assignments and getting prepared, both mentally and physically, for the game.”
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