Forgotten hero: Pro football's first black starting QB

Marlin Briscoe was the first black starting QB in pro football, but his isn't a typical feel-good story.

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Marlin Briscoe gets up to pay for his coffee, one cup, sipped slowly in the late morning over two hours of memories. While he’s up, the waitress comes over. “Is he famous?” she asks, before he’s shuffled back from the cash register. “I heard he was an athlete. He’s around here sometimes.”


Briscoe doesn’t look famous. He certainly doesn’t look like an athlete, not all these years later, except for maybe the shuffling. The way he sort of scoots down the sidewalk, the way his knees don’t quite bend like knees are supposed to bend – it’s cause to wonder. It’s cause to think that this man’s body has been through the wringer, that it’s been pounded against turf and dirt.


Briscoe might not even really be famous, at least not in the conventional definition of the word, where famous means autographs, glamour and notoriety. But Marlin Briscoe, he of the polo shirt tucked into his sweatpants, he of the neat little graying mustache and sturdily slight frame, is something. He’s somebody.


He’s the first-ever black starting quarterback in pro football.


He’s a survivor, not only of football’s injustices, but the injustices he brought upon himself in a decade lost in a haze of drugs. He’s a role model to a million little boys who don’t even know who he is.


He’s an aging man at a table in Long Beach, sipping his coffee and enjoying a second lease on life without ever forgetting where he’s been.


--


When James Harris was quarterback at Grambling State University from 1965-68, he spent many evenings in the library, poring over football magazines. The young quarterback at an all-black college, Harris wanted to make it in the pros, but before 1968, there had yet to be a black quarterback to start in the AFL or NFL.


And so Harris memorized the names of Tennessee State’s Eldridge Dickey and Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye in the season leading up to the 1968 draft. He kept tabs on their stats and which teams were interested. One of the two would make it, he told himself, one of the two.


In another magazine, one without pictures, Harris read the name Marlin Briscoe. He’d seen the undersized (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) quarterback’s stats at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a small NAIA school, and he remembers being impressed.


“I didn’t know Marlin,” Harris said. “There wasn’t no picture in there, so I didn’t know Marlin was black for a while. I was reading about him, scanning through it. I know the numbers, and he was putting up some good numbers. Then I saw a picture of him.”


That was when Briscoe began to matter, when Harris saw the picture, saw the race, saw the significance. Only then did Briscoe become something of a role model, a reason for hope.


Since that 1968 draft, Briscoe’s identity has been tied not to who he is, but to what he is, what he did and failed to do. It’s both significant and dangerous, meaningful and utterly demoralizing.


After he was picked by the Broncos in the 14th round that spring, Briscoe had negotiated his own contract, agreeing to play defensive back if the team would give him a three-day quarterback tryout. The player so talented he was once nicknamed “the Magician” knew he wouldn’t get the job, but he wanted exposure in front of the Denver media and fans. No matter that he was the eighth man in line, that he got five throws to everyone else’s 10 by virtue of only his skin color, Briscoe wanted that tryout.


He never thought he’d get a chance to actually complete a pass, but just three weeks into the season, the tryout paid off. The team had gone 0-2 and scored just 12 points. When the 23-year-old rookie arrived at his locker on Sept. 24, his number, 45, was gone, replaced by 15, that of a quarterback. “See that number, 15?” Briscoe remembers Denver coach Lou Saban telling him, assuaging his fear that he’d been cut in favor of a new quarterback. “You’re a quarterback now.”


He still doubted he’d see minutes in a game, but that Sunday, with the Broncos down 20-10 in the fourth quarter, Briscoe’s number was called. He’d barely even seen a playbook, but there he was, completing his first pass. There he was, scoring on a 12-yard run, getting the Broncos back in the game, though they eventually lost.


There he was, starting the next week, bringing in a crowd of 41,257, a full 4,000 more than the week before. There he was, the first-ever black starter, beating the Bengals.


That’s when things got complicated. Briscoe lost his starting job after that win and rode the bench until Week 11. Again, he was given the nod for the season’s final four games, logging one win and three losses. In the process, he set the Broncos rookie record for touchdown passes, with 14, which still stands today.


After the season was over, with his job as secure as it could have been, Briscoe went back to Omaha to finish his education degree. While there, he learned the team had held quarterback meetings without him, and so he returned to Denver, arriving at the facility during one of such meetings.


Briscoe stood in the team’s offices as his teammates filed out and were unable to look him in the eye. He realized he’d been frozen out, that his breakthrough was a breakthrough for the sport but not for him as a player.


He demanded to be released and waited four days for Saban to do so, the coach taking the time, Briscoe says, to send a memo to the rest of the league labeling him a malcontent for refusing to switch positions. He then went to Canada for a day to try playing in the Canadian Football League, and when that wasn’t to his liking, he eventually convinced Buffalo to take him, that he’d play receiver, that he was no malcontent, that he wanted to play more than anything.


That’s where Marlin Briscoe’s story could have ended, at least the story of the man who challenged football’s lingering racism. He broke a barrier and then was pushed back behind it, but what we remember is the broken barrier. It doesn’t matter that Briscoe played for Buffalo as a receiver, and then for the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972, that he won two Super Bowls before moving on to San Diego, Detroit and New England, that he was one of the most public opponents of the Rozelle Rule, which allowed the league to compensate teams when they lost free agents. He would forever be Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback, a designation too simple for everything he went through.


--


Football lost something that day when Briscoe returned to Denver and demanded his release. It’s hard to say what, or even how much, but it took what could have been the most inspirational story of a generation and pulled the rug out from underneath.


Briscoe would have been perfect. He would have been the best kind of poster child for successful and lasting integration in football. He knew how to handle the situation better than many, having been raised in a melting-pot neighborhood in Omaha near a meat-packing plant, where people of all races coexisted and “nobody,” he says, “was better than anybody else, because they all was made of the same kind of money.”


“From the Pop Warner level all the way through the pros, I was the first black quarterback (on my teams),” Briscoe said. “Pop Warner, junior high, high school, college. I didn’t have the culture shock that some of the black quarterbacks after me did.


“I went out there with the attitude that I wasn’t a black quarterback. I was just a quarterback like I’ve always been.”


Briscoe today thinks about what he did with a far greater purpose than he did back then. In fact, he says, it took until 1969, when an Ebony Magazine spread chronicling his 1968 season appeared on newsstands, for him to realize the magnitude of it all.


"Next, and most important, the kid is black and playing quarterback, and in the memory of most fans there has never been a regular black quarterback in professional football," the piece reads.


"Briscoe . . . would like to do a good enough job at quarterback to pave the way for other Negroes and he’s sure he can. His confidence was plainly shown when someone asked him who his idol was. His answer: 'When you are at the pro level, you are the one to be idolized.'"


It was supreme confidence laid down in print, but by the time Briscoe read the words on paper, that confidence was dented. He knows he opened doors. He knows if it weren’t for him, Harris, who wound up as his roommate in Buffalo and the team’s starting quarterback, might never have gotten a chance. Many others might not have, either. Briscoe calls himself a litmus test, and he’s proud of what he did.


It’s a tricky kind of pride, though. It’s pride in something that was taken away as quickly as it was earned, and it’s hard to say which left a bigger mark, the earning or the taking.


--


Harris remembers those days in Buffalo well. He remembers his mentor's bitterness, a bitterness that Briscoe himself either downplays or has chosen to forget. He remembers the day when he was cut from training camp, when Briscoe stormed out, too, in solidarity, even though Harris was certain to be brought back. He remembers the moments on the sidelines in games, when Briscoe could almost predict the injustices and would talk him through his anger.


"He had every right to feel bitter about not getting a chance to play," Harris said. "Some people would say he was too small, but based on how he played, based on his ability to throw the ball, based on his intelligence of the game, based on his competitiveness, there’s no question that Marlin should have played."


"There was no trust. The conversation was about how you have to go out and compete, but there’s no way you can trust the decisions that others are capable of making."


It’s hard to see how Briscoe could have faced things any other way. There was not yet a consensus that he had deserved a fair chance, that any black quarterback deserved a real chance, for that matter. There were no success stories, not yet, no tale of how Doug Williams won a Super Bowl and then went on to say in no uncertain terms that Briscoe was not afforded the opportunity that he deserved and earned. That wouldn’t happen until 1988. There was no generation of younger players using their success as a justification that Briscoe should have gotten a shot of his own, no realization that what happened was unequivocally wrong.


There was nothing but the sense that someone out there thought that Briscoe wasn’t good enough, and by virtue of that assessment that black quarterbacks in general weren’t good enough. There were arguments for football to hide behind, of course, Briscoe’s record and the Broncos' struggles, but he still feels that wasn’t enough, not to categorically deny him another chance.


The barrier was broken, but it returned, and as easy as it is now to look back on it all calmly and without frustration because of the progress that’s been made, in 1969, that was impossible.


--


When Briscoe traces the narrative of his career, he’s direct. Every anecdote has a point, every person a distinct reason to have played his part. Briscoe’s path might have been meandering at times, his legacy derailed, but he and football always seemed to have a direction.


After the conversation moves past his 1975 retirement from football, though, it shifts. That’s when it’s harder to hear what he’s saying, when the words of the man so articulate just moments before spin a little bit in circles. That’s when life begins to confuse him, at least in retrospect.


He calls it a fragment, this next step, this move to Los Angeles, this new job as a stockbroker. This is the part of the story when Briscoe’s voice dips and strains, as if he’s still, all these years later, trying to convince himself that it’s actually his story.


His fragment is a story of drugs, of having a family and then losing it, of knowing what he was doing was wrong, of attempting and failing to coach, of eventual incarceration.


Briscoe is able to describe his career so easily, in the simple sentences of a man who knew his abilities. I was a small quarterback, but a good one. It was a tough situation. I was a good wide receiver. It was a good experience. But when it comes to the years after his career ended, the sentences change.


They begin, but they don’t end. Not on the first try, or the second, or even the third.


It was a . . . It was a . . . It was a . . .


"It was a situation,” he finally says. “All the things I had worked for . . ."


All the things Briscoe worked for disappeared in the haze of a lost decade as his addiction to crack cocaine consumed his life.


"Nobody thought that I would ever get into this," he continues. "Nobody that I grew up with. Not myself. Nobody ever thought."


The man who wasn’t even a drinker was suddenly at the center of the party scene. Eventually, he lost his home, broke his family, missed his father’s death and was unaware of it for months. He bounced from Los Angeles, where he could hide behind his drug habit, to Omaha, where he tried to kick it, failed, and became the fallen hero of a town that had once adored him. His weight dipped from 182 pounds to 137; he was a skeleton. Eventually, his Super Bowl rings were auctioned off when he defaulted on a bank loan. He didn’t even realize it until much later.


Nothing could pull him out.


Nothing, until Jan. 31, 1988, at least, when Briscoe was imprisoned in the San Diego jail at the same time that Doug Williams won a Super Bowl with the Redskins in the same city. Briscoe considered Williams one of his protégés, a successful black quarterback, evidence that what he’d gone through two decades before was hardly for naught.


Being in the same city, locked up in a jail cell while Williams did what he did, was too much. It scared Briscoe straight, or awed him straight, or some combination of the two. That was it. He was going to get better, and though he relapsed once more, that was the turning point.


--


During an interview when he was in recovery, a reporter asked Briscoe whether he thought his descent into drugs was related to his unfulfilled football dreams. Did all that built-up angst and anger contribute?


He’d never thought of it that way, not in such explicit terms. The idea had lurked in the periphery of his consciousness, but spelled out so plainly in front of him, he wondered. He’s still wondering, all these years later.


Now, though, the bitterness has passed. Now there’s a new family, a second wife and a stepson who loves hockey more than football. There’s a trip to plan up the coast for the couple’s first anniversary and phone calls to make to friends who know that now he’s just calling to talk, not because he’s strung out and wants something.


Briscoe also helped to form the Field Generals, an organization of black quarterbacks, with Harris, Williams and Warren Moon. (The group is now in a lull, but Briscoe hopes it’ll be back soon.) He worked for years at the Boys & Girls Club, first in LA and then in Long Beach, turning his experiences into motivation for young children. Now that he’s retired, he plays golf and volunteers, and most surreal of all, he’s helping with the conversion of his 2002 book, "The First Black Quarterback," into a movie.


There are moments when it all seems a bit surreal. He laughs about the fact that he’s waiting to hear back from the NFL about licensing rights on the movie – the league wants the graphic post-career drug portion to be softened for a PG-13 rating – but at the same time, this is what Briscoe always deserved. He deserved a legacy, even if it’s hardly the one he expected at 23, when he completed that first pass to Eric Crabtree.


"Both stories are something you can learn from," Briscoe said. "One is, even though it’s about football, it’s not about football. It’s about survival and life. The other fragment, it’s about overcoming serious obstacles. . . . There’s a lot of parallels."


Except in one case, the world barred Briscoe from winning, and in the other, it was he himself who did the barring. In one case, there was no chance for resolution, and in the other, he had every ounce of the power to fix things.


Given the power, he did. Given control over his situation, he picked up the pieces and became the role model he dreamed of being in 1968, and perhaps a better one, too.


Now, Briscoe embraces who he was along with what he was. He goes back to Broncos reunions, even, to mingle with the players who turned a blind eye as older, with less tolerant coaches forced him out. He assigns no blame, not to these men, and they welcome him back after his unceremonious departure 45 years ago.


At the reunions, there’s a theme. Former teammates approach him, and they tell him they were loyal to him, that they wanted to stick up for him, that they couldn’t.


It’s a message that might have angered Briscoe years ago, to know that there were so many who could have helped but sat silently as he closeted his dream. Now, though, he just smiles and twitches his shoulder into the slightest hint of a shrug. There’s no way to go back and change things, but this is some kind of affirmation that he was doing the right thing, that he wasn’t trying for nothing.


“It’s refreshing to know this is how they felt,” he says, and that’s that. It’s not so complicated as it was all those years ago, not so hopeless. There’s no more wondering if he gave up too soon, if he should have pushed harder, if he hadn’t done enough to pave the way for more men to have success.


As we leave the café, I tell him what the waitress just asked, and he laughs. Famous? He shakes his head and unconsciously twists his Super Bowl ring as he makes his way down the stairs.


Yes, his Super Bowl ring. He’ll never get the originals back, but Briscoe got permission from the Dolphins to make duplicates for himself, and he’s wearing one that morning at the café.


It’s impossible to tell the difference.