By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
“Marlin Briscoe was a true trailblazer with the talent to back it up. His contributions to our sport will not be forgotten and all who play the game today continue to benefit from his legacy.”
— Archie Manning, President of the National Football Federation (NFF).
When I first heard the news of Marlon Briscoe’s passing on Monday, the first thing that hit me was how his lone season under center has become somewhat of a blip on the NFL landscape. While Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard and Chicago’s Willie Thrower may have preceded him, Briscoe’s contribution should not be overlooked.
During his stellar All-American career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha from 1964-67, the Omaha, Neb., native set 22 school records as the starting quarterback for the Mavericks from 1964-67, when the school was still named Omaha University.
A member of the 1967 Black All-America Team, Briscoe was a three-time All-Central Intercollegiate Conference selection, and he led the Mavericks to the CIC title in 1967. He enjoyed the finest season of his career in 1967, throwing for 2,283 yards and a single-season school-record 25 touchdowns.
At UNO, Briscoe ranks second all-time with 53 touchdown passes, third all-time with 5,114 passing yards, and fourth in total offense with 6,505 yards. Briscoe was also tabbed as an NAIA First Team All-American his senior year.
The 5-foot-11, 177-pounder was drafted in the 14th round (357th overall) of the 1968 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. In his 11 games and five starts, Briscoe was an electrifying player who also was a vision of how the position would be played decades later.
Dubbed “The Magician”, Briscoe played one season with the franchise and set a rookie record with 14 touchdown passes which is still a team record. Considered the first starting black quarterback in the NFL’s modern era, Briscoe told the Broncos he would become a teacher if they did not give him a shot as a quarterback.
On September 29, 1968, starter Steve Tensi suffered a broken collarbone, and backup Joe DiVito was spotty. Head coach Lou Saban summoned Briscoe from the sidelines in the fourth quarter against the Boston Patriots to give him a try.
Briscoe’s first play was a 22-yard completion. On his second series, he orchestrated an 80-yard touchdown drive. He completed a 21-yard pass and ran for 38 more himself, carrying it the last 12 yards for the score.
It would be an up-and-down process the rest of the season, though. Briscoe was benched in his first start for the veteran Tensi, and three weeks later, Tensi would be benched for Briscoe. In that game, Briscoe helped power a comeback win like the one that eluded him in his first game.
Denver recovered from a 14-0 deficit for a 21-14 win behind two rushing scores from Briscoe. Later, Briscoe would return to the starting lineup for the Broncos’ final four games of the season. While the Broncos earned a win in just one of those games, Briscoe played admirably.
Briscoe threw 14 touchdown passes that year in just 5 starts, including 4 on Nov 24 against Buffalo; both are still Broncos rookie records. He also threw for 335 yards in that game, a rookie record that stood until John Elway broke it in 1983, and one of only three 300+ yard rookie games in franchise history.
On the season, he completed 41.5 percent of his passes and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt and his 17.1 yards per completion led the American Football League (and ranks 18th all-time). He also ran for 308 yards and three touchdowns.
Despite putting up modest numbers, Briscoe was not given the opportunity to earn the starting position for the 1969 season. The Broncos acquired former Canadian Football Leaguer Pete Liske who was immediately named Denver’s starter for the next season.
After asking for a trade, Briscoe was sent to the Buffalo Bills who already had a pair of standout quarterbacks in Jack Kemp and Tom Flores. Ironically, the team’s third-string quarterback was also a former black college standout — Grambling State’s James “Shack” Harris.
Unfortunately, Briscoe never played quarterback again, but he enjoyed a splendid career as a wide receiver. He led Buffalo in touchdown catches in each of his three seasons there and in receptions twice. In 1970, he was in the top two in receptions and receiving yards and became was named to the Pro Bowl.
Ironically, Briscoe would become the favorite target for Harris when he briefly became Buffalo’s starter in 1969. n the first game of the season against the defending champion New York Jets, he went 3-of-12 for 74 yards with an interception while making a run for six yards before being replaced by Kemp (playing his final season) as the Bills were trounced 33-19.
In 1971, the Bills traded Briscoe to the Miami Dolphins for the first-round draft pick used to take Joe Delamielleure, who developed as a Hall of Fame guard. Briscoe went on to win a pair of Super Bowls. Briscoe led the undefeated 1972 team with four touchdown receptions and was the leading receiver on the Dolphins in 1973, catching more passes than future Hall of Famer, Paul Warfield.
Briscoe made stops with the Chargers, and Lions before ending his career in 1976 with the Patriots.
Briscoe didn’t get a true shot again to start at quarterback or even to really compete at the position. Instead, he had to become a wide receiver. While he excelled at the position, the success was somewhat bittersweet. He found pride in refusing to quit but wondering what could have been was always there for him.
“There were a few things that society didn’t think a Black man could do, and [three were] think, throw and lead,” Briscoe said in 2021. “They didn’t know how the fan reaction, manager reaction, player and teammate reaction — they didn’t know how that was going to be.”
While some of the negative attitudes toward black quarterbacks in the NFL still exist, Briscoe’s contributions serve as one of the reminders of how the position has evolved over the years. For every Marlon Briscoe, there’s a Russell Wilson and so on.
So when you see, No. 3 under center this fall, just remember it was Ol’ No. 15 that paved the way.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Associated Press and the Denver Broncos contributed to this story.
Anthony McClean can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.