When the 1972 Dolphins visited the White House in August 2013 to be feted for their undefeated season, President Obama didn’t need help identifying Don Shula, Larry Csonka and Bob Griese.
Or Marlin Briscoe.
“I introduced myself to him, and he said, ‘I know who you are; you’re a trailblazer,’” Briscoe says. “I will take that to the grave.”
Briscoe wasn’t the first African-American to play quarterback in the NFL or AFL — that designation goes to Chicago’s Willie Thrower, who played one game at the position in 1953 — but his success with the Broncos in 1968 helped create opportunity for future generations of black QBs. Today’s players like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton owe him a lot. For Briscoe, his play in 11 games with Denver was more than just groundbreaking on the gridiron. It reached to the White House.
“I told some reporters once that there had to be a black quarterback before there was a black president, because of what that position meant in sports,” Briscoe says.
He may well be right. When coach Lou Saban turned to Briscoe, the professional football world didn’t believe that African-Americans could lead a team. That’s hard for many to imagine now, given the preponderance of black QBs at all levels of the game, including the NFL. But in 1968, when race relations were at their most tumultuous, Briscoe was a pioneer. And if the idea then of a black QB was out of the question, the concept of an African-American as president was an impossible dream.
“Somebody had to do it,” says Briscoe, now 68 and living in Long Beach, Calif. “Somebody had to be ordained to create an atmosphere for acceptance of black quarterbacks who could think, throw and lead at that level.”
With the exception of his senior season at Omaha South (Neb.) High School, when he played running back at the behest of his coach, Briscoe was always a quarterback, dating back to his Pop Warner days. At Nebraska-Omaha (then Omaha University), “The Magician” set a pile of school records and threw for 2,283 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior.
Denver drafted him in the 14th round as a defensive back, but Briscoe negotiated a three-day tryout at QB into his contract and demonstrated that he could handle the work. In late September, when starter Steve Tensi broke his collarbone and the backups were struggling, Briscoe — who had torn a hamstring during camp — arrived at practice to see a No. 15 jersey in his locker.
“I thought I had been cut, and they had signed another quarterback,” Briscoe says. “But I turned around, and there was Saban. He said, ‘You see that number 15 in your locker?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘That’s your jersey.’ Talk about someone’s leg getting well quickly.”
Briscoe started five games for the Broncos and still holds team rookie records for total offense in a season (1,897 yards), TD passes (14) and touchdown passes in a game (four). His 1,589 yards passing stood as a Denver rookie mark until John Elway threw for 1,663 in 1983.
But Briscoe’s tenure under center was short-lived. The Broncos brought in CFL vet Pete Liske to compete with Tensi for the starter’s job in 1969 and didn’t even include Briscoe in offseason quarterback meetings. He considered turning to the CFL and flirted with returning to Omaha to put his education degree to work, but he instead signed with Buffalo, where he became an All-Pro wide receiver. He played eight more years in the NFL, including three in Miami, earned a pair of Super Bowl rings and averaged a gaudy 15.8 yards per catch. Briscoe attempted only nine passes after leaving Denver.
“You look at high school games, college games and pro games today, and you see black quarterbacks everywhere,” Briscoe says.
But there is only one that the president singled out.
—By Michael Bradley