Marlin Briscoe was 1st to start at QB for the Denver Broncos and Willie Thrower was the first to play in a game for the Chicago Bears
A little known black history fact, how Marlin Briscoe was the first black QB to start in a NFL or AFL game. Super Bowl first winning QB Doug Williams, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepenick and Cam Newton all ride on the wave he created. He went from CB to QB to WR. Briscoe was called the Magician before racism, drugs and pro football owners made him disappear for real.
This story was written by someone by name of Ken Crippen, it is long but it is worth the read if you like sports history.
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. He said, “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. Briscoe 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 was all I wanted was to be able to compete. I had no misgivings about feeling that I was not 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 coaches didn’t even invite me to the meetings. To me that was the first sign of disrespect. It was totally 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 Saban came out, he could not even look me in the eyes. He did not 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. 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. “
Marlin 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.”
However, it was that attitude that formed the team that went undefeated in 1972. “It was one game at a time,” recalled Briscoe. “There were certainly a couple of games that could have broken our back, like the game at Pittsburgh in the playoffs or the game against the Minnesota Vikings during the regular season the we could have easily lost, but we pulled it out. We were a team that was well-prepared in every area that you need to be prepared: physically and mentally. If guys got hurt, we had people who could step up. When Bob Griese got hurt, Earl Morrall, at 37 years old, he is the one that took us through the season.”
Briscoe added, “We were always in better condition. When we played in the Orange Bowl, the heat and humidity was unbearable. A lot of teams that came through there would wilt. By the second quarter, they were out of it. When I first got there, we had four-a-days. I had never been in better shape in my life, and I worked out religiously. I think the fact that we took it one game at a time. Attention to detail. Everybody had a specific role. I led the team in receptions in Buffalo. Now, I have Paul Warfield on the other side. How many passes would I get, when we only threw 13 times a game? I had to realize that it wasn’t about me. When you only threw 13 times a game and you had the greatest receiver in the history of the game in Paul Warfield on the other side, I had to make whatever contributions I could make receiving-wise. I had to learn how to block. You had to be a total ball-player. You couldn’t just go out there and catch balls. You had to humble yourself in terms of your ego for the good of the team. I got hurt and Howard Twilley came in and we were still undefeated. When I got better, Shula kept Twilley in. Twilley would play the first half and I would play the second half. If I would have complained, it would have disrupted the balance of the team. We were undefeated. Howard and I were highly competitive. If I would have made waves about playing. They traded a number one draft choice for me. I was playing well until I pulled my hamstring. In the three years I was there, we only lost five games. That tells you what kind of team we had.”
I would be remiss as a historian if I did not mention that the 1972 Miami Dolphins were not the first undefeated team. They were the first team to go undefeated in the Super Bowl era. The 1948 Cleveland Browns were the first undefeated team. In fact, the Browns went 29 straight games without a defeat. It started in the 1947 season, where the Browns won the last eight games of the season, then won the championship. It went through the entire 1948 season, including another championship. It then extended into the sixth game of the 1949 season, when the San Francisco 49ers beat them 56-28. From the start of the 1947 season through the end of the 1949 season, the Browns only lost two games. Again, putting things into perspective, the Browns won more championships in that three-year span than they lost games.
The winning attitude continued for the Dolphins for the 1973 season. Briscoe recalled, “For the 1973 season, we actually had better athletes. We had Ron Sellers and a couple of other guys. Depth-wise that made us a better team on paper. We had the core of guys that we had the previous year. We didn’t lose anybody. We were confident that we could repeat. We still had that winning edge attitude.” While they did not go undefeated, they still won the Super Bowl in 1973.
When asked if he thought he would ever play the quarterback position again, Briscoe responded, “No. I knew that my days were numbered. Although, when [Bob] Griese got hurt, [Don] Shula did put me as an emergency quarterback. He had installed some pass plays for me as a receiver. Reverse pass and those kinds of things. When Griese got hurt, he had me practice at quarterback. He at least had me prepare to play the position and I guess that he had the respect to not only throw it from the receiver position, but as the emergency quarterback. He knew that I could play the position.”
Briscoe played for the Dolphins in 1974, before going to San Diego and Detroit in 1975, and finishing his career in New England in 1976. It was there he met fellow receiver Darryl Stingley. Briscoe recalled, “He was my roommate on the road.”
On August 12, 1978, the New England Patriots were playing the Oakland Raiders in a preseason game. Briscoe recalled, “I saw Darryl the week before it happened. They were playing down at the [Los Angeles] Coliseum, and I went down there and talked to him.”
According to an August 12, 2003 article in the Boston Globe, Stingley’s agent Jack Sands said, “I remember it as clear as if it was yesterday. We had just negotiated a new contract extension for Darryl that would have made him one of the highest-paid receivers in the league but it hadn’t been announced. They were planning to announce it when the team got back from the West Coast. Just before they left, I remember telling him, `Now, Darryl, don’t go sprain your ankle.’” The contract was never signed.
During the game, New England quarterback Steve Grogan threw a pass over the head of Stingley. Darryl attempted to leap for the ball, but to no avail. Briscoe commented, “I would always tell him that if you can’t get to the ball, don’t go for it, because you put yourself out there. If you can get it, it is your duty and obligation to try and get the ball. But, if you put yourself in a position where the ball is sailing on you, especially in the middle of the field, let it go.” On his way down after leaping for the ball, Stingley was hit in the head and neck area by Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum. The hit broke two vertebrae and compressed his spinal cord. Stingley was a quadriplegic. Briscoe commented, “Darryl, he went for a ball that he couldn’t catch. Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t have caught that ball. Jack’s been taught, just like we all have been taught, that you hit. I ran into Jack at a golf tournament in Oakland. He wasn’t doing well. Paul Warfield and I used to attack Jack. We wanted to let him know that receivers could hit, too. We used to double-team him to let him know that he couldn’t just come in to try and hurt us. Darryl was a great kid. We used to sit up and talk a lot. He used to always come over and ask me how to do certain things and we would work on certain things. It really hurt me when he was paralyzed, because he was such a nice guy. It was unbelievable. I talked to Jack. Jack is Jack. When you play football, the game is violent. You can get killed at any time. You can get paralyzed at any time. It is not a game for the faint of heart. Unlike the guys today, we were doing it for no money. We couldn’t even make a down payment on a cheeseburger with what we were making. I can’t even play golf on the pension I get. We loved the game, and the fact that we knew the basics, that helped us not suffer as many injuries as we could have suffered.”
As Briscoe’s career wound down, he faced personal struggles. “I came out to L.A. and I bought a house. I was single and I was still playing with the Patriots. Chuck Fairbanks let me go on the last cut. I always had a job in the off-season and went to school. I always felt that ten years was going to be enough for me and this was my ninth year. I got cut on what would have been my tenth year. That was my game plan. I went out to L.A., settled in and got to partying. I got a job as a broker in Century City in Los Angeles. That was the financial district in L.A. So, I was doing pretty well. I got to partying and hanging out with the wrong crowd. I started to dabble in cocaine, both at the job – a lot of brokers were doing cocaine – and when I came home I would do cocaine. Then, it escalated into a habit. Then, I got married and had a daughter. But, by then, I was spiraling out of control. It got to the point where I was dependent on cocaine. I ended up losing my family and my house and everything that I had worked for. I virtually ended up in the street. For ten years, back and forth, from homelessness to despair, or whatever. A ten year battle, where I lost everything. I had a nice house. A swimming pool. A great job. I got tackled by a linebacker that I couldn’t outrun.”
Briscoe continued, “I tried a couple of different venues. I moved back to my hometown of Omaha. It got worse there. I was a hometown hero and an accomplished student. Everybody saw me at my lowest point. That was a rude awakening. But, I was still an addict. Then, I moved to San Diego.” Briscoe played for the San Diego Chargers for three games in 1975. “I thought that if I could get away again, I could improve my lot in life. I went down there and same thing. I got put in jail twice. After the second time I got put in jail, I said, ‘This is it!’ When I got out, Lance Alworth loaned me $500. I called a friend of mine, Julius, to come and take me back to L.A. I had a chance to think about all of the things I had accomplished. I had to walk to a park where Julius would pick me up. As I was walking from the jail in San Diego, I had to walk through the same dope dealers that I used to buy from the two years I was there. I just kept going. If I had stopped, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now. So, I kept going to the park. Julius came and got me and I went back to L.A. I started teaching school and got my life back little by little.”
Briscoe lost everything in his battle with addiction, including his Super Bowl rings. However, he wanted to set the record straight. “Contrary to opinion, I did not sell my rings to a dope dealer. The rings were sold by a bank in my hometown that I put up for collateral for a loan. A lot of people think that I sold my rings to a dope dealer. That didn’t happen.” Briscoe was able to recover his 1973 ring, but does not have his ring from the 1972 season.
Briscoe kept himself busy. He was a volunteer coach at a local high school. According to Briscoe, “the last three quarterbacks I coached made all-league. I feel that is quite an accomplishment.” He is currently retired from coaching.
Briscoe added, “I also had an annual football camp here in Long Beach at the school that I coached at. It’s free for kids and I have about 400 kids. I bring in a bunch of old-school players. I have John Carlos, Kermit Alexander. Even Mark Sanchez of the Jets coaches my tiny tots. I started coaching at Wilson in 2008. When I got there, I saw all of the undisciplined route running, attitudes and all that stuff. So, I decided to have this camp and have all these guys in like Sam Cunningham that I knew from the NFL. They all volunteered their time. They are all old-school guys that learned the basics of football, and it turned out well. I have a nice sponsorship from Outback. It is always on July 4th weekend.” The camps have not been held for the last few years, but he is actively looking to restart them.
Currently, there is a movie in production about Briscoe’s life. Tentatively titled, “The Magician,” the film is being written by Greg Howard, who also wrote “Remember the Titans” and “Ali.” According to Briscoe, “It is not totally a football movie, but it is a life movie. Hopefully it is inspirational. It is about overcoming obstacles and never giving up. I think that it is a story should be told, even if it wasn’t about me. Talking to Greg, he thinks that this is his best work.” Currently, Briscoe is waiting on NFL approval of the script, which he hopes will happen shortly.
He is also retired from the Boys and Girls Club. ”I worked for them for twelve years,” said Briscoe. “I started as a volunteer, but became assistant project manager when I was in L.A. and directed a $7.5 million building project. The previous director was sick. Since I studied engineering in school, he had me go to all of the meetings with the construction companies and architects. He subsequently died, so I stayed there for three years to see his vision through. Then I became a director and program manager. I decided to retire and pay attention to the projects that I am working on. The Boys and Girls Club was my passion.”
Briscoe is an inspiration to black quarterbacks and has worked with other black quarterbacks to mentor young athletes. According to Briscoe, “Me and Doug Williams and James Harris and Warren Moon. We have a black quarterback foundation called the Field Generals. We went down, several years ago, for a memorial for Joe Gilliam.” Gilliam became the first black quarterback to start a season when he took the field for the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers. He passed away in 2000. Briscoe continued, “All of the black quarterbacks who had played, past or present, were all there. To a man, they came up and thanked me for setting the tone and giving them an opportunity to play. I didn’t think that they knew who I was, but they did.”
Looking back on his career, Briscoe recalled his most memorable accomplishment, “Playing quarterback for the Denver Broncos and proving that a black man could lead. We also won games, and some big games. Proving the naysayers wrong about a black man at that position. All my life, I heard that blacks can’t play the quarterback position. At every level, I basically played in a white environment. I was always a black quarterback in their eyes. But to me, I was never a black quarterback. It was just the position that I wanted to play. At every level, I heard that a black man didn’t have the capabilities of playing that position. On every level, I proved them wrong. All the way to the pros.”
Even though he only played one year as a quarterback in the pros, did he still see himself as a quarterback first and wide receiver second? “Absolutely,” said Briscoe.
“I am thankful to God for allowing me to turn my life around, because a lot of people do not get those same chances.”
Briscoe is currently remarried and living in California.
- Denver Broncos (1968)
- Buffalo Bills (1969-71)
- Miami Dolphins (1972-74)
- San Diego Chargers (1975)
- Detroit Lions (1975)
- New England Patriots (1976)
- Pro Bowl (1970)
- Super Bowl Champion (VII, VIII)
- Member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins Undefeated Season
Ken Crippen is the former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He has researched and written about pro football history for over two decades. He won the Pro Football Writers of America’s Dick Connor Writing Award for Feature Writing and was named the Ralph Hay Award winner by the Professional Football Researchers Association for lifetime achievement on pro football history.
Follow Ken on Twitter @KenCrippen