Remembering Marlin Briscoe: A legend who was ahead of his time
Marlin Briscoe played nine seasons of pro football in the AFL and NFL. He won two Super Bowl rings. He even earned a memorable nickname: “Marlin the Magician.”
But pro football wasn’t fair to Briscoe, who died June 27 in Norwalk, Calif. Briscoe’s daughter, Angela Marriott, told the Associated Press that Briscoe died of pneumonia after being hospitalized due to circulatory problems in his legs.
Over a half-century ago, those legs were part of a dazzling, dizzying stretch of football during the 1968 season that put Briscoe into the sport’s history books. It also brought excitement to a forlorn Broncos franchise which had never posted a winning season — and wouldn’t have one for five more years.
However, the prejudices of the day doomed the electric quarterback.
He became the first Black quarterback in modern pro football when he started for the Broncos against Cincinnati on Dec. 6, 1968. He started four more games that season and saw time under center in six other contests.
The Broncos went 2-3 in his starts, which doesn’t sound like much, but was better than the team’s 3-6 record when they started other quarterbacks: Steve Tensi, Jim LeClair and John McCormick. Joe DiVito also saw some time.
Those four quarterbacks combined for six touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 209 attempts, Meanwhile, Briscoe had a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-13), while adding another three touchdowns on the ground.
Of the 11 AFL quarterbacks who threw at least 150 passes in 1968, Briscoe was one of just four who had more touchdowns than interceptions. Even Hall of Famer Joe Namath didn’t do that in 1968, and he led the New York Jets to a Super Bowl III triumph at the end of that season.
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) June 27, 2022
Also, Briscoe was the first Broncos quarterback with at least 150 passes in a season to have a positive TD-to-INT ratio.
Not bad for a rookie who was a 14th-round pick from Nebraska-Omaha.
Briscoe justifiably made the AFL’s All-Rookie team in 1968.
And one of the moments that made the selection possible was when Briscoe and eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little made magic happen.
With 30 seconds left against Buffalo at Mile High Stadium on Nov. 24, 1968, Denver trailed, 32-31. Buffalo took the lead on an 18-yard field goal that was set up by a Little fumble. Incensed, Saban told Little, ‘You’re done.'”
Little began walking toward the locker room. He turned back, and when the Broncos offense went on the field with 25 seconds left, he joined Briscoe and nine other teammates in the huddle.
“I give [Saban] the old, ‘Up yours’ and said, ‘I ain’t leaving,'” Little recalled in 2010. “Marlin Briscoe’s the quarterback. I said ‘Marlin, throw the ball as far as you can straight down the field.’”
Possessing a cannon arm, Briscoe reared back and fired it as far as he could. He rolled left, and, from his own 27-yard line, flung it toward the right side of the field. The ball traveled 66 yards in the air.
Little got under it, caught it and rolled forward. Bobby Howfield kicked the game-winning field goal moments later.
Plays like that helped Briscoe earn the “Marlin the Magician” nickname that echoes to this day.
And yet …
… Broncos coach Lou Saban didn’t want Briscoe starting in 1969.
Saban, also the team’s general manager, brought in former CFL standout Pete Liske to compete with Briscoe and Steve Tensi.
Nowadays, adding an ex-CFL quarterback would largely result in shrugs. But in those days, bringing in a former CFL MVP was a big move. Remember, in 1969, the Minnesota Vikings rode an ex-CFL coach and quarterback to Super Bowl IV — Bud Grant and Joe Kapp, respectively.
And considering that the Broncos had sacrificed first-round picks in 1968 and 1969 to acquire Tensi, the implication was clear: Saban didn’t see the 5-foot-11 Briscoe as a viable quarterback. At least not enough to hand him the keys for a year.
During training camp of 1969, Briscoe asked for — and was eventually granted — his release.
But that didn’t go smoothly.
“I found out that Saban called around to stop me from getting picked up,” Briscoe told The Undefeated — now Andscape — in 2017.
Briscoe signed with Buffalo. The Bills had a Black quarterback — James “Shack” Harris, an eighth-round pick in 1969. Harris would play 13 seasons, become a Pro Bowl MVP and eventually become a successful and long-time NFL personnel executive, winning a Super Bowl with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
But in the climate of the day, the Bills saw Briscoe as a wide receiver. And that’s where he would remain for the rest of his career.
Eventually, Briscoe won two Super Bowl rings as part of the Miami Dolphins. But he did so catching passes, rather than throwing them
After his stints with Buffalo and Miami, he played for the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots. But never again would he start at quarterback. He threw just nine passes after his rookie season. But he played on, catching 224 passes for 3,537 yards and 30 touchdowns from 1969 through 1976.
Briscoe should have been the Broncos’ starter in 1969 — and perhaps beyond. He earned it. The Broncos named a diversity-coaching fellowship in his honor. His rookie season remains one of the most electric moments in Broncos history.
Yet had he arrived in a later era, he would have gotten a longer look.
He will forever be the man who broke through the door that kept Black quarterbacks from the opportunities they deserved in pro football.
But it would be a long time before the playing field was equal. A decade after Briscoe’s magical season, Doug Williams became Tampa Bay’s first-round pick. He would become the first Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl — and he earned the MVP award in the process.
However, in the same year as Williams’ rookie season — 1978 — a star Black quarterback didn’t get an NFL sniff. That man was Warren Moon, and he detoured to the CFL for six years before he finally got to the NFL … and became a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Bit by bit, the game would change. Sadly, it was too late for Briscoe to get the shot he had earned during those promising games in 1968. But he holds a place in football history that will remain.
“What happened made me angry,” Briscoe told Andscape in 2017. “I proved I could do it and it didn’t matter. They took it away from me anyway. But I wasn’t going to give up and just walk away.
“Yeah, it didn’t work out for me. But I feel what I did helped the guys who came after me. And I’ll always be proud of that.”