Marlin Briscoe was one of pro football’s trailblazers in the late 1960s.
Briscoe became the first starting African American quarterback in the American Football League (AFL) when he took the field for the Denver Broncos in 1968.
“The Magician’s” quickness and arm strength dazzled scouts, coaches, and fans alike. Despite playing behind Steve Tensi in the first half of the 1968 AFL season, Briscoe had 1,897 yards of total offense and 14 touchdowns as a rookie quarterback.
Unfortunately, the knock against Briscoe was his diminutive stature—some experts thought it would be hard for a 5’10” quarterback to excel in the pro football ranks.
Nevertheless, Briscoe became a Pro Bowl wide receiver and earned two Super Bowl rings with the Miami Dolphins as his NFL career progressed.
This is Marlin Briscoe’s remarkable and inspiring football story.
Marlin Oliver Briscoe was born in Oakland, CA on September 10, 1945.
Briscoe learned the value of hard work during his formative years in Omaha, NE in the late 1950s. He and hundreds of other African Americans found work in South Omaha’s union stockyards slaughtering and packing animal meat.
The smoke from the slaughterhouses and the waste from the plants made Briscoe and the other workers reek of factory stench after a hard day’s work.
Fortunately, their weekly $200 salary was more than enough to compensate for the grind they had to endure.
Although Marlin was making decent money at an early age, he was determined to get an education no matter what it took.
“It would make you make a decision about your life,” Briscoe told the Denver Broncos’ official website in 2021. “I said, ‘There’s no way in the world. I’m getting my education.’ There’s no way in the world I was going to work in the packinghouse the rest of my life.”
Sports was Marlin’s other option. His mother asked his cousin and school teacher Bob Rose to teach him the ropes of various sports.
Bob, who worked at the packinghouse for several months a year, approached Marlin during his lunch break one day. The former opened a box with balls, boxing gloves, and baseball bats.
Before long, “The Magic Box” (a term Marlin came up with) changed Briscoe’s life forever.
Among the sports Rose taught Briscoe, football fascinated the latter the most. Marlin just could not get enough of chucking the football with his cannon of an arm. His inspiration was the great Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas.
“I used to watch Johnny Unitas, and he was the leader of the team and he was revered by his players, and so that gave me the desire to play quarterback,” Briscoe told DenverBroncos.com in 2021.
Another player who brought out the best in Marlin Briscoe was Minnesota Gophers All-American quarterback Sandy Stephens.
Briscoe kept tabs on Stephens by reading Street & Smith’s college football publication as a youngster growing up in Nebraska.
Marlin used a slender tree in his front yard as a target. He threw a football at the tree to improve his accuracy.
Briscoe just couldn’t get the hang of it at first. However, he improved steadily with each throw. His improved throwing arm and the fact that there were no black quarterbacks during his time fueled his desire to break into the pro football ranks someday.
Marlin thought playing youth football would punch his ticket to the AFL or NFL someday. When Briscoe showed up for tryouts, the coach grouped the players according to their desired positions.
After the coach summoned the aspiring quarterbacks to a certain spot on the field, Briscoe followed suit. The coach had a perplexed look on his face—it was the first time he had ever seen an African American kid want to play quarterback.
This week's feature is on Omaha South graduate, UNO Alum and 1996 Hall of Fame inductee, Marlin Briscoe! pic.twitter.com/th0O01uqnu
— NE Hall of Fame (@NebHallOfFame) September 30, 2015
The coach approached Marlin and asked him if he preferred to report to one of the other position groups. Marlin told him he was in the group he wanted to be in. To his astonishment, the coach did not dispute his preference.
Briscoe quelled the coach’s doubts during the passing drills. When he saw Marlin throw a football for the first time, he was impressed. He asked Marlin to do it again. The latter complied and the coach finally relented—Briscoe was a quarterback after all.
Barely three weeks after Marlin celebrated his 12th birthday in the fall of 1957, he saw his name in the local papers for the first time.
Briscoe accounted for three touchdowns—one in the air and two on the ground—in Ladcos’s 48-0 shutout of the Mainliners in their Midget Football League game on September 30, 1957. Everybody in town finally knew who Marlin Briscoe was.
Marlin continued playing at a high level well into his high school days at Omaha South High School. He played football for the Omaha South Packers.
When Marlin entered the high school football ranks in 1959, he shared quarterbacking duties with Joe Berenis. The two boys had similar builds—they both stood 5’8″ with a 15-lb. weight difference.
When Briscoe entered his senior year in 1962, their head football coach asked him to suit up as a running back because their main halfback had graduated the previous year.
Although Briscoe wanted to thrive at quarterback, he swallowed his pride and accepted his coach’s challenge.
Marlin eventually excelled at running back and helped the Packers clinch their division in 1962. Better yet, he also earned All-City honors that year.
Briscoe told DenverBroncos.com almost sixty years later that some people thought his playing running back as a senior had some racial undertones. However, he quickly dispelled that notion—he simply switched positions because he was a team-first guy.
Unfortunately, Marlin experienced racial tension when he was an adolescent in Omaha, NE.
He told The Associated Press (via DenverBroncos.com) that in 1968, he went to a local bowling alley to buy some food after the Packers beat the top-rated team in the state during his senior year.
When Marlin asked a server for a sandwich, the server refused to wait on him. Instead, he put the sandwich in a sack and handed it to him outside.
Marlin simply shrugged off the incident and did not make a big deal out of it.
As Briscoe’s high school days wound down, he made it clear he wanted to play quarterback in the college football ranks.
However, he did not receive any scholarships because recruiters envisioned him flourishing as a college running back.
Fortunately, Marlin Briscoe did not have to travel far and wide to accomplish his dream of becoming a quarterback.
Omaha Mavericks head football coach Al Caniglia visited Briscoe and his family during one of his recruiting trips in 1962.
Caniglia, who knew about Briscoe’s desire to play quarterback, told him he would get that chance if he committed to his program.
Not only that, but Caniglia emphasized that Briscoe would receive a quality education at Omaha.
Shortly after Caniglia finished his sales pitch, Briscoe had made up his mind—he was going to play football for the Omaha Mavericks.
Marlin Briscoe would soon dazzle fans with his stellar play on the college gridiron. Not only that, but he also proved he was worthy of playing in the AFL or NFL someday.
College Days with the Omaha Mavericks
Marlin Briscoe attended Omaha University (now known as the University of Nebraska at Omaha) from 1963 to 1967. The Omaha Mavericks competed in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference at the time.
Marlin spent his true freshman season in 1963 as a backup quarterback to one of the graduating seniors. Mavericks head football coach Al Caniglia, the man who recruited Briscoe in 1962, made Marlin his starting quarterback in 1964.
Briscoe rose to the occasion and led the conference in total offense as a sophomore. He eventually earned First-Team All-Conference honors at season’s end.
It was around this time when Marlin Briscoe earned the catchy moniker “The Magician” for his outstanding play on the gridiron.
Marlin promptly picked up where he left off the previous season. He broke several school records in passing yardage and total yardage as Omaha clinched a conference title in his junior season in 1965.
Apparently, “The Magician” also had the potential to become a Major League Baseball star.
According to the World-Herald (via SideArmSports.com), Roberto Clemente’s Pittsburgh Pirates organized a tryout in Papillon, NE in 1966.
Although Marlin had no interest in trying out, one of his buddies encouraged him. Briscoe eventually gave in to his friend’s pleas and made the cut—the Pirates dangled a contract in front of him.
However, Marlin knew his future lay on the gridiron so he politely declined Pittsburgh’s offer.
Travesty in the NFL Hall of Fame! Leaving Omaha’s Marlin Briscoe out of the Hall of Fame is worse than a travesty. First QB to throw & receive for more than. 1,000 yards each. I saw him play when he played for Univ. NE at Omaha vs. Fort Hays State. He was amazing. pic.twitter.com/9dGCeG472Q
— Coach Bob Drake (@CoachBobDrake) August 9, 2021
Briscoe’s pro football aspirations took a serious hit in 1966. He fractured his vertebrae during a pickup basketball game during the off-season.
Marlin thought it was not an issue at first. However, he took a hard hit during a game against the Idaho State Bengals and sat out for the remainder of the game. Briscoe had two touchdown passes and 73 rushing yards before he left.
To Briscoe’s dismay, doctors told him he might never play football again because he could become paralyzed if he did.
While Marlin, an education major, was recovering from his neck injury, he studied hard and earned a spot on Omaha’s student council. It was the first time an African American student earned that distinction.
While Briscoe’s academic life flourished, he rehabbed hard and received treatments so he could play football again. Lo and behold, doctors determined his neck had healed well enough for him to take the field for his senior season.
When Marlin returned to action in 1967, he played as if he was never injured in the first place.
Briscoe played lights-out football as a senior that year. He had 2,283 passing yards and 25 touchdowns as he led the Mavericks’ fifth-ranked NAIA offense in 1967.
Marlin ended his college football career with a bang. He had 275 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 27-20 win over the South Dakota Coyotes in the season finale.
Briscoe and his teammates became part of history as they were the last football team to represent Omaha University. The school changed its name to the University of Nebraska at Omaha the following summer.
The Mavericks finished the 1967 season with a respectable 7-3 win-loss record. They went on to clinch the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title at season’s end.
Marlin’s outstanding play on the gridiron earned him several accolades as a senior. He earned NAIA All-American and unanimous All-Conference honors in 1967. The World-Herald also named Briscoe its State College Athlete of the Year, per DenverBroncos.com.
The stage was now set for Marlin Briscoe to take the pro football world by storm.
Pro Football Career
The Denver Broncos made Marlin Briscoe the 357th overall selection of the 1968 NFL/AFL Draft.
Prior to the draft festivities, Dallas Cowboys chief talent scout Gil Brandt thought Briscoe had limitless potential as a pro quarterback.
“Marlin has the greatest quickness of any college quarterback we’ve ever seen,” Brandt told the World-Herald (via DenverBroncos.com) in 1968. “He’s as good as any big-time quarterback in college right now and just one heck of a football player.”
New Orleans Saints scout Dave Smith also thought Briscoe’s arm was the greatest among the quarterbacks he had sized up in the college and professional ranks.
Smith swore Briscoe was the only right-handed signal caller he saw scramble to his left and throw the ball 55 yards downfield with pinpoint accuracy.
As the 1968 NFL/AFL draft wound down, the Broncos called Briscoe and informed him that they were going to draft him as a defensive back.
It was a massive gut punch for Briscoe, who wanted to play quarterback.
When the time came for Marlin to negotiate his deal with the Broncos, he agreed to their wishes. However, at the urging of his college coach Al Caniglia, Briscoe requested a three-day trial at quarterback.
Caniglia told Briscoe that Denver was one of the few AFL teams that held practices with fans in attendance. Getting a quarterback tryout could help him increase his chances of playing the position in the AFL.
Although the Broncos’ executives were incredulous at Marlin’s request, they eventually agreed.
Denver wideout Eric Crabtree watched Briscoe at the tryout. He knew all along that Marlin was grasping at straws—he knew he had no shot at becoming a black quarterback simply because it hadn’t yet existed in the 1960s.
Aspiring African American quarterbacks never saw their dreams come to fruition. The trend back then was making a position switch to defensive back when they entered the pro football ranks.
Although Marlin Briscoe took the same path, he defied the odds just several games into his rookie year in Denver.
The week prior to the Broncos’ third game of the season, Briscoe ran into defensive line coach Stan Jones and head coach Lou Saban in the locker room.
To Briscoe’s astonishment, he saw a Broncos No. 15 jersey hanging on his locker. It was the team’s way of telling him that he was going to play quarterback from that point onward.
“Man, my heart started pounding,” Marlin told the Broncos’ official website in 2021. “If you’d ever see a 22-year-old have a heart attack, that was it.”
50 years ago today, Marlin Briscoe became the first black QB to start a game in the @NFL's Modern Era.
"So many different historic things happened in 1968," Briscoe recently told @AP.
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) October 7, 2018
Marlin got his long-awaited chance when Broncos starting quarterback Steve Tensi fractured his collarbone midway through the 1968 AFL season.
Briscoe filled in for the injured Tensi in a game against the Boston Patriots in the fall of 1968. When Marlin took the field on that day, he became the first African American quarterback in football’s modern era.
Briscoe didn’t merely show up—he proved he was a legitimate quarterback threat when he scored on a 12-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Although the Broncos lost, 20-17, Marlin Briscoe had officially arrived.
Marlin also showed impeccable leadership on the gridiron. He changed the play at the line of scrimmage in a game against the San Diego Chargers in 1968.
Briscoe’s 10-yard touchdown run with just under two minutes remaining clinched Denver’s victory.
Broncos head coach Lou Saban later told The Miami Herald (via SideArmSports.com) that Briscoe’s decision to change the play at the line of scrimmage was one of the smartest moves he had ever seen.
Briscoe also had 333 passing yards and four touchdowns in a game against his future team, the Buffalo Bills, in 1968.
Marlin finished his rookie year in Denver with a franchise rookie record of 1,897 yards of total offense and 14 touchdowns. To nobody’s surprise, he was the runner-up for the 1968 AFL Rookie of the Year honors.
Despite “Marlin The Magician’s” emergence, the Broncos won just five games and missed the postseason for the ninth straight year.
Briscoe packed his bags and returned to his native Omaha, NE to finish the remaining credits toward his bachelor’s degree in education that offseason.
Regrettably, Briscoe never got the chance to establish a long-term pro football career in the Mile High City.
Sensing he did not have a realistic shot at securing the starting quarterback role for the foreseeable future, Briscoe requested that Saban release him during training camp. Saban obliged and released him several days later.
Some experts speculated that the 5’10” Briscoe’s lack of size was an impediment to his desire to play quarterback.
Super Bowl-winning Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams thought pro football wasn’t ready for undersized quarterbacks in the 1960s. He later remarked that Briscoe reminded him of current Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who has the same height (5’10”) as Marlin.
“With Marlin Briscoe, from talking to the people and seeing what I saw—Kyler Murray, that’s exactly who Marlin was,” Williams told DenverBroncos.com in 2021. “In 1968, they weren’t ready for Kyler Murray. Hell, they weren’t ready for Russell Wilson. They weren’t ready for me in 1968.”
Marlin Briscoe signed with the Buffalo Bills prior to the 1969 AFL season—the league’s last before merging with the National Football League the following year.
Briscoe, who had wanted to play quarterback since his youth football days in Nebraska, became a wide receiver from that point onward.
Since the Bills already had Jack Kemp, Dan Darragh, Tom Flores, and James Harris at quarterback, they didn’t need Briscoe to play signal caller. They assigned Briscoe to the wideout spot to provide more depth at the position.
Not only did Harris become Briscoe’s roommate, but they also forged a lifelong friendship.
Harris told Sports Illustrated in 2015 that Briscoe ranted about how his career in Denver ended. He told James that the higher-ups would eventually release a black quarterback no matter how well he played.
Briscoe went above and beyond the call of duty during his three seasons in western New York.
Marlin had 2,171 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns on 133 receptions from 1969 to 1971. After racking up 1,036 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in the 1970 NFL season, Briscoe earned his first and only Pro Bowl selection in his eight-year pro football career.
One of the keys to Marlin’s emergence as a wideout was watching game film of Lance Alworth and Paul Warfield—two of the best wide receivers in the business—per Sports Illustrated.
Regrettably, the Bills were an abysmal 8-33-1 when Briscoe suited up for them in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Buffalo eventually traded Briscoe to Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins for a first-round draft choice prior to the 1972 NFL campaign.
It was a fortuitous turn of events for Briscoe, who caught four touchdowns for the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team that included Brian Griese, Earl Morrall, Larry Csonka, Larry Little, Mercury Morris, Paul Warfield, and Nick Buoniconti.
Briscoe went on to earn two Super Bowl rings with the Dolphins in 1973 and 1974. He had a combined 726 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 46 receptions during that memorable two-year time frame.
After an injury-riddled season with Miami in 1974, Briscoe split his last three NFL seasons split among the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions, and New England Patriots.
As Marlin’s pro football career neared its conclusion, his college alma mater, the UNO Athletic Hall of Fame, inducted him in 1975.
Marlin Briscoe retired from the gridiron following the 1976 NFL season. He had 1,697 passing yards, 14 passing touchdowns, 3,537 receiving yards, and 30 receiving touchdowns in his eight-year pro football career from 1969 to 1976.
Post-Football Life and Death
Marlin Briscoe resided in the Los Angeles, CA area in the years following his retirement from the National Football League. Briscoe divorced the three women he married during his lifetime.
Briscoe embarked on a successful bond brokering career in Southern California. According to Sports Illustrated, his new career paid good money. Marlin also invested his money wisely during his retirement years.
Unfortunately, Briscoe’s narcotics addiction was one of the reasons why his life savings dwindled considerably. To make matters worse, many of Marlin’s friends left his side.
Things got so bad for Briscoe that he had to beg for money on the streets so he could survive. He also had to sell his two Super Bowl rings from his days with the 1970s Dolphins because of a loan he couldn’t repay.
Police also arrested him twice in the late 1980s for cocaine possession. Well-meaning friends such as Los Angeles Raiders head coach Tom Flores, his former Bills teammate, tried convincing him to undergo rehab, to no avail.
“The one thing I have to hang on to from that time is that I never committed a crime to get money to support my habit,” Briscoe told Sports Illustrated many decades later. “At least I held on to those values.”
Marlin received $500 from former San Diego Chargers wideout Lance Alworth—his former teammate and a player from whom he learned the nuances of playing wide receiver—after his release from prison in 1989.
Marlin, with the cash in hand, walked through a nearby park teeming with several drug dealers. For some reason, he continued walking until he left the park’s premises on the other side of the property.
Marlin Briscoe never abused narcotics after that day. Before long, he reached out to a friend who helped him get a job as a Boys & Girls Club director in the Watts area of Los Angeles. He later served the Long Beach, CA branch in the same capacity.
Marlin told Sports Illustrated that the job was the most fulfilling he had since he retired from pro football. He found great satisfaction in working with youngsters and helping them make fitness a lifelong priority.
Briscoe also organized youth football camps and launched the Marlin Briscoe Scholarship Fund at his college alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, during his retirement years.
Marlin co-authored a book with Bob Schaller entitled The First Black Quarterback: Marlin Briscoe’s Journey to Break the Color Barrier and Start in the NFL in 2002.
Briscoe, the first African American quarterback of the modern era, reached another milestone in 2013.
That was the year he and his 1972 Miami Dolphins teammates visited President Barack Obama at the White House. The president shook hands with Briscoe and recognized him as “a trailblazer.”
Briscoe loved completing crossword puzzles well into his retirement years. He did an average of four every morning in his late 60s.
“It keeps my brain active,” Marlin told Sports Illustrated in the summer of 2015.
At the time, Briscoe felt fortunate that he did not experience any lingering, long-term effects of head trauma like so many of his AFL and NFL contemporaries.
Briscoe became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
Sadly, Marlin Briscoe passed away due to pneumonia in Norwalk, CA on June 27, 2022. He was 76 years old.
Briscoe left behind his two daughters, Angela and Rebecca.