All through the years, right to his death of pneumonia, Marlin Briscoe was called, “The Quarterback,” by quarterback legend Joe Namath. They’d see each other at some NFL reunion or social get-together and Namath would greet him with something like, “Hey, how’s The Quarterback doing?”
“He remembers,’ Briscoe would say in relating the story. “He was there.”
Namath understood, too. He cared. So many didn’t. Briscoe always worried his history would be downsized into that of just a talented receiver, a champion on the 1972 Miami Dolphins. When I first talked to him 20 years ago, he said when he told people he was the first Black quarterback in pro football, people often looked at him blankly.
“I thought you were a receiver,’ they’d say.
That’s part of his raw and real story that ended with his recent death at 76 in Norwalk, California. Fortunately, the Dolphins are on the right side of history here, because when Briscoe arrived at training camp in 1972 after being traded from Buffalo he studied his new team and had one word.
“Finally,’ he said, like a great search was over.
Finally, he found a pro team where Black and white players, where coaches and team management — where everyone was pointed toward winning. And only winning. He wasn’t sure one did until that point.
His pro career started in 1968 with the AFL’s Denver Broncos moving him to cornerback. He said he’d play the position if coach Lou Saban gave him a three-day tryout at quarterback. Briscoe was a quarterback all his life. Youth football. High school.
At his hometown University of Omaha-Nebraska, Briscoe’s play earned the nickname, “The Magician.” He figured to win the pros over with his talent and dedication, too. He got the promised three practices at quarterback and immediately was moved to cornerback.
“I got no chance,’ he said. “They didn’t want a Black quarterback. No team did at that time.”
Denver’s offense didn’t score a touchdown its first three games that year. It was down two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of the next game when its two quarterbacks were hurt. Briscoe was suddenly inserted at told quarterback. He threw a touchdown and led a field-goal drive that final quarter.
He started the rest of the year. His 14 touchdowns (against 13 interceptions) remain a Denver rookie record. Considering he had no training camp and a bad team, he considered it a decent start. He then got a call from a friend that offseason. Saban was meeting with the team’s other quarterbacks to develop them.
“I was blindsided,’ he said.
He drove to Denver, confronted Saban and was told he wasn’t a quarterback anymore. Was it talent? Race? Need? Briscoe lets you decide. He demanded his release and wrote every team to give him a chance a quarterback.
Buffalo wanted him as a receiver. With no other options, he studied Paul Warfield and Lance Alworth that first season in 1969. He led AFC receivers in 1970 in receptions and yards. The next jolt of his career came after leading Buffalo receivers in touchdowns for a second straight season in 1971.
Saban was named Buffalo’s coach.
“That was the end of the road for me there,’ he said.
Don Shula got him for a first-round pick. Briscoe played with his receiving mentor in Warfield. He fit in on a team that won two titles. He had a few productive years with the Dolphins and moved on to other teams before his career ended in 1977.
As he tells it, a piece of him was broken by football, though. He never got over not playing quarterback. He developed a drug problem and hawked his Super Bowl rings. His mocking nickname on the Los Angeles streets he lived those years was, “17-0″ for the undefeated season.
Briscoe rediscovered his way and counseled at the Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles. Something good happened as he aged, too. More people remembered. Omaha honored him.
He became part of a non-profit group of black quarterbacks called Field Generals Inc. Nike put him in a television commercial at a fictitious Marlin Briscoe High School (Shula wore a school shirt reading, “Briscoe Night Hawks.”)
It was a long arc from being the first Black quarterback in pro football to actually being remembered as that. But Briscoe’s story wasn’t erased as he once feared. By the time of his death, it wasn’t just Namath calling him a quarterback. It was headlines across the country.
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