Marlin Briscoe - Professional Football Player
How do sports give us a window into the historical events of the time period?
"As long as there is time on the clock" - Marlin Briscoe
Marlin Briscoe made sports history on Oct. 6, 1968, when he became the first African American to start in a National Football League (NFL) game as a quarterback. People may be aware of his record-setting, successful NFL career with six different teams, a Pro Bowl selection in 1970, and two Super Bowl wins in 1972 and 1973. Despite his path-breaking achievement, Briscoe never played quarterback in the NFL again after the 1968 season. While there is some recognition of his initial achievement, few people know or understand the ways that Marlin Briscoe’s life and NFL career took place against a back-drop of racial tensions that took place during the civil rights era.
Growing up in a racially divided South Omaha, Marlin learned at an early age that his race would pose considerable challenges throughout his life. Even so, he refused to give up, and worked harder than his competition, using his limited opportunities to achieve his dreams.
Marlin Briscoe left the NFL in 1976, after a successful career as an NFL wide receiver. He soon found out how hard the real world could be. Marlin fell into a cycle of over-spending and drug addiction that would take the majority of the 1980s away from him. It was not until after his release from jail in 1988, that he was able to overcome addiction and get his life back on track.
Instead of running from this difficult period in his life, Briscoe realized that he could use his experiences to help kids. Over the next decade, Briscoe taught, coached, and worked with the Girls and Boys club in his home state of California. He has also visited Omaha from time to time to share his insights with local young people, and support his beloved alma mater, Omaha South High School.
During our oral history interview with Briscoe, his main advice was to persevere through any barriers that may come up, and remember that in life, as in sports, “there is always a chance to succeed, as long as there is time on the clock.”
(Photo courtesy of UNO Alumni Foundation)
Published on August 22, 2016
Students created this documentary as part of the Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible Histories Visible initiative.
Marlin Briscoe was born in Oakland, California on Sept. 10, 1945, to Marlin Briscoe and Geneva Moore. At age four, his mother took him and his younger sister, Beverly, to Omaha, Nebraska.
Marlin began playing sports because his cousin, Bob Rose, heard that Marlin was running home from a school bully. Rose said he was going to give his cousin “the magic box”, and promised it would change his life. Inside this “magic box” was all sorts of sports equipment and gear. With the skills that he learned, he was able to stand up for himself and be confident. This gift opened up a whole new world for Briscoe and marked the moment when athletics became a central part of his life.
Marlin latched onto basketball and football. As talented as he was, Briscoe split time at quarterback through his junior year of high school before agreeing to focus solely on running back his senior season. This switch earned him the honor of “All-City” running back. Many in the local African American community felt this suggested position change was the result of racism, as many white people believed that African Americans were not intelligent enough to succeed as a quarterback. According to Briscoe’s autobiography, he downplayed this angle, claiming he was just trying to do what was best for the team and put himself in the best position to be noticed by colleges for a scholarship.
It was not until the state’s annual All-Star game, the Shrine Bowl, in which Briscoe got a new chance to shine as a quarterback. Briscoe was sent in after the starting quarterback was injured, and proved to many onlookers that he was more than capable of playing the position at a high level. That spring, Omaha University coach, Al Caniglia, recruited Briscoe relentlessly, and promised him a shot at quarterback. Briscoe accepted the offer and was given a partial scholarship to play basketball, football, and study engineering at Omaha University.
Photo: Omaha South High School Courtesy of Omaha South Alumni Foundation - 1961 South Yearbook
The Magician is Born
Marlin Briscoe was a spectacular athlete. At the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO), he played basketball and football. His freshman year, he was the backup quarterback and starting defensive back. It wasn’t until his sophomore and junior year at Omaha University that he became the starting quarterback and could hone his skills.
After an injury to his neck in 1966, he was told that his athletic career was over. Marlin decided to put all his effort and focus on his studies, and changed his major from engineering to education. Marlin was re-examined by team doctors in 1967, where they discovered that the bones he had broken had calcified. He was given the green light to go back to competitive athletics, and a fifth year of eligibility. Briscoe finished out his senior year at UNO both athletically and academically strong.
In 1968, the Denver Broncos selected Briscoe in the 14th round of the NFL draft, as a defensive back. Briscoe was not optimistic about his chances to play quarterback in Denver. On Sept. 29, 1968, after the starter went down with an injury, Briscoe once again had the opportunity to use his talents as a quarterback. This made him the first African American player to start a game as a quarterback in the NFL.
In his rookie season, Briscoe passed for 1,589 yards and threw for 14 touchdowns in only seven games, which remains a Broncos rookie record in 2016. But, even after his barrier-breaking and record-setting year, Briscoe never started another game at quarterback in the NFL.
Even though Briscoe was able to break racial barriers, the color of his skin remained an issue for the NFL. According to his autobiography, Marlin couldn’t help but feel that the teams around the league were not ready for an African American quarterback to lead its teams, or be the face of a brand. As a business, Denver feared that its organization would lose support from fans, which would cause its financial stability to dwindle. Marlin’s lifelong practice and belief that hard work would ultimately pay off, was being challenged. As a result, Denver traded Marlin to the New York Buffalo Bills prior to the 1969 season, and was forced to switch his position to wide receiver. This was the only way for Marlin to stay in the league due to racial tensions, and the misconception that African Americans were not mentally capable of playing the position of quarterback.
Although Marlin had never played wide receiver, he was able to put up more than 1,000 receiving yards during his second season with the Bills. This led him to the Pro Bowl. Briscoe later played for the Miami Dolphins, where he would win two consecutive Super Bowl rings, as part of the only undefeated team in NFL history. Briscoe also played for San Diego, Detroit, and New England in the next several years. The Patriots were Marlin’s last team, and he retired in 1976.
In his nine-year career, Marlin had 224 career catches for 3,537 yards and 30 touchdowns, and passed for 1,697 yards and 14 touchdowns. Briscoe also rushed for 336 yards and had three touchdowns. Marlin Briscoe became a role model for African American athletes all over the world. He was able to break racial barriers at a time when heavily enforced segregation laws kept individuals of color under the radar. Even with all of his success up to this point, Marlin would realize that his struggles in life outside of football would be more challenging than he would have ever expected.
Photo: Signed Marlin Briscoe Bronco's jersey, courtesy of South High School
A Tipping Point
Briscoe was cut from the New England Patriots in 1976. He quickly acquired a job in Los Angeles' financial district, earning a great deal of money. The increase in income came with an increase in personal problems. Briscoe developed a cocaine habit that ultimately led to an addiction. With a wife and child to look after, this addiction ultimately cost him his home and family, leaving him broke and living on the streets of Los Angeles for 10 years. Briscoe moved back to Omaha, attempting to kick his addiction, and everyone saw the hometown hero at his lowest point. With his past still haunting him, Briscoe moved out west to San Diego, where he believed he could improve his life.
After two stints in jail, Briscoe finally turned his life around and moved back to Los Angeles. He stayed sober and began working with young people at the Boys and Girls Club, getting his life back little by little. In 2016, Briscoe still lives in California, happily re-married. There is a statue being built to honor him in his hometown of Omaha. It will be placed in front of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Baxter Arena.
Photo: Marlin Briscoe sign dedication, courtesy of Omaha World-Herald.
Sometimes, when historical moments are measured by impact and time, different aspects of history can be overlooked, especially when it comes to sports. Some of the legacies that athletes have left throughout the history of professional sports have been—for a lack of words—mind-blowing, exquisite, and even monumental. We often see legacies like these left by athletic superstars—for example, Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, and John Elway, to name a few. All of these athletes were extraordinary when it came to leading the way and helping their teams win hundreds of games and more than just a few championships. With these three, the comfort of them being who they are physically never made fans worry; with this, their personal legacies will not be overlooked. But what happens when the times are different, and people are not accepted for being who they are because of their physical identity? Their race? What does this do to their legacy? What about the monumental things they did for the sport? Does society just ignore the legacy, or does it acknowledge it? These are the questions that were answered while my group discovered the dusty legacy of Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe.
Although he was a wonderful athlete, as an Omaha native growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, many odds were against young Marlin Briscoe when it came to playing football. After graduating from Omaha South High School, where Briscoe left his mark by being a fantastic athlete in football and basketball, he then went on to play for Omaha University, where he left his legacy for both sports as well. More specifically, Marlin was prolific when it came to playing the quarterback position on the field. Briscoe was fast, quick witted, and dynamic when it came to playing the position. In 1968, in the 14th round of the NFL draft, Marlin was selected by the Denver Broncos—however, not at the quarterback position but at defensive back. In a phone conversation my group had with Briscoe, he mentioned that he was “quite stubborn,” which speaks to him still having the dream of playing quarterback in the NFL on his mind even when he was drafted as a defensive back. After a series of injuries to quarterbacks on the Denver roster in 1968, Briscoe finally received his chance in September of that season. With this chance, he would break all racial barriers and take a monumental snap under center and be the first Black man to start at quarterback in the NFL.
For the remainder of that 1968-1969 season, Briscoe would continue to flourish. As a rookie, Briscoe threw 14 touchdowns in seven games, which is only half a season. Along with the 14 touchdowns, he also threw for more than 1,500 yards. However, his time at the quarterback position would be short lived, and the following season, he would be traded to the Buffalo Bills as a wide receiver. What one may not realize is the context of the time period. In the late 1960s, racial tensions in the United States were very high. Many football fans may also forget that the National Football League is a business, and for a team to market and brand themselves with a leader of the team who is Black would be a major uphill task. For example, the Denver Broncos were worried about the views of other teams in the league and losing fans, which, in turn, would cause the organization to lose money. So, with this, my group felt that Briscoe's legacy at the quarterback position was not only short-lived but overshadowed by the racial prejudices of the time period.
In order to answer the questions posed to us, we had to conduct research. Not only did we research the life of Marlin Briscoe, but we also researched his local and national surroundings. To assist people in understanding Briscoe’s struggle in the NFL, we must begin by looking at the time period in which Briscoe grew up. The 1950s and 1960s—in not only Omaha but in the United States—were a time period with major racial issues. Black communities in the United States were treated unfairly at most times and hit with anti-black legislation, as well as segregation. On a more local level, we focused on what was going on in Omaha in the 1960s.
In the 1960s, Omaha had three race riots throughout the decade. Briscoe graduated in 1963 from Omaha South High School but remained in Omaha to play for his hometown university (now UNO). Through interviews with Joan and Stan Standifer, a teammate at Omaha University, and Rod Mullen, an OPS teacher, we got to learn more about who Briscoe was as a person and the impact he left on the athletic world and, more importantly, young athletes in Omaha. Through these interviews, we found out that the one way for many young African Americans to escape racial violence in the inner city was to find a hobby. Not only was it vital to find a hobby or talent, but it was even more important that one made that hobby or talent his or her avenue to success. When speaking to Mr. Standifer, he expressed how being in an environment where everyone had the same goal meant that one was less likely to experience a heavy amount of racial prejudice. So when Stan and Marlin played for UNO, there was definitely a lack of negative encounters with their white teammates, mainly because the main focus of everyone on the team was to win games. Although when Marlin would become a professional football player, the racial barrier made it hard for him to achieve his personal goals. Despite having a nine-year NFL career and winning two Super Bowls at the receiver position, our group has always wondered what Briscoe’s career at quarterback could have been. Also, since most of us are native to Omaha, we are grateful to have an opportunity to research a fellow Omaha native whose invisible legacy is so influential.
To prove his major influence, Briscoe was honored with a life-size statue at Baxter Arena in Omaha in September of 2016. We believe that this ceremony will signify his influence on young athletes across the Omaha metro. We feel as if Marlin Briscoe should be remembered not only in local history but that his historical achievements reached a wider audience. What Marlin was able to do as an African American in a country—and even more specifically, a league—in which the majority of athletes were white was a giant step when it comes to acceptance and learning how to love and appreciate one another. It also speaks to the actions of breaking barriers, overcoming obstacles, and following your dreams in order to achieve your goals. Briscoe’s story should be told all over.
Written by Nicholas Webster.
2016 MIHV Project
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- Gabrielle G.
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- Dionte' T.
Briscoe, Marlin, and Bob Schaller. The First Black Quarterback: Marlin Briscoe's Journey to Break the Color Barrier and Start in the NFL. Grand Island, NE: Cross Training Pub., 2002. Print.
The Magician- The Story of Marlin Briscoe. Youtube. N.p., 16 July 2011. Web.
Marcus, Steven. "Marlin Briscoe Made Football History at QB." Newsday. N.p., 30 Apr. 2016. Web. 18 July 2016.
"TSL Sports Talk & Stories." TheShadowLeague.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.
A Street of Dreams. A Street of Dreams. Youtube Standard, 26 Apr. 2013. Web. 19 July 2016A special thanks to:
Omaha South High School (Andrew Brooks)
UNO Alumni Foundation (Terry Hanna)
Omaha South High School Alumni Foundation (Mary Urkevich and Judy Storm)
Jonathan Goodwin - background music on the video
Research compiled by: Gabrielle G., Tre'Vaughn J., Dionte' T.