Marlin Briscoe, who became the first black starting quarterback in the American Football League more than 50 years ago, died Monday.
His daughter, Angela Marriott, told The Associated Press that Briscoe, 76, died of pneumonia at a hospital in Norwalk, Calif. He had been hospitalized with circulation problems in his legs.
Briscoe, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, was a star quarterback for the University of Omaha before the Denver Broncos signed him as a 14th-round cornerback in 1968. Briscoe told the team that he would return home to become a teacher if he couldn’t. get a try at quarterback. Denver agreed to an audition, and the 5-foot-10 dynamo nicknamed “The Magician” nearly rallied the Broncos to victory as a reserve against the Boston Patriots on September 29 before earning the historic start on October 6.
“He made an immense contribution to the sport,” Marriott said. “I hope he continues to be recognized for the contributions he made. He was so proud of that achievement.”
Briscoe has started five games this season. He was a finalist for the AFL Rookie of the Year after passing for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 308 yards and three scores.
In a start against the Buffalo Bills, Briscoe passed for 335 yards and four touchdowns. Booker Edgerson, a cornerback for the Bills at the time, remembers being burned for one of those touchdowns. The former AFL All-Star and member of the Bills Wall of Fame thinks Briscoe could have been a Hall of Fame quarterback if not for the racism.
“He would have been one of the best quarterbacks they would talk about right now,” Edgerson said. “He would have been another… he would have been in there before Warren Moon.”
Denver did not give Briscoe a chance to compete for quarterback in 1969 and offered no explanation. Edgerson recalled Briscoe telling him he didn’t think the Broncos were ready to fully commit to a black quarterback.
Briscoe became Edgeerson’s teammate at Buffalo the following year. James Harris was Briscoe’s roommate with the Bills in 1969, and Briscoe helped Harris become the AFL’s first black quarterback to open a season as a starter.
“It was back when black quarterbacks were being turned down, so you tried to make sure you were best prepared for the opportunity when it presented itself,” Harris said. “I was much better because Briscoe was my roommate.”
In 1974 Harris played for the Los Angeles Rams and became the first black quarterback to win an NFL playoff game. He was also the Pro Bowl MVP that season.
Meanwhile, Briscoe earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as a catcher for Buffalo in 1970 and won two Super Bowls as a catcher with the Miami Dolphins. He was part of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team.
Despite all he accomplished, Briscoe never forgot the fact that he lost his starting job in Denver with no chance of getting it back.
“It bothered him,” Harris said. “Although he made the switch, he was disappointed. In order to continue to accomplish what he did in those circumstances – frustrated, disappointed – to be focused enough to perform well in another position, it took special makeup, a special guy.
Briscoe was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016, and the Broncos named a diversity coaching scholarship in his honor ahead of the 2021 season.
Long past his playing days, Briscoe remained outspoken about racial injustice. He was proud to have moved the needle in 1968, but told The Associated Press in 2018 he was disappointed that so much of the progress made in his day had been lost.
“I grew up in the 50s and 60s, when it was all rampant, but you knew where you were at,” Briscoe said. “Today you thought all of those attitudes were either non-existent or filtered out to some degree, but with the Trumpisms, his philosophy has knocked that old-fashioned thought process out of the woodwork. It’s scary – it really is.