I don't think this has been posted anywhere. I thought it was a very interesting read.
There was no ulterior motive in play, no desire by Marlin Briscoe to make a political statement when he pressed the Denver Broncos to allow him to try out with the rest of the quarterbacks in 1968 after being drafted in the 14th round.
But history is what came out of that little power play he pulled on his own, without an agent doing the talking, as Briscoe would become the first African-American to start at quarterback during that rookie season.
Being a quarterback was all that the confident and talented rookie had known up to that point and it was where he excelled in college at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. So even though the Broncos drafted Briscoe with the intention of converting him to a defensive back, and even though he occupied the starting cornerback position in training camp, Briscoe was intent on proving he could play the most important position on the field, and he knew there was a ready-made stage for him to prove it.
“I knew that Denver was one of the only teams in the NFL that had held their practices open to the public and the media, so I wanted to showcase my skills,” said Briscoe, who was a top receiver for the Miami Dolphins from 1972-74. “I had been an All-American in college, set a bunch of records and I always thought that I could play the position, but upon being drafted that was not going to be the case. So I negotiated my own contract, and in that contract I said that I would sign as a defensive back but they would have to give me a three-day trial at quarterback. And they thought I was crazy, wondering how a 14th-round draft pick could dictate those terms.”
Denver did not immediately agree, but eventually gave in because Briscoe was deemed a very important cog to the team’s future. He was penciled in eighth on a depth chart with eight quarterbacks but proceeded to shine on the field for everyone to see, making all of the mid-range, short and long-range throws. His athleticism stood out as at 5-foot-10 and 177 pounds he could move outside of the pocket and extend plays with his speed, and the press and the public took notice.
The Broncos, however, pushed forward with their plan to use Briscoe as a cornerback and moved him back into the secondary after the third day of the open tryout came to an end. Steve Tensi was entrenched as the starting quarterback and Joe DiVito was his backup, so Briscoe began his NFL career on the defensive side of the ball. A hamstring injury sidelined Briscoe early that season and at the same time he was getting himself healthy, Tensi broke his collarbone and was trying to gut his way through a game against the Boston Patriots on September 29th, 1968. Prior to that third game of the season, head coach Lou Saban already set things in motion for Briscoe to make history.
“I went to my locker and there was a number 15 in it, so I’m thinking that I got cut because I was just coming off of an injury,” said Briscoe, who had been wearing the number 45 as a cornerback. “My immediate reaction was, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I turned around and Lou Saban was staring me in the back and he said, ‘You see the number 15?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes sir,’ and he said, ‘You’re now a quarterback.’ My heart raced, my leg got better and it was an exciting moment at that point. I guess what happened was the press and the fans said, ‘Well, that little guy from Omaha, he was one of the best in camp so why don’t you give him a chance?’ And that’s what happened.”
Saban inserted Briscoe into the game early in the fourth quarter at home and the Patriots ahead by 10 points only to watch as Briscoe nearly pull out a come-from-behind victory. Boston held on to win, 20-17, but Briscoe’s first play was a 22-yard pass completion, and on his second series he engineered an 80-yard scoring drive, capping it off himself with a 12-yard touchdown run. He finished with 51 rushing yards on five attempts and completed 2-of-6 passes for 43 yards, having told himself when he took the field that all he wanted to do was complete his first pass.
One week later at home, Briscoe started at quarterback against the Cincinnati Bengals, making October 6th, 1968, a watershed moment not only in sports history but in American history. That date doesn’t quite resonate like April 15th, 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but it certainly paved the way for future black quarterbacks like Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and more recently Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. The fact that his big moment happened in 1968 is something that is not lost on Briscoe.
“We’re talking about one of the most pivotal years in the 1960s in terms of change,” Briscoe said. “You had all the events that happened in ’68 – Bob Gibson won the Cy Young Award, John Carlos and Tommie Smith holding up their gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. You had all of those things happening, so 1968 was probably the year it was most definitely going to happen. It was kind of ironic that a lot of the changes that happened in this country came in that year.
“Really, I never thought of myself as a black quarterback. I was the first black quarterback on all levels that I ever played because I grew up in a predominantly white environment even though I grew up in the projects. So I really just thought of myself as a quarterback, but obviously it was an important event in the history of the NFL and in the black community. And then when Ebony Magazine came to do a six-page story on me, I realized how important it was to Black America that I not fail.”
Briscoe did not fail. In fact, he still sits atop Denver’s record book for the most touchdown passes thrown by a rookie quarterback (14) and his 17.1 yards per completion led the AFL and ranks 18th all-time. He ended that season completing 93-of-224 passes for 1,589 yards, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Briscoe also rushed for 308 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries, all the while having no idea it would be his one and only season playing the position that he loved