Marlin Briscoe, the first Black starting quarterback in modern professional football, died Monday at age 76.
Briscoe broke the color barrier at QB when he started for the Broncos in the AFL in 1968, and went on to earn the nickname “Marlin the Magician” in a nine-year career with six different teams. He passed away from pneumonia at a hospital in Norwalk, California, his daughter told The Associated Press.
“We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of former Broncos QB Marlin Briscoe,” the Broncos said in a statement. “Marlin was a pioneer who shattered barriers, making history as the first Black starting quarterback in the Super Bowl era. He paved the way for countless others and created an indelible legacy, including through our Marlin Briscoe Diversity Coaching Fellowship.”
After being drafted in the 14th round out of Nebraska-Omaha (then Omaha University) in 1968, Briscoe demanded a tryout at QB and went on to make five starts at the position for the Broncos as a rookie. The Broncos initially tried him at cornerback before an injury to starting quarterback Steve Tensi in the preseason opened the door for Briscoe to make history.
With Denver off to an 0-3 record and its other backup QBs faltering, head coach Lou Saban called on Briscoe to start on Oct. 6, 1968, for a home game against the Browns at Mile High Stadium. Briscoe started the game but was pulled midway through in favor of Tensi, and Denver won 10-7.
“There were a few things that society didn’t think a Black man could do, and (three of those were) think, throw and lead,” Briscoe told DenverBroncos.com last year. “(Society) didn’t know how the fan reaction, manager reaction, player and teammate reaction — they didn’t know how that was going to be.”
Briscoe also started the final four games of 1968, going 1-3 in those starts. He finished the season 93-of-224 passing for 1,589 yards, with 14 touchdowns (still a franchise rookie passing record) and 13 interceptions. The 5-foot-11, 178-pounder also rushed for three touchdowns, including two in a midseason win over Miami in which Briscoe came off the bench and led Denver to a thrilling 21-14 comeback victory.
For his play, Briscoe was runner-up in the league’s rookie of the year voting while turning heads across the country.
“There were 44,000 fans out there who thought Briscoe was great,” Dolphins head coach George Wilson told The Denver Post after Briscoe’s performance on Oct. 27, 1968. “Now you can make that 44,001, counting me.”
But Briscoe’s time with the Broncos would be short-lived, as he never again got a chance to compete for a starting quarterback job in Denver or elsewhere. Wanting out of Denver, he became a free agent in 1969 and signed with Buffalo, where he converted to wideout.
He was a Pro Bowler for the Bills in 1970 after posting a career-high 57 catches for 1,036 and eight touchdowns, and also went on to play for the Dolphins, Lions, Chargers and Patriots before retiring after the 1976 season. In Miami, he was a member of the undefeated 1972 Super Bowl team and also the Dolphins’ 1973 championship team.
When Doug Williams and Washington beat the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, making the Williams the first Black quarterback to win a championship, Briscoe felt like he was “was a part of what Doug did.”
“I felt like what I did all those years ago helped Doug,” Briscoe told The Undefeated in 2016. “It was the best feeling I had had in a long time.”
Williams said Briscoe deserves “pioneer status.”
“For what he did in 1968, he deserves way more recognition than he gets,” Williams told DenverBroncos.com last year. “As a Black man playing quarterback, he knew in 1968 it wasn’t (about being) two times better than the guy behind you. He had to be five times better.”
After his playing career, Briscoe became one of football’s first Black coaches when he was hired at the University of Colorado. In retirement, he overcame a cocaine addition and subsequent homelessness to build a career as a financial broker, and also worked as a director of a Boys and Girls Club in Los Angeles. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.