Dec 29, 2016 02:56PM
By Leo Adam Biga
Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL's first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.
The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).
Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe's myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.
After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.
Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe's story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha's Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Now, he's preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.
If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe's role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he's ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha's melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life's vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.
"The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have," Briscoe says.
On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life's ups and downs.
"That's where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened."
His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson's oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation.
"You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn't want to go through them," Briscoe says. "Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict's. They cared about where we were going in life."
When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a "magic box" filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn't be bothered. He did and wasn't. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.
Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.
"They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.
He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).
Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.
"Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, 'It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.'
"There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability."
Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the '66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He'd competed with a broken neck.
Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.
He's convinced he wouldn't have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn't negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.
Briscoe's larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.
"For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position," he says. "It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in '68 is just eerie, the way that happened."
So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting "injustices." Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.
He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.
"I wasn't bitter, I was disappointed," he says. "When you're bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, 'You're going to have disappointments, and you're going to be treated unfairly, but you can't be bitter about it.' Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn't work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way."
Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family.
"Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property," he says.
What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. "It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition."
But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.
"I let my guard down. I wasn't really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn't have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn't rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on."
No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.
"I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.
But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn't kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.
"I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.
He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: "The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I'd get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I've overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard."
Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL's monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.
"I'm not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I'd have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don't realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I'm not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”
Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall's Veterans Committee.
Just as Briscoe wasn't bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn't bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.
"If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.
"Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other's plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them."
While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe's experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.
Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.
Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.
"It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.
Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.
"It's not for self-gratification,” he says. “It's hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It's not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn't be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football."
He's sure the movie's message of "if you never give up, you've got a chance" will resonate with diverse audiences. He's proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.
Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.This article was printed in the January/February 2017 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.