From the bottom of the depth chart he battled to get on the field, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting—then lost his job. The first black QB to start in the modern era had a bittersweet career, but that was only the beginning of his hardships
This is an article from the July 6, 2015 issue
THE VOLUME on the television didn't carry well in the large, open room, but Marlin Briscoe didn't need to hear Al Michaels's play-by-play to grasp the significance of the moment. It was Jan. 31, 1988, and the Redskins' Doug Williams was about to become the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, 20 years after Briscoe had been the first black quarterback to start a modern pro football game.
As the final seconds ticked off in Washington's 42--10 victory over Briscoe's old team, the Broncos, he wiped tears from his eyes. In 1968, Denver had taken him in the 14th round of the AFL draft with plans to shift him to the secondary, even though he'd dismantled defenses with his passing and running at Division II Omaha. In that era, putting a man on the moon seemed realistic. Putting a black man at QB? In a pro football game? Now, that was a fantasy.
If Williams's accomplishment hadn't put an end to that backward thinking, Briscoe thought, at least it ensured that African-American passers would get something closer to equal treatment. A black college quarterback wouldn't have to negotiate with a team just for the chance to try out at the position, as Briscoe had done. Black QBs would no longer be cast aside the way Briscoe had been after his first pro season, when he started Denver's last four games, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and then wasn't even invited to the team's off-season QB meetings. The Broncos had simply decided, without explanation, that Briscoe wasn't a passer anymore. They granted his request to be released, and he signed with the Bills, who converted him to a receiver. He had an outstanding eight-year career as a wideout, winning two Super Bowls with the Dolphins and playing in one Pro Bowl. But Briscoe never again took a snap under center.
In that moment in front of the television, as he watched Williams accomplish what he'd never been given a fair chance to do, whatever resentment Briscoe felt about his mistreatment fell away. An ugly wall was crumbling, and he was proud to have initiated the demolition. "I felt that my history helped give Doug the opportunity to be in that position," Briscoe says. "It was a powerful feeling."
It was also a bittersweet one. The tears that ran down Briscoe's cheeks weren't of pride alone. When the game concluded, guards ordered him and his fellow inmates out of the common area, and Briscoe returned to his cell in San Diego County jail.
WHO KNOWS all the ways that racism can damage a man? Or the ways in which fighting it can make him stronger? There is no straight line from the discrimination Briscoe faced to his incarceration, from his addiction to his redemption—but those things cannot be completely unrelated, can they? Didn't the same strength of character that allowed him to beat a racist system, if only briefly, also enable him to conquer his drug demons?
Briscoe, 69, doesn't completely accept such theories. "I wasn't bitter," he says. "Bitter people quit. I was disappointed; if I was bitter, I wouldn't have rolled up my sleeves and learned another position. I grew up in the '50s and '60s, when black people had a tough road no matter what career they pursued. We expected to have to go through closed doors. We knew we wouldn't get a fair shake."
Briscoe says this on a quiet morning in Long Beach, Calif., sitting at his kitchen table with his cup of coffee and his crossword puzzles, beginning the daily routine he has followed ever since retiring from his job as the director of a Long Beach Boys & Girls Club three years ago. Life is calm now, and Briscoe, a soft-spoken man with closely cropped gray hair and just a few more pounds around the middle than he had during his playing days, is content. The drug habit that led to two brief jail sentences seems like a different lifetime; he says he hasn't used an illegal substance in nearly 30 years. Later he will pick up his wife Michelle's granddaughter from kindergarten (he was married twice before and has two adult children of his own), and there will be a round of golf in the afternoon. Phone conversations will follow with the producers who are working on a movie about his life. The film's working title, The Magician, refers to a box of used sports gear that Briscoe's cousin gave him when he was a boy in Omaha. That receptacle came to be known as the magic box, and young Marlin, because of his ability to excel with anything he pulled out of it—baseball, football, boxing gloves—became the Magician.
There is a finished screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard, who worked on the scripts for Remember the Titans and Ali, but the production company is haggling to get the NFL's cooperation on the project. League officials are concerned that some of the darker periods of Briscoe's life aren't exactly PG-13, according to producer Doug Falconer, who says that the film will begin production, with or without the league's blessing, in early 2016. There is no question, though, that Briscoe has led a life of cinematic arcs. He has gone from the sandlots of Omaha to a Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Coliseum, from the crack house to the White House, from being mocked by his drug dealers to being praised by President Obama. "It's been an A-to-Z experience," he says. "I've made some of my own breaks and tried to take responsibility for my own mistakes."
There may not be a cause-and-effect correlation between what was done to him and what he did to himself, but it is all connected, like the boxes on the crosswords he loves. Briscoe completes four of them every morning, in ink. "It keeps my brain active," he says. He considers himself lucky that he shows no ill effects from head trauma that so many former players suffer.
"It's almost funny: The feeling back when we played was that blacks didn't have the intelligence to play quarterback," says receiver Eric Crabtree, Briscoe's teammate in Denver. "But Marlin's brain was probably his greatest strength. He was always thinking. Even when he was talking to you, it seemed like he was deep in thought."
When the Broncos drafted him, Briscoe longed to line up at quarterback, the position at which he'd thrived all his life—but Denver's director of player personnel, Fred Gehrke, told the rookie that his new coaches envisioned him as a corner. Despite having only briefly played defensive back, Briscoe conceded he would convert, but on one condition: that he be allowed to participate in the team's three-day quarterback tryout at the start of training camp. He knew the competition would be open to the press and the public; the more people who saw him as a passer, the better. Even if his own coaches had made up their minds, maybe someone—a reporter, a scout—would notice him, and word of his skills would get around.
Feeling they had nothing to lose, the Broncos agreed to guarantee Briscoe a tryout, and for three days that summer he worked out with seven other quarterbacks. By Briscoe's recollection, he was the last man to be given a turn in every drill. "The others would get 10 long-range throws, 10 medium-range and 10 short-range," he says. "Then I'd get my turn, throw five of each, and somebody would yell, 'O.K., next drill!'"
But Briscoe's deep balls and his ability to pass well on the run, a rare skill at the time, did get the attention of the fans and some of the press. "Briscoe, a negro quarterback from Omaha, shows a strong arm and ability to scramble," wrote Denver Post columnist Dick Connor. "The Broncos have other plans for him, but he could be a good insurance policy at quarterback."
After the three days, however, Briscoe was told that he would be with the secondary when camp began, and he accepted the news without argument. "I had no real illusions," he says, "but I knew I had shown them I could play. I thought maybe that would make it a little easier for the next black player who came through."
Briscoe pulled a hamstring early in training camp, and it proved to be a stroke of luck; he never did establish himself as a defensive back. When No. 1 quarterback Steve Tensi was injured in the preseason and his backups failed to impress, coach Lou Saban installed Briscoe as his QB3, in case of emergency.
In the third game of the season, at Mile High Stadium against the Boston Patriots, Briscoe was in his customary place on the sideline, watching as QB Jim LeClair's offense sputtered: 5-of-17 passing, two interceptions. Denver was trailing 17--10 at the start of the fourth quarter and about to get the ball back when Saban turned to Briscoe and said, "Get ready."
The milestone moment was greeted mostly with silence. There was no notable reaction from the fans, most of whom probably didn't notice when the 5'11", 178-pound Briscoe entered the game. The Denver huddle, however, was different. "We knew what was happening, what it meant," says Crabtree. "As a receiver, I wanted to do well for Marlin's sake. There was a pressure, a tension we all felt—except for him. He came into the huddle like he'd been there before. The way he talked, I call it his feel-good voice: confident, in command. It was, Here's what we're going to do. Now let's go do it."
Whatever Briscoe was doing, it had to be done quickly. Beyond the matter of the clock, he says he knew, "If I didn't make something happen right away, Saban was going to [call on] somebody else." He needed an immediate completion and went with the play he felt most sure of, a slant to Crabtree that went for 22 yards. Briscoe had been given so few practice reps that there were only a half-dozen plays he was comfortable calling; instead, he relied heavily on his elusiveness and improvisational skills. "Sandlot football," he says. "That's all I could do with such a short list." On his second drive he marched the Broncos down the field, narrowing the score to 20--17 on a 12-yard scramble; then, with time enough for just one play remaining and the ball at midfield, he nearly completed the comeback, dashing his way down to Boston's 10-yard line as the clock expired. In the end, Briscoe accounted for 94 total yards and a TD in less than 10 minutes.
"The thing I remember was that the support I got from my teammates and the fans was amazing," he says of an outing that The New York Times headlined a historic debut. "I had five white linemen, and I could hear them saying to each other, 'Nobody touches Marlin.' After the game, fans were coming up to me, wishing me well. Back then the fear was always that a black quarterback would divide the team—some white players would have problems with it, attendance would hurt because some white fans would stop coming. None of that happened."
Whatever public animosity existed, Briscoe's teammates tried to shield him from it. "Marlin used to say he was lucky he didn't get the kind of hate mail that other black quarterbacks got," Crabtree says. "I finally had to tell him: that was because I used to go to his locker and sort through his mail before he did."
Briscoe's debut earned him a start the following week against the Bengals, but he struggled against Cincinnati, and in the second half Saban reinstated Tensi. The veteran remained at the helm, with Briscoe getting cleanup reps, over the next five games, until Tensi broke his collarbone in a 43--7 Week 9 loss to the Raiders. Briscoe started the final four games and finished the season with 1,589 yards passing plus a Denver rookie-record 14 TD throws.
After the season Briscoe went home to Omaha to enroll in the last few college classes he needed to complete his degree in education. While he was there, a cousin who lived in Denver called him and told him that Saban was conducting quarterback meetings. "It was the first I heard about it," Briscoe says. "So I got on a plane, went to the team office, sat outside the room where the meetings were being held and just waited. When Saban came out, he couldn't even look me in the eye. That said it all. I knew I wasn't in their plans."
Briscoe asked for his release, which the Broncos eventually granted, and he joined the Bills, knowing that he had no chance to play quarterback: Buffalo already had two veterans, Jack Kemp and Tom Flores, as well as an African-American rookie, James Harris, who would become Briscoe's roommate and lifetime friend. "At first, Marlin was as bitter a person as I'd ever met," Harris says. "He was hurt by what had happened. He would tell me, 'Don't trust them. You can play good, and they're going to cut you anyway. They don't want a black quarterback.'"
Briscoe ultimately accepted his switch to receiver, spending his postpractice hours watching film of elite wideouts like Lance Alworth and Paul Warfield. By 1970, his third year in the league, he was one of the best receivers in the newly merged NFL: An All-Pro that season, Briscoe ranked second in catches (57) and yards (1,036). Buffalo traded him to Miami for a first-round pick in '71, and a year later Briscoe caught four TDs for the Dolphins team that pulled off the only undefeated season in NFL history. (He also completed all three of his pass attempts on trick plays that year.) Briscoe earned a second Super Bowl ring with Miami the following season, and in '76 he announced his retirement, at 31. He'd enjoyed a distinguished career and earned a college degree; with a job as a bond broker in Los Angeles, and newly married, he transitioned smoothly into postfootball life—it seemed.
But retirement meant that Briscoe didn't have to be as careful about his body anymore. He had invested well and was raking in money with his new career; he had the means and the freedom to keep up with friends who were living fast.
The cocaine was recreational at first, then essential. Coke became crack, "from social to the street," he says, and the money disappeared, along with most of his friends. Briscoe found himself panhandling on the streets, where dealers nicknamed him 17--0, in reference to his perfect season with the Dolphins. He swallowed the mockery; it was part of the price of his addiction. "The one thing I have to hang on to from that time is that I never committed a crime to get money to support my habit," he says. "At least I held on to those values."
Still, Briscoe spiraled downward. He lost his Super Bowl rings, both used as collateral for a loan he couldn't repay. He was arrested twice, in 1988 and '89, for possession of small amounts of cocaine. On one occasion, he says, he was held at gunpoint for a weekend by dealers who insisted he owed them money; eventually they robbed him and threw him out of a van. But not even that near-death experience motivated him to quit. Rehab attempts arranged by friends like Flores failed.
WHO KNOWS what finally made Briscoe go clean? Maybe it was the same instinct that pushed him to embrace a move to receiver. "If they weren't going to let me play quarterback, that was the only way I was going to survive in the league," he says. Breaking the hold that drugs had on him—that was the only way he would survive, period.
On the day he was released from his final jail term in San Diego, Briscoe received a $500 wire from Alworth, the Chargers star with whom he'd become friends late in his playing days. Briscoe collected the cash and walked through a park to meet a friend waiting to pick him up. It was the same park where he'd often bought coke and crack, and many familiar dealers were still there. He clutched the wad of money in his pocket, tempted; the 10-minute walk to the other side of the park felt like an hour. "I knew I had to keep walking," he says. "If I stopped, it was over for me. Something in me made me keep walking."
That was 25 years ago, and Briscoe insists that he has never used drugs since, having quit without the help of a formal rehab program. Once he was clean, he connected with a friend who helped run a Boys & Girls Club. Briscoe eventually took over as the director of a club in Watts, then moved over to the Long Beach outfit. "The most fulfilling work you could ask for," he says of the days he spent mentoring kids and designing athletic programs for them.
Briscoe's short breakthrough in 1968 has been overshadowed by the black quarterbacks who followed him, but he hasn't been forgotten. He was at the White House in 2013, being honored with the rest of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, when Obama shook hands with each of the players. "I know you," the President said as he reached Briscoe. "You're a trailblazer."
The description is accurate, but Briscoe's original nickname will always fit best. He is the Magician, who did not allow himself to disappear. And sometimes that is the greatest trick of all.