40 Years Later - Marlin Briscoe anniversary receives little fan-fair

It was 40 years ago yesterday that Broncos QB Marlin Briscoe broke the huddle against the Cincinnati Bengals becoming the first black quarterback to start a National Football League game.  Not much in the way of fan-fair.  I mean, did anyone hear anything about it?  Perhaps it is because it happened in Denver.  If Briscoe had played for the New York Giants they probably would have thrown a ticker-tape parade.  Yes, the east-coast bias card gets played quite often by Broncos fans, and this could just be another example of "if it didn't happen here it isn't news".

Perhaps, on the flip-side, its a good thing that Briscoe's achievement isn't big news.  Perhaps it shows how far this country has come.  There are several black quarterbacks in the NFL now, and it's been 20 years since Doug Williams broke the hearts of Broncos fans in the Super Bowl.

Still, we celebrate Jackie Robinson and deservedly so.  Briscoe was the first black player to start at the most important position in all of sports.  It has to be worth something, right?

To be fair, ESPN.com did have something in it's NFL Blog about the anniversary --

"It's come a long way," Briscoe said from his home in Long Beach, Calif. "They thought a black man could not think, throw and lead at that level."

Now the United States could be on the verge of electing its first black president.

Willie Thrower was the first black quarterback to get into an NFL game in 1953, but stereotypes and small-mindedness prevented coaches from providing a real opportunity until Lou Saban, partially out of desperation, handed the job to Briscoe.

John Wooten recalled the feeling of anticipation upon learning Briscoe would make the historic start. Wooten, a star guard for the Cleveland Browns, was playing the last season of his 10-year career with the Washington Redskins in 1968.

"To see him get an opportunity was exhilarating to us," said Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that promotes racial diversity in NFL front offices. "You know that so much is riding on what he does. If he falls flat on his face, no one else might ever get this opportunity again.

"That nervousness, I liken it to being in a championship game that means so much to your organization and your teammates. But this, of course, meant so much to us as a race, as a people. There was pressure, but we were glad to be in the game."

Briscoe was 5-foot-10 and 177 pounds when the Broncos took a 14th-round flyer on him in the 1968 AFL draft. Marlin the Magician thrived at the University of Nebraska-Omaha but was eighth on the Broncos' QB depth chart in training camp. If he was to make the team, he would need to play defensive back or maybe receiver.

But starter Steve Tensi suffered a broken collarbone, and backup Joe DiVito was spotty. Saban eventually summoned Briscoe from the sidelines in the fourth quarter against the Boston Patriots on Sept. 29. Briscoe's first play was a 22-yard completion. On his second series he orchestrated an 80-yard touchdown drive. He completed a 21-yard pass and ran for 38 more himself, carrying it the last 12 yards for the score.

An account of Briscoe's relief appearance in the Broncos' Oct. 6 program said he "ignited both the Broncos and Bronco fans here last Sunday with a flashy fourth-period performance that had the Boston Patriots on the ropes when time ran out."

Briscoe threw 14 touchdown passes that year, still Denver's rookie record. He completed only 41.5 percent of his passes, but his 17.1-yard average led the AFL. He also ran for 308 yards and three touchdowns.

Of course, our own Zappa wrote an excellent piece about Briscoe for his MHR History series.

In that piece, Zappa talks about Briscoe's achievement and what it meant to the Broncos --

The road to total equality in the NFL was a long one, with many sad stories along the way(Google Eldridge Dickey and Joe Gilliam).  We all know that the first major breakthrough for African American quarterbacks came against our own Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI against the Washington Redskins.  Doug Williams was never really taken seriously by coaches and was only starting in the Super Bowl because of an injury.  After his Super Bowl MVP performance he slipped away into oblivion and it would take the NFL another decade before true equality was achieved.

Long before any of these guys entered the NFL there was a humble quarterback from Nebraska who happened to have dark skin.  The year was 1967, and Marlin Briscoe was leading his Omaha University Indians to a Central Intercollegiate Conference Title.  Named an All-American for his exploits as "The Magician" on the field of play, he was drafted by the Denver Broncos.   No AFL or NFL team believed that a black man could succeed as a quarterback and naturally the Broncos were no different.  The Broncos selected Briscoe as a defensive back in the 1968 draft.

We should all take a moment to remember Briscoe during this historic occasion, even if the main stream media chooses to ignore.  Jackie Robinson may have been baseball's first, and surely other black players were in the NFL, but think about what would have happened if Briscoe had failed or fell flat on his face as many expected he would.  How long would that have set back black quarterbacks? 

Thanks to Briscoe, Doug Williams and others, we finally have reached a time when players like Donovan McNabb and David Garrard are simply known as quarterbacks, not "black" quarterbacks.  That, my friends, is reason enough to celebrate.

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