Marlin 'The Magician' Briscoe: Denver Broncos Pioneer

I was thinking that since it is Black History Month, we should pay tribute to a pioneer. One who is a historical figure, a football player, and more importantly, a Denver Bronco. Ok, ok, a former Denver Bronco. Many Bronco fans now know about Floyd Little and his contributions that put the Broncos and the city of Denver on the NFL map. Especially now that Floyd has rightfully taken his place in the hallowed halls of Canton. But there are a few others that paved the way for Little to even begin his journey. Willie Thrower might have been the NFL's first black quarterback (he played in one game for the Chicago Bears in 1953), but he wasn't the first one to start. That belongs to one former Bronco in particular. His name is Marlin Briscoe.

Marlin Oliver Briscoe, born September 10, 1945 in Oakland, California, has the distinction of being the first black quarterback to start a Professional Football game. In a time when segregation was still rampant and the belief that African-Americans were inferior and incapable of leadership, Marlin the Magician accomplished something revolutionary. He was a trailblazer for players like James Harris, Warren Moon, Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham to have the opportunity of leading an NFL Offense.

Marlin's professional career spanned nine years with six different teams, mostly as a Wide Receiver. However, it was in his rookie year that history was made. All of 5' 10" and 177 pounds when the then AFL Denver Broncos selected him in the 14th-round of the 1968 draft, Briscoe demanded a three-day trial at quarterback before signing his contract with Denver. Even though he was drafted fora position in the defensive secondary. He was 8th on the Broncos' quarterback depth chart during training camp that year and the odds were long that he would get his opportunity. 

But wait, it gets better.

During a Home game against the Boston Patriots in Week 3 of that 1968 season, starting quarterback Steve Tensi  broke his collarbone. The story goes that the 2nd string QB Joe DiVito wasn't a viable option. Anyway, Lou Saban was the Head Coach that year. He put Marlin in the game in the 4th quarter with the Patriots leading 20-10. Briscoe's first play was a 22-yard completion. On his 2nd 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. Boston won the contest 20-17, but the stage was set.

The following week, Marlin made his mark in NFL history. Against the Cincinnati Bengals on October 6, he became the first black starting quarterback. He started five games at quarterback in 1968, going 2-3 for Denver.

Mr. Briscoe set an NFL record by throwing 14 touchdown passes in 11 games, which is still a Broncos rookie record. He had a 41.5 percent completion rate and his 17.1 yards per completion led the American Football League  that year. (Still 18th all-time). He also ran for 308 yards and three touchdowns. However, after that rookie year, he never played quarterback again.

The Broncos released him before the onset of the 1969 season. He then played for the AFL's Buffalo Bills. They turned him into a receiver because the Buffalo already had a superstar at quarterback in Jack Kemp, plus Tom Flores and James Harris in the stable. Briscoe may have never taken another snap under center, but he had a splendid career nevertheless. In each of his 3 years with the Bills, he led them in touchdown catches and twice led them in receptions. In 1970, he had 57 Receptions for 1,036 yards and an 18.2 average and was named All-Pro.

 In 1971 (after the AFL-NFL league merger), the Bills traded him to Miami for a 1st-round pick. Briscoe went on to win a pair of Super Bowl Rings with the Dolphins and led the undefeated 1972 team with 4 touchdown receptions. He was the leading receiver on the Dolphins in 1973, catching more passes than future Pro Football Hall of Famer, Paul Warfield.

Briscoe played for the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions before ending his career in 1976 with the New England Patriots. He caught 224 passes for 3,537 yards and 30 touchdowns in his nine years as a Pro.

After he retired, Marlin moved to Los Angeles and became a successful broker, dealing in municipal bonds. Today, he works as the director of the Boys and Girls Club in Long Beach, Calif., and has his own football camp for children.

Marlin the Magician still holds many of the Broncos' rookie records.


Passing Yards By a Rookie

  • Season - 1,589 yards
  • Game - 335 vs. Buffalo 11/24/68

Passing Attempts By a Rookie

  • Season - 224
  • Game - 29


Touchdowns

  • Season - 14
  • Single Game - 4 vs. Buffalo 11/24/68
  • Completions Season - 93
  • Average Gain Per Attempt - 7.09


Best Average Gain Per Completion

  • Career (min. 100 passes)  17.09 yards
  • Season (min. 50 passes) 17.09 yards
  • Game (min. 12 passes)  27.92 yards  vs. Buffalo 11/24/68
  • Passer Rating By a Rookie - 63.1

His biography is compiled in, "The First Black Quarterback: Marlin Briscoe's Journey to Break the Color Barrier and Start in the NFL."   

There is more about Marlin Briscoe in the Archives, including this piece by Tim Lynch

So in recognition of his accomplishments, for being a pioneer and a Denver Bronco, MHR gives a hearty Mile High Salute to Marlin Briscoe.

Go Broncos!


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