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Denver Bronco Greats... By the Numbers: An Interview With #15 - Marlin Briscoe - Part I

Marlin Briscoe was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 14th round (#357 overall) of the 1968 draft.  When negotiating his contract, Briscoe stipulated his desire for a three-day tryout at quarterback before agreeing to sign as a defensive back. When starting quarterback Steve Tensi broke his collarbone and the other quarterbacks performed poorly, Briscoe became the first starting African-American quarterback in the history of the NFL. After just 11 games, he was nominated and became the first runner-up for Rookie of the Year. The Denver Broncos released him from his contract before the start of the 1969 season.

He was recently named as Mile High Report's Greatest Bronco to Wear #15.

During the year I spent living in Nebraska, I read Jeff Miller’s book, "GOING LONG".  It was within the pages of that book that I first learned of Marlin Briscoe.  Not only was I shocked that someone so instrumental in ushering in the era of the African-American quarterback had been a member of my favorite football team, but what was equally surprising was that he hailed from the state in which I was then living.

Having been born in Colorado and gone to college in Northern New Mexico, I had lived the greater part of my life in Broncos Country and, like some of you, had never heard of Marlin Briscoe.  How could this be?  How could such a notable historical figure all but disappear to the fanbase he energized for one record breaking year?  Who was Marlin Briscoe?

What follows is Mile High Report's interview with Marlin Briscoe.  His is truly an amazing story that offers incredible insight into what the Denver Broncos and pro-football were like in the late 1960's.  

…and now Part I of the interview with the greatest Denver Bronco to wear #15: Marlin Briscoe.

Jess Place:  What about Omaha, Nebraska contributed to your development in becoming the player you were and the person you are now?

Marlin Briscoe:  Well, sadly I just got word last week that they're terminating the football program at the college that I played at, University of Nebraska, Omaha.  So I'm very saddened about that because it had 100 year legacy of development, of not only players but young men and it was sad to see that that program is now going to be eliminated. I owe my entire NFL career [to the] fact that I decided to go to then Omaha University where they allowed me to play quarterback.  When I came out of high school, [...] I was a quarterback, [the] first black quarterback on all of the teams that I have had every played on from Pop Warner League all the way up through college. 

I grew up in a melting pot kind of community where the majority of the athletes on the football team and basketball team were white, but I got an opportunity to play that position which I coveted since Pop Warner League.  I never got an opportunity to play at the D1 level obviously because back in the '60s, the early '60s a black quarterback was unheard of. I thought I would get entrees to the University of Nebraska because I had great success and equal success with the players that they brought out of our area [...]but I was not included, not as a quarterback.  They might have had interest in me at different positions which was the case with most black quarterbacks, they deemed you an athlete, so that was an excuse for them to switch you to another position. 

But [at the] University of Omaha, the late Al Caniglia, who was then the head coach, assured me that I would play quarterback at his school and get a first rate education.  Those promises were met and I can't say enough for the support that I got not only from the university, but the fans of Omaha who came out [...], not to just see me play but to see the university play and with my being a quarterback their support was sorely needed and fulfilling.

Jess Place:  Were there any times of adversity or discrimination while you were in Omaha or was it just a very supportive environment for you?

Marlin Briscoe:  Oh it was totally supportive.  Like I said, I never envisioned myself or considered myself a black quarterback because I'd always been a quarterback on every level. Race was never an issue with the teams that I played on.  They played for me as a black quarterback.  Like I said, maybe more than three quarters of the team were white but they [...] supported me on and off the field based on performance and not the color of my skin.  Basically, I got nothing but support from the players - both black and white.  The fans who were [in] majority white came out to see our team play.  We had an exciting brand of football, several of the players that I played with went on to have good careers in the National Football League, so I got an opportunity to showcase what skills I had and the City of Omaha and the University of Omaha, which was the name of the school at the time, did nothing but support me.  So I'm very appreciative of that.

Jess Place:  Before you were drafted by Denver what was your perception of them? Was there a following of them in Omaha? What did you know about Denver before you arrived?

Marlin Briscoe:  Didn't know that much about Denver to be quite honest with you.  Denver was not one of the top teams in the echelon of the old AFL so the majority of the games that we got to see were of course the Raiders and the Jets, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers.  Denver was not one of those teams that when you turned on the TV they were playing.  And I know that the networks had the option of choosing to air whatever games they wanted.  So they could pick and choose the teams and the games that they wanted to play over the weekend. Quite honestly I grew up with the Johnny Unitases and the Jim Browns - the pure NFL team I guess you would call it.  So those were the exposures that I got as a kid and young man.  Those were the teams that I basically [watched] growing up and [I] formed allegiances to certain teams from that league.  Even though [the Broncos,] the Kansas City Chiefs and I think the Minnesota Vikings were within close proximity [to Omaha], the other teams had more exposure than the Broncos.  So I really knew very little about the Broncos.  I did know Floyd Little because I, of course, followed college ball and some of the top players that were going different places. But the Broncos as a whole didn't have great exposure in the Omaha, Nebraska area.

When Briscoe was selected by Denver in the 14th round of the draft, he stipulated during his contract negotiations that if he were going to sign with the team,  he would require a three day tryout at quarterback.  In those days, practices were open to the fans and media and so when Marlin's request was granted, he made sure to make the most out of this unprecedented opportunity. 

Jess Place:  You've said that you knew that the media and fans would take notice during the three day tryout that you negotiated.

Marlin Briscoe:  Yes.

Jess Place:  What way were you able to use this to your advantage?  Could you describe that?  Was there a time that you felt as though you've made the impression you were looking for?

Marlin Briscoe:  Well, yes. What happened was I played three years of college basketball and did very well as a football player and, so, because I guess the versatility of athleticism, they decided that they wanted me as a defensive back.  The late Stan Jones, who was an icon in himself, was [...] one of the head scouts for Denver and the Broncos sent him out to scout a couple of players that we had on our team who [ultimately] went into the NFL and I caught his eye.  

I did play cornerback my freshman year and did well at that position.  So, it was kind of a natural for the Broncos [...] to switch me to defensive. My college coach had a short stint with the Green Bay Packers and he knew the ins and outs of the NFL and he was the one that apprised me of the fact that Denver was one of the few teams in professional football that held their preseason practices before the fans and the media right there at the practice facility.  Upon knowing this, when they came to negotiate a contract, I said I would sign on as a defensive back but I wanted a three day trial at quarterback.  It was just a quarterback camp prior to the pre season camp.  And so they baulked on it, [but] I was pretty adamant about it and I knew they thought I was crazy. How can a 14th round draft choice demand, so to speak, to get a three day trial at quarterback?  I mean you're a 14th round draft choice, you're not even considered a shoo-in to make the team.  But I guess they figured in order to get me to sign they acquiesced to my asking or as they put it "demands" for that three day trial.  

I had supreme confidence in my ability to play quarterback, to throw the ball, make all the throws and then naturally be able to scramble out of danger and stuff like that - things I had been doing all my quarterback career.  That was my intent [when] they finally gave me that opportunity.  There were eight quarterbacks in camp at that time and we went through all of the drills, short throws, medium throws, long throws, foot work.  We had no cerebral preparation. There were no playbooks or anything like that; it was all physical type drills.  And in those three days, I guess I impressed both the fans and [the media]. Dick Connor, I don't know if Dick's still living but in the "Denver Post," he wrote a column talking about how well I was doing in camp and so people began to take note.  But after the third day they switched me back to corner.  I was starting at cornerback and [when I] pulled a hamstring and I hobbled through the rest of the preseason.  It's funny how life works and you take something negative-- you take something negative and it turns into a positive, you don't know why things are happening for you bad like that.  But God has his plan.

Jess Place:  Yeah, it all kind of worked out the way it was supposed to, I guess.

Marlin Briscoe:  Exactly.  Because if I hadn't have gotten hurt I would have been starting at corner because I was playing pretty good I guess.

Jess Place:  Right.  And when you were a corner, what was your number?

Marlin Briscoe:  What was my number?  I have my picture.  Forty-five, I think it was. It was short, short lived.  Yeah, 45.

Jess Place:  Now with your numbers, the focus of this interview is that we've gone through all the numbers for the Denver Broncos and have picked the greatest Broncos for those numbers.  And so, you are the greatest Bronco that wore number 15.

Marlin Briscoe:  Well thank you.  But Tim Tebow wears 15 doesn't he?

Jess Place:  I believe so but he's still got a little ways to go, I think, before he eclipses Marlin Briscoe.

Marlin Briscoe:  Thank you.  I appreciate it.

Jess Place:  That being your old number, what are your thoughts on Tim Tebow wearing #15?

...To be continued! 

Keep your browsers pointed this way for Part II of Mile High Report's interview with Marlin Briscoe!

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Marlin Briscoe's story is currently being developed as a major motion picture.  THE MAGICIAN chronicles Marlin's successes, struggles and triumph over racism and substance abuse throughout his life.  His is an inspirational and historic story that every football fan should know.  For more information on the movie, go here.  To visit the Marlin Briscoe store, go here.