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.
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.
For Part I of the interview, click here. For Part II, click here.
…and now Part III of the interview with the greatest Denver Bronco to wear #15: Marlin Briscoe.
Jess Place: Well, you caused some excitement. Could you speak a little bit about your relationship with Lou Saban? I know that like you said, he called you, "My friend," but there at the end suddenly something happened. What was it that happened that caused you to have to move on?
Marlin Briscoe: Well, I ended the season with a lot of kudos from a lot of areas. I ended [as...] runner up for Rookie of the Year and [getting] the rookie record [for touchdowns]. I [recently] did an interview with stations out of New York and they told me that I'm number 18 on the all-time NFL list for yards per pass completion.
Jess Place: All time?
Marlin Briscoe: All time. I never knew that.
Jess Place: That's impressive. Wow.
Marlin Briscoe: Yeah. I never knew that. [...] You take in consideration the quarterbacks in the history of the game, that I was right up there for a season for the most-- in that position, that's kind of crazy. [...] That was a stat that I knew nothing about. But I did know that for the tools that I had going in [...] and during the season, each week that [I was] the starting quarterback, I had to have more of an arsenal [...] to take into the games. And my stats improved, my completion percentage improved tremendously.
Jess Place: Getting reps in practice also helped, I'm sure.
Marlin Briscoe: Oh yeah, exactly. And so with all of the success that I thought I had and everybody else thought I had, including my teammates, I thought I would be able to compete for the job in 1969. [...] I never demanded to be the starting quarterback. [...] Steve Tensi was the starting quarterback. He got hurt. They traded for him to be their quarterback. Steve and I were friends. He actually helped me through a lot of that stuff my rookie year and so I owe a lot of debt to him because he took me by his side and he mentored me through that rookie year. But I also felt that I should have been able to at least compete for the job or have a spot on the roster as one of their quarterbacks.
When I left college, I had switched my curriculum from engineering to education, [...] I got a degree in education, but I lacked six hours. So I went back to Omaha to finish up my six hours so I could get my degree, which I did. In the meantime, my cousin who owned a State Farm Insurance agency, Bob Rose, he's the one who got me into sports when I was a kid. [...] He used to do some work for the Broncos [...]. Anyway, he called me and told me they were having these quarterback meetings. I guess he learned through the media that they had signed Pete Liske from Canada, and of course that they were having these quarterback meetings, and I wasn't invited. He asked me, was I coming in for these quarterback meetings, and I said, "What quarterback meetings?" He said, "Well they're having these meetings. You know they signed Pete Liske." I said, "Well yeah, I knew that, but--" He said, "You're not invited?" I said, "No, they hadn't invited me," and my heart dropped because, how can you be the starting quarterback one year, they have quarterback meetings, and you're not invited? What kind of a deal is that?
So I took a plane to Denver, and I walked in the practice facility, and that's where they were holding the meetings. I walked in and the secretary looked at me like she'd seen a ghost, because nobody expected me, so I just sat in the lobby, because I knew what time they were holding the meeting. I sat in the lobby and when they came out [...], Steve and Liske and maybe another quarterback, I don't know, those are the only two I really identified, and Saban [...] and Hunter Enis came out. Hunter Enis was the quarterback coach at the time, and they couldn't look me in the eye. There was nothing they could say, and you know, I looked, I didn't say anything to them. I talked to Steve, I just-- because he had nothing to do with all this stuff, and I just walked out, and so at that point, I knew that I was not going to get a fair chance of competing for the job.
So I went to training camp, and there it was, you know, instead of being the backup, I was way in the back when they got the reps. I got very few reps, so they showed me that [...] there was no way they were going to give me an opportunity to compete. All I wanted to do was compete and I felt I deserved that, based upon what I was able to do. After a few days of training camp, you know, futility set in with me. And I was thinking, I better find myself a place to play if I'm going to be considered to playing here, and then they brought up about playing another position. And I said, well "no, I'm not going to play another position." They wanted me to go back to defensive back or play wide receiver, you know, without even giving me an opportunity to compete for the job. And I said, "no, I want to play quarterback." And that's when they labeled me a malcontent, because, I mean, I didn't say it in any derogatory manner, I just said, "uh-unh, I want to play quarterback." And so they labeled me a malcontent.
A friend of mine sent me an article by Chet Nelson that he wrote in '75. Now, this was after I played with the Dolphins and made all pro as a wide receiver and had outstanding results after the fiasco in Denver -- to turn everything around and to be able to accomplish all those things. Chet Nelson wrote a scathing article on me, and this was, what, seven years later, about how I was a malcontent because I wouldn't switch positions, but look what I'm doing now.
Well, you know, [...] I switched positions out of necessity, because they weren't going to let me compete. [...] Once I realized that I was not in their plans, I asked Lou Saban to give me my release. Now, I had heard through a lot of my players and other people knowledgeable with the sport, that there were other teams - that I had had success against - who were interested in having me play quarterback for them. So I asked for my release, and Lou Saban said, well I'll give you your release, but you have to wait four days. You don't have to practice, but in four days, I'll give you release. So I wasn't practicing, and four days later, nobody would touch me.
I realized that something was going on within those four days, that none of these teams were interested in me as a quarterback, so I went to Canada for one day, and didn't like Canadian football. I called around some of these teams myself, not waiting on them to call me. [...] I almost beat the Raiders when John Rauch was [coaching] there, and now he was a coach at Buffalo, so I called him. He said, "well, I don't need any quarterbacks, we've got Jack Kemp, and Tom Flores, and just drafted James Harris, but we need some help at wide receiver." Now we're already halfway into the preseason. And I said, I'll come in. I told him I had never played wide receiver before. He said, "well, we just want to take a look at you." So I went there, and was in, shoot, I only had a few weeks in order to make the transition from a position I played all my life, to a position I had never played even in sandlot football. But, I improved to the point where each day I worked hard. I studied [...] Paul Warfield and Lance Alworth. I tried to emulate them, because I felt that they were the two that I closely had a relationship with in athleticism, the jumping, the timing and all this stuff, so that's how it happened.
Another thing, I negotiated my own contract and I told them if I came in there, they couldn't cut me until the last cut. And again, they thought I was crazy. Here I am out of a job, and I'm telling them when they can cut me. But they put that in the contract, and I didn't play the entire pre-season, [except during the last game against San Diego when] Jack Kemp put me [for] the last ten minutes.
[...] He put me in at ten minutes to go, and Jack Kemp kept throwing me the ball, and I ended up the leading receiver for the game in ten minutes. They couldn't cut me, even if they wanted, you know, they couldn't cut me. So I improved from week to week, and ended up the most valuable offensive player over O. J. [Simpson] and that was his rookie year. So it was an amazing story.
Then the year after that, [I] led the league in receptions, and made all pro. So out of the jaws of defeat came victory for me, you know, the most improbable turn around in a person's career that you could ever imagine, particularly playing quarterback and then going to the success pattern that happened for me, and then going on and winning two Super Bowl rings. I pinch myself sometimes. What I was able to accomplish with that career. I don't know too many people that could have done it. I'm not bragging on myself or anything like that, because I didn't know if I could do it, but I just took it one day at a time, and like I said, always had confidence in my athletic ability, so I figured I could pull it off. And then negotiating that contract with Buffalo, saying I could not get cut. Those are two contracts [Buffalo and Denver] I negotiated by myself that proved prophetic in my being able to be successful as a quarterback and a wide receiver. So couldn't ask for better.
Jess Place: Let me ask you what your greatest "magician" moment was in Denver?
Marlin Briscoe: Well, I think it was that first game. The game that I mopped up. I mean, you know, realizing the pressure that I was on, because if I had not produced like I did, then you know, the naysayers would say, "I told you so." You know, I called my own plays, and certainly I could have gotten a bigger menu in order to go out there. I went out there fighting a bear with a toothpick, but-- and as I look back upon it, it probably was designed for me to fail. But I had no thoughts of failing, and so whatever I had going out there, I was going to use and just go out there and play ball. I was oblivious to the motives that I was sent out there with. No ammunition, really, and I don't expect-- I don't think that they thought I was going to be as successful as I was that day, because within that ten minutes, the crowd got on its feet, the players got excited, all of a sudden it was a different brand of football for Bronco fans, because I don't think they had a quarterback that moved and scrambled and--
Jess Place: Completed passes.
Marlin Briscoe: And completed passes and almost pulled it out type of thing, and it gave me a lot of confidence. I already had the confidence, but it renewed the confidence that I had, and what it did was it fueled the confidence in my players, and the fans. See, I go back to Denver Bronco reunions now, and I think our '68 team, we have more members of that team that comes to the reunion than any other year. I see a lot of guys, Rich Jackson and Chip Myrtle and Floyd, and Billy Van Heusen and Eric [Crabtree] and a lot of guys from that team come to the reunion and, to a man, they come up to me and tell me that they couldn't have won without me. But they couldn't tell me that back in '68, they couldn't express their views and opinions, not with Saban back in '68. It' refreshing that when I go back there now, that this was their sentiment and this is the way they felt then, back in '68, that's the way they feel now. It really makes me feel proud that, hey, this is the way they felt, even though they couldn't express that during the time.
Jess Place: Wow, so there are these Bronco reunions. What have the Broncos done to highlight your accomplishment? Have the Broncos embraced you?
Marlin Briscoe: No, they haven't done nothing.
Jess Place: They haven't done anything?
Marlin Briscoe: No, in fact, I go back to Denver, there's very little recognition. Most of the recognition that comes are from people like yourself, reporters [...], TV, radio, print media, who have researched that year, and I guess because it was only a year, but to me it was an electrifying year. But when I go back there, it's purely adulation from the players that I played with. They remember, and some fans remember. I get fan mail, and fans who seek autographs and Denver Bronco quarterback pictures and stuff like that, so-- but no, the Broncos have never really formally embraced me in any kind of way. I'm just-- I just mix into the crowd when I go. But the fact that, you know, those players I played with and some that I didn't play with, they know.
Jess Place: Yeah, and the fans of the game, they know as well. That's disheartening for me to hear. I wish they would-- I wish they'd do more for you. I think you deserve it. It's just disheartening.
Marlin Briscoe: Well thank you.
Jess Place: You mentioned Floyd Little, earlier, was there any special feelings you had when he was elected to the Hall of Fame?
To be continued...
Keep your browsers pointed this way for Part IV 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.