The rise and fall and resurgence of Marlin Briscoe
Racism stole his QB dream and drugs snatched his freedom, but still he rose. And soon the world will know
It was Jan. 31, 1988, and Marlin Briscoe would have much rather been in different company. The television was a problem, too — the picture and sound were awful. Even so, Briscoe could not have been happier to be watching football. He wiped tears from his eyes as Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. In an MVP performance for the Washington Redskins, Williams took a sledgehammer to the racist myth that blacks lacked the ability to play the sport’s most important position. Twenty years earlier, Briscoe himself had chipped away at such wrongheaded thinking as the first black quarterback to start in the game’s modern era. While celebrating a historic achievement he helped make possible for all the African-American quarterbacks to follow, Briscoe almost forgot he was behind bars.
“I watched the game in jail. It was the drugs,” Briscoe said, the pain still evident in his voice today. “I was in a dark place. What happened … it cost me a lot. But I felt I was a part of what Doug did. I felt like what I did all those years ago helped Doug. It was the best feeling I had had in a long time.”
Briscoe’s story – his groundbreaking rise from the bottom of the Denver Broncos’ depth chart in 1968, his reinvention as a Pro Bowl wide receiver after racism ended his career as a passer, and, in retirement, his downward spiral into drug addiction and then back out into recovery – is worth more than merely a footnote in history. But after a lot of time and an arduously long process, it may finally become widely known.
A movie based on Briscoe’s life is inching toward production. The project has been in development for several years. There’s a completed script written by Gregory Allen Howard, whose previous credits include Remember the Titans and Ali. In March, it was announced that Canadian actor Lyriq Bent (The Book of Negroes) will portray Briscoe in The Magician, the film’s working title and Briscoe’s nickname during his playing days. Not surprisingly, former quarterbacks, who are eager to shine more light on their struggle in the NFL, have pushed to get the cameras rolling. From the beginning, Hall of Famer Warren Moon has been out front with his support.
The producers are hopeful that the NFL will support the film. But persuading the league to grant licensing approval, which would enable the filmmakers to use team names and logos, figures to be a tough sell. The NFL is fiercely protective of its image. The rough periods in Briscoe’s life – he was homeless for years and lost the two Super Bowl rings he won with the Miami Dolphins – are essential to the screenplay. They’re also certain to make cautious league officials uncomfortable. That hindrance aside, if all goes well, though, production would begin sometime before the end of the year, which would please Moon. You can’t truly tell the history of African-Americans in pro football without Briscoe’s story, Moon said, and it’s way past time the Magician receives the recognition he deserves.
“Whenever an African-American, or anyone, does something for the first time, it should be documented the right way,” Moon said. “Marlin opened doors for me and a whole lot of people like me. There are some who know about Marlin, but there are a lot who don’t know about what he did. The strength and courage Marlin showed … that’s important. And it’s part of our history.”
Briscoe is hungry. He’d just played 18 holes on one of those classically perfect Southern California days that makes the rest of the country envious, and lunch was to follow soon after. But Los Angeles traffic would be not be defeated. Finally, the gridlock in our rearview mirror, we’re closing in on one of Briscoe’s favorite hamburger joints. At 70, Briscoe still indulges in a little fast food, but “just don’t tell my wife,” he said, punctuating the sentence with a laugh that any married man would understand. “Yeah. It’s not the best thing for you. But I’m retired. I get to do what I want.”
Briscoe lives a quiet life in Long Beach, California, enjoying his family, friends, golf – a whole lot of golf – and an occasional burger and fries, though he’s quick to point out he’s only a little above his playing weight. Retired for several years from his position as the director of a Long Beach Boys & Girls Club, Briscoe also volunteers as a football coach for a high school near his home. The players know little about their soft-spoken coach’s background as a pioneer. A major movie about Briscoe’s life would change that.
“Because of everything that happened, I never really realized how much interest there was in my story,” Briscoe said. “I went through a decade of drug use. I lost everything. It felt kind of lonely out there. I thought everyone had forgotten about me.”
You could certainly say life has been hard on Briscoe. Denied the chance to fulfill his potential at quarterback because of the institutional racism standard during the era in which he played, Briscoe, like all black athletes, rode in the back of the bus in professional sports. And who’s to say that lingering resentment about the bigotry Briscoe faced wasn’t at least partly responsible for his substance abuse? Although it’s impossible to draw a direct link between Briscoe twice being briefly locked up in the late 1980s for cocaine possession (he says he hasn’t used an illegal substance in 27 years) with his painful experience in football essentially a lifetime ago, there’s no doubt about it: Briscoe was wronged. That stayed with him. Briscoe, though, doesn’t believe in blaming others. He owns his failures as much as he does his victories.
“What happened made me angry,” Briscoe said. “I proved I could do it and it didn’t matter. They took it away from me anyway. But I wasn’t going to give up and just walk away.
“I was a product of the ’60s. Back then, you knew you had to be three times better to just have the chance to compete with white people. Yeah, it didn’t work out for me. But I feel what I did helped the guys who came after me. And I’ll always be proud of that.”
In the United States in 1968, you were more likely to see a unicorn than a black man under center in pro football (African-American quarterbacks fared better in the more progressive Canadian Football League). As the first African-American signal-caller in the old American Football League, which in 1970 merged with the National Football League, Briscoe shattered the glass ceiling that existed in both leagues. But for Briscoe, just putting himself in position to accomplish the feat was an ordeal.
From his first day in youth football in Omaha, Nebraska, Briscoe had played quarterback. The strong-armed passer with sprinter’s speed – sort of the Randall Cunningham or Robert Griffin III of his time – starred at Omaha University (now University of Nebraska-Omaha). At only 5 feet 10, 177 pounds, Briscoe lacked the prototypical size of a top NFL quarterback prospect. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if Briscoe had stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 220: The NFL and AFL didn’t draft black men to throw passes. No matter how talented and accomplished they were, African-American college quarterbacks were shifted to other positions in the pros. Intending to convert Briscoe to a defensive back, Denver selected him in the 14th round of the draft. Briscoe, however, refused to sign with Denver unless management agreed to include him in a three-day quarterback tryout at the start of training camp.
“They thought I was crazy,” Briscoe said. “Here I am a 14th-round draft pick and I’m black, and I put a condition on signing. But I felt I had to do it. I had to try to play quarterback. I knew what I could do. I always had confidence in my ability.
“And the tryout was open [to reporters and fans]. I thought that the more people saw me, the harder it would be for them [coaches] to ignore me. But I didn’t fool myself. No matter what I did, I knew I didn’t have much of a chance.”
Actually, Briscoe had no chance. As he recalled, he got the fewest reps of any of the players vying for roster spots. Responding to reporters’ questions about Briscoe’s impressive deep balls during drills and his ability to throw accurately on the run, Broncos head coach Lou Saban played down the rookie’s performance. Briscoe was headed to the secondary. Fate, however, had a different idea.
After suffering a hamstring injury, Briscoe was out of the mix on defense to start the season. Meanwhile, the Broncos were struggling – they started 0-3 – and their quarterback situation was a hot mess. Saban had no interest in helping advance the cause of civil rights. But with no better options, Saban finally gave the best passer on the team an opportunity he deserved. On Sept. 29, 1968, Saban turned to Briscoe early in the fourth quarter of the home opener with the Broncos trailing, 17-10, to the Boston Patriots. Briscoe completed his first pass for 22 yards. The next drive, he guided the Broncos 80 yards, covering the last 12 on a highlight-worthy touchdown run. Denver still lost, 20-17. But the score wasn’t the headline.
“The thing I remember is the support I got from my teammates and fans … that was amazing,” Briscoe said. “Fans came up to me after the game. They were great. Back in those days, the fear was that white players wouldn’t follow a black quarterback and fans would be [angry]. That didn’t happen.
“I understood the significance. I knew that I was the first and what that meant. If I did well, it would make it easier on other guys. But you have to understand: I had always been a quarterback. It’s what I was meant to do. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I just wanted to keep doing it.”
A week later, Briscoe made his first start. He wound up playing in 11 games, including five starts, and passed for 1,589 yards with 14 touchdown passes – still a Broncos rookie record for touchdown throws. The elusive runner also rushed for 308 yards (with an impressive 7.5-yard average) and three touchdowns. By any criteria, Briscoe, who finished second in voting for AFL rookie of the year, had a smashing first season. Confident in his standing on the team, he returned to Omaha to work toward finishing his degree.
Briscoe also let down his guard. No matter the era, a black man can’t do that.
Briscoe was having the time of his life. Already a rock star in Omaha from his days as sandlot legend, high school hotshot and big man on campus, his celebrity reached new heights. “The thing was, my family and friends were so proud,” Briscoe said. “It was like a dream.
After receiving a phone call from Denver one day in the offseason, Briscoe’s experience turned to a nightmare.
“I found out they were having quarterback meetings,” Briscoe said. “I thought it had to be a mistake. How could they have quarterback meetings and I wasn’t there?”
Briscoe quickly returned to Denver. Saban confirmed it: Briscoe was out.
“He never really explained it. But he didn’t have to,” Briscoe said. “Later, I heard there was some talk about fans being upset and not going to the games. I just wanted to get out of there.”
Saban agreed to release Briscoe, who figured he would have many potential landing spots. Yes, Briscoe still was black. Surely though, Briscoe reassured himself, there had to be some teams that would focus less on his skin color and more on his ability to help them win.
After Briscoe was released, however, his phone didn’t ring. “I found out that Saban called around to stop me from getting picked up,” Briscoe said. For teams back then, it would have been risky enough to sign a black man specifically to play quarterback. Factor in that Briscoe had been unfairly cast as a locker-room agitator, and his days at the position in this country were over.
Briscoe went north. The CFL welcomed African-Americans who were prohibited from playing quarterback in the AFL and NFL. “It just wasn’t for me,” said Briscoe, who was in Canada only briefly. After returning to Omaha, Briscoe soon got a tryout with the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo was loaded at quarterback. Besides starter Jack Kemp, who would go on to become a successful politician, the Bills had backup Tom Flores (later a two-time winning Super Bowl coach) and rookie James (Shack) Harris, who played at historically black college powerhouse Grambling and also was a trailblazer: Harris was the first African-American quarterback to start and win an NFL playoff game.
Briscoe moved to wide receiver – a position he hadn’t played at any level – and devoured films of the best at the position. He studied route running, blocking, hand positioning on catches – anything to help him stay in the game. He did. His first season in Buffalo, Briscoe had 32 receptions for 532 yards (a 16.6-yard average) and five touchdowns. The next season, Briscoe was selected first team all-conference and second team all-pro after finishing second in the NFL with 57 catches and setting career-highs with 1,036 yards (an 18.2-yard average) and eight touchdowns.
Briscoe had made it to the top of the game. Still, his success was bittersweet. Briscoe was supposed to be the one throwing the passes, not catching them. African-American fans hadn’t forgotten, either.
“With Marlin Briscoe, you’re talking about the first nuances of a Randall Cunningham,” said sociologist Harry Edwards, who has spent decades advising the San Francisco 49ers and observing the NFL.
“Not that he couldn’t work from the pocket. He could. But he had wheels. He could roll out and throw. He could do all types of things. He had impact. Then all of a sudden, you look up and he’s playing wide receiver.”
To fully understand the frustration among African-Americans about what happened to Briscoe, you have to know the history of the black quarterback. According to the racist thinking, blacks lacked the intelligence, leadership skills and toughness to take charge on the football field. There had been a few black quarterbacks at various points in pro leagues in the United States (in 1953, Willie Lee Thrower of the Chicago Bears was the first to appear in an NFL game). But the position had been essentially off-limits for African-Americans. Briscoe’s performance was supposed to change everything. At least immediately, it didn’t.
“The baseball barrier had been broken by Jackie Robinson [in 1947],” Hall of Famer Moon said. “There were plenty of African-Americans playing every position in the NBA. But for a long time in football, the thinking positions down the middle were the ones that we weren’t allowed to play.
“Marlin had success but was shut out before the next season for the worst reason: just because he’s black. He went to receiver and was great at it. But he shouldn’t have had to go to receiver.”
The Bills traded Briscoe to Miami for a first-round pick in 1971. Briscoe had a team-high four touchdown receptions for the Dolphins in 1972, helping them become the only team in NFL history to go undefeated. Briscoe won his second Super Bowl ring with Miami the following season (he later used the rings as collateral and lost them when he defaulted on a loan) and had a nine-year career with six teams. He retired at 31 and in 1976 and began a lucrative career as a financial broker in Los Angeles.
“I was always good with numbers,” Briscoe said. “I had saved money when I played. And I was making good money [in the bond market].”
Then his problems began. In L.A. in the late 1970s, cocaine was everywhere. Briscoe was flush with cash. For him, that proved to be a disastrous combination. “I started hanging out with the wrong people. I went on a 10-year downward spiral,” Briscoe said. “I had houses and investments. I got married. I had a daughter. But I had that demon. It took me away from who I was.”
At his lowest point, Briscoe was addicted to cocaine and living on the streets. Once, Briscoe said, he was robbed at gunpoint by drug dealers. “Then they threw me out” of the car, Briscoe said.
Incarcerated when Williams shined during the Super Bowl for Washington, Briscoe said Williams’ performance inspired him to keep living. “Marlin told me what that game meant to him,” Williams said.
Both Briscoe and Williams are close with Harris, who preceded Williams at Grambling and was Briscoe’s teammate in Buffalo. People need to understand “how good Marlin was,” Williams said. “They need to know what he did and what he went through. But we have to be real about the time Marlin played. This movie will show how things really were. And the great thing is that Marlin got himself better and he’s still here.”
With the help of $500 from a friend who owed him money, Briscoe started the long road back after being released from jail in San Diego in 1989. He says he quit using without the assistance of formal rehab. What finally prompted a recovery that has lasted almost 30 years? “I just didn’t want to live that way anymore,” Briscoe said. He has worked diligently to repair personal relationships he wrecked while he was getting high, especially with his two adult daughters from a previous relationship.
“No one thought I would ever succumb to the fortunes of evil like I did. It not only shocked other people, it shocked me, too,” Briscoe said. “You let your family down. You let your friends down. Your mentors, who led you on a path to success, you let them down. But you can find your way out of the darkness.”
Lyriq Bent liked what he heard. Approached to portray Briscoe, Bent had no idea about his story. The more Bent learned, he was hooked.
“The mere fact that we’re in an industry where we don’t often portray positive black images, a story like this automatically jumped out at me,” said Bent, whose feature credits include the Saw films. “These are the types of things I like to do: tell stories that are rich in culture, rich in history. That’s Marlin’s story.
“I wasn’t familiar with it. And when you hear about it, it’s incredible to see a man be so humble after overcoming so many obstacles in his life. You see the young guys [in the NFL] out there now? Marlin helped them.
“What Marlin went through created opportunities. Myself, I think I would be bitter after that type of treatment. I just found his story remarkable. It’s right that it be told.”
Doug Falconer will try to persuade the NFL to view the situation similarly. Falconer Pictures is co-producing the film along with Terry Hanna, David Clark and John Beasley of West Omaha Films.
Although a director hasn’t been attached yet officially, the NFL licensing issue would seem to be the producers’ most pressing concern. They need it for authenticity. But even if the NFL declines to cooperate, the project, which Falconer said has commitments for financing, will move forward.
“This is a story of redemption,” Falconer said. “This is a story of a guy who went into a dark place, came out and made his life productive. What the NFL is today is because of people like Marlin.”
That’s indisputable. Briscoe knocked down a barrier for all of the black quarterbacks who followed (Harris, Williams, Moon and Cunningham among them) and contributed mightily to the NFL’s stunning success. And the next time you see Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Teddy Bridgewater or Griffin whipping the ball around the field amid cheers and thunderous applause, remember that Briscoe is part of their story, too.