By the 1950’s, many states, mostly mid-western, western, and northern, had begun the process of eliminating racial discrimination by supporting and passing laws that aimed to put a final end to racial profiling. Where African-Americans were once met with harsh reminders of their color, those injustices were supposed to become a thing of the past.
From coast to coast, bills would be passed into laws to ebb racial discrimination. In the 1950’s those laws did little to sway those who opposed them.
In Nebraska, the states Supreme Court had passed such a law. Yet throughout the urban world of Omaha, “we don’t serve any colored race” still appeared in restaurant windows. In 1955, an amusement park called Peony Park would find itself at the center of this laws attention. After forbidding entry to a group of black high-school athletes who were there to participate in a swim meet. Picketing ensued and the state handed the park a 50 dollar fine after determining they were guilty of discrimination.
This was not Mississippi. It was not Alabama or Georgia. This was the mid-western state of Nebraska. The city of Omaha. Birthplace of Malcom X.
In the ghettos children played. Most kids became involved with sports to some degree, although like all impoverished neighborhoods, finding the right equipment could pose a problem. It would be on a typical afternoon, that the “Magic Box” would appear.
Ordered by his uncle to go behind the house, Marlin Briscoe did as he was told. In the backyard, a box. A simple box. The contents however would shape that child’s life, mold his future, and make him the man he would become.
Marlin lived in the poor section of Omaha. The ghetto, in his own words. An area stripped of money, dignity, and promise. Held together by religion and faith, a community who looked out for each other because at times, each other was all they had.
On his uncles orders, the young kid went to the backyard and opened the box. A baseball glove. A basketball. A football. 3 simple items. A bounty of wealth for those who had little or nothing. The items gave Marlin a new kind of hope. It gave him an opportunity to learn, to play, to rely on others as much as himself. Learn the values of team work and team mates. Marlin Briscoe held in his small hand on that day, a future.
Marlin would not just learn to play the games, he would excel at them. By the time he would finish high-school, he would hold many records in football. In the city youth sports programs, he would become a quarterback, a leader, he would be recognized, and it would draw the interest of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The man who led his city and high-school teams to championships would now be asked to do the same for a higher education institution. This child from the ghetto. He would work, and work hard. It would be in those years that while playing basketball, he would be given the name, “The Magician“.
In 1968, Marlin Briscoe would find himself again surrounded by the racial injustices that still were rampant at the time. Drafted by the Denver Broncos, Briscoe was told he would play defense. He was “too short.” “Too slow.” He was told that “blacks could not play QB“.
After being drafted, Marlin would negotiate his own contract. A contract that would include a clause that would lead him to something that even he could not have imagined. He simply requested a 3 day workout at the Broncos QB camp. It was granted. He was the only black QB in attendance and after the camp was over, Marlin reported to the team for training camp on the defensive side of the ball.
Fate has as much to do with the future as a person acting on his own. It is in those moments alone, a closed door, an open window, that determines the desires and fascinations of an individual. For Marlin Briscoe, fate would be an ongoing face he would meet often. In that rookie season with the Broncos, fate would make a bold appearance.
With an injury to the starting QB, and problems with the back-ups that led the team to no wins, Marlin was finally given a chance at the behest of those he attended the QB camp with. And with that opportunity, he made history. Marlin Briscoe became the first black QB to start in the NFL. He would do so in typical Marlin fashion. By exceeding. He would lead the team in touchdowns with 14. He would break almost every rookie QB record the team kept stats on. 40 years later, those records still stand today. Neither Jay Cutler nor Hall of Famer John Elway could take those records away.
Briscoe would leave the team after that first year. Back in Omaha for the off-season, Marlin became aware of a QB camp with the team, a team he was a member of, yet not invited to attend. He flew to Denver, stood outside the facility, then asked to be traded or released. 4 days later he was given his release. (Hear more about this in the interview).
Marlin would find homes throughout the AFC East, beginning in Buffalo, then Miami, and culminating in 1976 with New England. It would be with the Dolphins, as a WR, that Marlin would earn 2 Super Bowl rings, one of which bore an unprecedented “perfect” mark. In 1973 Briscoe would lead the Dolphins in receiving, including Hall of Famer Paul Warfield.
Marlin Briscoe grew up in racial tension. He faced it in high-school, college, and the NFL. He stayed true to himself and in the process became a pioneer. Some call him the Jackie Robinson of the NFL, a moniker that has never caught on in the mainstream media or with fans. An All-pro WR, a wide receiver that the Dolphins traded a first round pick for to the Buffalo Bills. Briscoe excelled at a time when things were not easy. He stayed true to his upbringing, his morals, and his integrity. While the world around him changed, Marlin Briscoe in many ways stayed the same. Determined to succeed for the love of a sport he was drawn to, all those years ago with a simple gift from his uncle.
Marlin Briscoe was born into an environment he did not ask for. When given the chance to step out of those shadows, he embraced it, not for fame, not for fortune, not for records. Not to pioneer a trail for others to follow. Marlin Briscoe stepped out because he could. Because he loved to play the game.
Marlin Briscoe would leave the NFL in 1976. His journey in sports was over, but there was a darker tunnel ahead. A tunnel that would bring him to the edge of death, the edge of insanity. The demons that he evaded for so many years would find him.
To be continued…