Marlin Briscoe, First Modern-Era Black QB In 1968, Marlin Briscoe was drafted to play defense for the Denver Broncos. But Briscoe had another idea; his heart was at the quarterback position. NPR's Tony Cox talks with Marlin Briscoe about becoming the first African American to start a national football game as a quarterback.

Marlin Briscoe, First Modern-Era Black QB

Marlin Briscoe, First Modern-Era Black QB

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In 1968, Marlin Briscoe was drafted to play defense for the Denver Broncos. But Briscoe had another idea; his heart was at the quarterback position. NPR's Tony Cox talks with Marlin Briscoe about becoming the first African American to start a national football game as a quarterback.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

Today, profession of football sports. About half a dozen black starting quarterbacks - Donavan McNabb, Steve Young, Steve McNair - are just a few who take the field on Sundays. The number 1968, none. That's right. Zero. In fact, African-Americans were thought to be incapable of performing as quarterbacks - a position arguably considered the most important in professional sports.

Enter Marlin Briscoe, 1968 was his rookie year, drafted to play defense for the Denver Broncos, but Briscoe had another idea. Today, we continue our Great Expectations series by taking another look at the ways people have triumphed over the low expectations of others. We'll talk with Marlin Briscoe about how he became the first black starting quarterback of the modern football era.

Marlin, welcome to NEWS & NOTES.

Mr. MARLIN BRISCOE (Former Quarterback, Denver Broncos): Thank you, Tony.

COX: Listen. Give us a little bit of background. You were in all-American in high school and college. You could do it all. But your specialty, your dream, as every young athlete is, I suppose, who plays football, was to be the quarterback.

Mr. BRISCOE: Absolutely.

COX: Tell me what - how did that come about?

Mr. BRISCOE: Well, you know, I love football when I was a kid. And I would watch the professional games on TV during the weekend. And I saw no black quarterbacks and I was (unintelligible) with Johnny Unitas. And I always wanted to be like Johnny Unitas. So I would go out in the projects and throw at this little tree and pretend it was Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore. And ended up, working out for me, and my dream became true.

COX: Now, you got - you went into the NFL as a defensive player. You were drafted as a defensive player, correct?

Mr. BRISCOE: That's correct. Cornerback.

COX: Cornerback, right. Now, you got to be a quarterback, which is the on the offense for people that are not familiar. You got to be a quarterback in a game. How did you - how did that come about? What did you have to do? And tell us briefly the circumstances that allowed you to become a signal caller for the first time?

Mr. BRISCOE: Well, after having success in college and getting drafted in the fourteenth round by Denver as its cornerback, I still felt that I deserve at least a look at quarterbacks. So when I signed my - before I signed my contract, I stipulated that I would have an opportunity to have a three-day trial, a quarterback, since Denver was one of the only teams in the NFL that held their practices before the media and the fans.

Denver - certainly, they want to give me that opportunity, but finally, they acquiesced to my so-called demands and gave me that three-day trial in which I fared very well. After three days, you know, I went back to defensive back.

And in the meantime, the starting quarterback, Steve Tensi, got hurt and the other two quarterbacks that were in that (unintelligible), they proved (unintelligible) the media and the fans remember that three-day trial. And, you know, they begin clamoring. Hey, why don't you give the little guy a chance? So that's how it happened.

COX: Did you finish the season - that season as quarterback?

Mr. BRISCOE: Yes, I did. I was the starting quarterback for the last seven games of the year, played (unintelligible). And hopefully, I made an impact of things that let the nation know and the naysayers know that a black man could think through and lead on that level.

COX: It wasn't exactly Jackie Robinson. And yet, I imagine there were pressures that you felt from your teammates, from the media, from the crowd about how you should perform.

Mr. BRISCOE: Well, you know, I was in the national stage, on the national spotlight because if I had failed it would have taken that much longer for black quarterbacks to be accepted as field generals on the field in the NFL. I felt that if I have a legacy at that position, which I never got a chance to play again, is that the naysayers of the world were refuted by my performance, I hope.

COX: You know, a lot of what our series is about is how people overcome and how they triumph. As you look back now on that experience, what would you say it was that pushed you over to top that gave you the courage, the strength, whatever you needed to succeed against the odds?

Mr. BRISCOE: Well, first of all and foremost, confidence. And a never-give-up attitude, you know? That's served well in life. And certainly, the lessons I learned growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, getting an opportunity in college to play a position, to gain the confidence that I had in myself certainly played a large part.

COX: What was your record at first season?

Mr. BRISCOE: I did 14 touchdown passes in 11 games - a record - a rookie record that still stands to date 40 years later.

COX: How many games did you win?

Mr. BRISCOE: I think we won five out of the seven games that I started. And that was the proudest moment because not only did we set records, we were able to win, and teammates rallied around me. You have to understand, a lot of my teammates particularly in my offensive line were white kids from the South, who had never played the blacks in college. And for them to rally around me as a leader, you know, that was significant.

COX: And yet, at the end of that season, Marlin Briscoe, you went to another team and never played quarterback again, is that right?

Mr. BRISCOE: That is correct. I made the transition from quarterback to wide receiver at Buffalo, and that was a position I had never played in my life. So it was quite a feat.

COX: Why did you do that if you always wanted to be a quarterback? You have gone to such extremes to make sure you have the opportunity to play for Denver, you did play, you were successful by your own account. And yet, a season later, you're out of that position.

Mr. BRISCOE: Yeah. Well, see, it was kind of traumatic for me because I went back home during the off-season and to finish up my degree and heard through the grapevine that they were having quarterback meetings without me. And here I was the, you know, starting quarterback at the end of the year and I don't get invited to these quarterback meetings.

Well, I took a flight to Denver and sat outside Saban's office and the quarterbacks came out of that meeting and they - he couldn't even look me in the eye. It was obvious at that point that they weren't going to give me an opportunity.

Now, I never demanded to be a starter in 1969. All I wanted was an opportunity to compete based upon what I was able to accomplish in 1968. But that wasn't going to be. I asked for my release thinking that I was going to get an opportunity from other teams that I had played with - against - I'm sorry. But that never happened and I realized if I was going to stay in the National Football League that I would have to make a transition to another position.

COX: Here's my final thing for you, Marlin Briscoe, I've got about 30 seconds. Looking back over that experience, and now you are identified as the first African-American quarterback of the modern era in the football - in the history of football, is that important to you?

Mr. BRISCOE: Yes, it is. You know, there can only be one first, as you know. And the fact that, you know, that position was held in such high esteem is - and I know this might seem far-fetched - but it's just like Obama getting elected as president. You can make that parallel and blacks being head of Fortune 500 companies. It was significant because we gained respect for the fact that we could lead on that high level.

COX: Marlin, thank you so much.

Marlin "The Magician" Briscoe. He was the first black starting quarterback of the modern football era. Today, he works with the Boys & Girls Club of America and as a founding member of the Field Generals. The group is made up of African-American former quarterbacks. Their mission: to develop a new generation of African-American quarterbacks.

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