Marlin Briscoe: The first African American quarterback

Marquita Quinones OTFB reporter

By Marquita Quinones // @LatinLove729

To look at the NFL today it’s hard to imagine it without the diversity it displays, but there was a time when there wasn’t. In honor of Black History Month, we will look at the changes the NFL has gone through as it pertains to African American players.

Let’s begin with a pioneer in his own right, Marlin Briscoe.

African Americans have been a part of the American Football evolution as far back as the 1920s with players like Fitz Pollard and Bobby Marshall leading the way. The position of quarterback had not been a position that was openly offered to African Americans, but in 1968 that all changed with Marlin Briscoe.

Marlin Briscoe

Marlin Briscoe was born on September 10, 1945, in Omaha Nebraska. He played high school football at Omaha South High School and was known for his strong-armed passing ability and quick speed. Briscoe went on to display his talent at Omaha University, now known as the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Standing at only 5 feet 10 inches, and 177 pounds, Briscoe lacked the typical size of a top NFL quarterback. It wasn’t something that mattered to him because, at the time, the NFL and AFL didn’t draft black men as quarterbacks. No matter how talented and accomplished they were, African-American college quarterbacks were shifted to other positions in the pros.

Briscoe had been drafted by the Denver Broncos in the fourteenth-round as a defensive back. 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. On September 29, 1968, starting QB Steve Tensi, suffered a broken collarbone, and Head Coach Lou Saban decided he was going to give Briscoe a try.

Down by seven in the 4th quarter against the Boston Patriots, with a score of 17-10, Briscoe threw a 22-yard completion on his first drive. He followed that with a beautifully orchestrated 80-yard touchdown drive. By the end of the quarter, Briscoe managed to complete a 21-yard pass and ran for 38 more yards. He then rushed the last 12 yards in for the score. Although the Denver Broncos lost to the Boston Patriots 20-17, Briscoe’s debut as a quarterback was impressive.

The following week, on October 6th, the Broncos hosted the Cincinnati Bengals with Briscoe under center.  Becoming the first starting African-American quarterback in the AFL. Briscoe went on to throw 14 touchdown passes that year in just 5 starts, including 4 on Nov 24 against Buffalo Bills. To this day, both are still Broncos rookie records.

He also threw for 335 yards in that game, which became a rookie record that stood until John Elway broke it in 1983, and one of only three 300+ yard rookie games in franchise history. His pass completion averaged 41.5 percent and he averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. Briscoe finished with a 17.1 yards per completion percentage that led the American Football League, ranking 18th all-time. He also ran for 308 yards and three touchdowns.

Briscoe continued his career in the NFL on several different teams including the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions before ending his career in 1976 with the New England Patriots. Interesting how he would start his career against the Patriots and end playing for them!

He had 10 receptions for 136 yards and 1 touchdown in 14 regular season games for the New England Patriots in 1976. He caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Steve Grogan in the Patriots 48-17 rout of the Oakland Raiders at Schaefer Stadium.

Early in his career, Briscoe was intercepted by Boston Patriots AFL All-Star Defensive Back Leroy Mitchell in Denver’s 35-14 rout of the Patriots at Fenway Park on November 3, 1968. He is the only player to have been intercepted by a Patriot player and later to have caught a touchdown as a Patriot receiver.

Despite the challenges Briscoe faced as an African American athlete at the time, he was able to rise above it and leave his footprint in NFL history for future African-American athletes.


For more on Black History in the NFL, follow Marquita on Twitter // @LatinLove729

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