Today’s Black QBs may not know Marlin Briscoe, but they owe the late pioneer a great debt.

Young Warren Moon suddenly had a new hero.

The 12-year-old Los Angeles native loved football and loved playing quarterback for his Pop Warner team. But Moon never saw anyone who looked like him in the professional ranks. He supported Roman Gabriel, the prominent Filipino-American pioneer of the Los Angeles Rams.

But then Moon discovered Marlin Briscoe, a black man who, after being forced to convert from college quarterback to NFL cornerback, got his chance at his natural position with the Denver Broncos when the team’s veteran quarterbacks were left out. for injuries.

“Marlin the Magician,” as Briscoe was nicknamed, turned a fourth-quarter relief effort in 1968 into a five-game stint as the starting quarterback to close out his rookie season.

Briscoe, who became the first black starting quarterback in the modern era of professional football, didn’t just start. He dazzled.

Using his supreme athleticism and quick reflexes to elude defenders and his strong arm and sharp instincts as a passer, Briscoe set a Broncos rookie passing record of 14 touchdowns.

“Marlin was the first guy I saw who let me know I could keep going after this,” Moon told USA TODAY Sports this week as he shared his memories of Briscoe, who died of pneumonia on Monday at age 76.

“I started playing quarterback at 10 years old and always wondered what position I could play if I couldn’t play anymore,” Moon continued. “But I was destined to be a quarterback and I couldn’t turn my back on him, and Marlin was the inspiration. Seeing a black man doing it really gave me a boost that helped me take off.”

Denver quarterback Marlin Briscoe looks to make a pass in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Denver on December 14, 1968. Marlin Briscoe, the first quarterback black starter in the American Football League, died Monday, June 6.  27, 2022.

Denver quarterback Marlin Briscoe looks to make a pass in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Denver on December 14, 1968. Marlin Briscoe, the first quarterback black starter in the American Football League, died Monday, June 6. 27, 2022.

Moon eventually orchestrated a renowned 22-year career as a quarterback, earning inductions into both the Canadian and Pro Football Hall of Fame. He largely credits Briscoe with fueling his success, even though his idol was not so lucky.

Briscoe’s name and status might not be high on the minds of today’s black quarterbacks and fans. But he should be high on his list of heroes.

Briscoe’s NFL career embodied one of the ugliest chapters in NFL history while also providing a glimpse into a future where extremely talented quarterbacks of color, when finally given the opportunity, dominated in an elite level.

“They should see Marlin as a pioneer,” Moon said. “He’s a guy who paved the way for guys like me, Randall Cunningham, Vince Evans and all the guys that came after us. He was a field marshal like those of today. He could throw but he could move. He was called ‘Marlin the Magician’ because of that.

“During that time, everyone was looking for the white quarterback, 6-3 to 6-5, who could stand in the pocket and throw the ball. That wasn’t Marlin, but that’s the way the game has evolved. people want to know where the game was headed, they can look at Marlin Briscoe.”

Briscoe’s numbers speak for themselves, and still do. His 14 touchdown passes remain a Broncos rookie record 54 years later.

He had what it took to play quarterback at the highest level. But others rejected him, despised him or hated him because of the color of his skin.

After that five-game season with Denver, Briscoe never played his beloved position again. He never even dressed for the Broncos again. The following offseason, he learned that Denver coaches and quarterbacks had been meeting without warning him, and the Broncos soon traded him to Buffalo, where the Bills required Briscoe to transition to wide receiver.

“When Marlin came to Buffalo, he was bitter and I was bitter for him,” former teammate and roommate James “Shack” Harris told USA TODAY Sports. “He was bitter because he had played well and they didn’t give him the opportunity. I felt his pain. … I was bitter for him and for all the guys who were denied the chance to play.”

That 1969 season, Harris was just another black quarterback trying to make it in the NFL. Buffalo drafted him in the eighth round out of Grambling State, but buried him in a deep chart headed by veterans Jack Kemp and Tom Flores.

Harris leaned heavily on Briscoe, who despite focusing on his fight for a roster spot at wide receiver, coached Harris on the nuances of being a professional quarterback.

“We had to run our own plays in those days, and Jack Kemp and Tom Flores were there, so we were moving to the rhythm of the veterans and it was tough,” Harris said. “I understood football but not at that rate. But Marlin had been to Denver. Being able to talk to him at night about the whole thing really helped. We talked about plays, any action, what he had been through, what I was going through, how he felt going in and all that. It was a huge help to me, just having someone to come back to.

“And practicing every day, we were seven deep, so I wasn’t practicing a lot, and he was a big help to me. And he was coming in at catcher and he wasn’t practicing much,” Harris continued. “We both realized that he, as an undersized guy who changes positions, had little chance of making the team. And I, a black quarterback with no experience in the league, understood that he had little chance of making the team. Back then, they were cutting players every day: 150, 125 guys, they just cut you there. Marlin and I would see each other and say, ‘Well, we’ll do it another day.’”

Briscoe would ask Harris to throw to him for 30 to 40 minutes after each practice, and in the end, the work paid off. Both made the regular-season roster, and in 1970, Briscoe became a Pro Bowl wide receiver.

Briscoe and Harris’ football travels took them away from Buffalo. Briscoe wound up in Miami, playing a role in helping the Dolphins win two Super Bowls and earn the distinction of being the only team in NFL history to go undefeated for an entire season. Harris ended up in Los Angeles, where he earned 1974 Pro Bowl MVP honors.

But the two remained close. Upon retirement, Briscoe moved into two Harris houses in Los Angeles.

Despite Briscoe’s championship accomplishments as a wide receiver, the racial mistreatment always stung.

“I know the tough times he went through because he wasn’t allowed to play quarterback,” Moon said. “He had a tough time with drugs and alcohol at one point in his life. He got over that and was very involved with the Boys & Girls Club for much of his life after his playing days were over. That period of his life really affected him because he knew he had the ability. He had played it at a high level his whole life and in college, and then it was taken away from him, and he really struggled.”

Briscoe lived vicariously through Harris, Moon, Doug Williams and the black quarterbacks who came after him. In 1988, while incarcerated for drug possession, he was moved to tears to see Williams become the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Years later, when he first met Williams, he made sure to tell the younger quarterback about the impact his win had on him.

Meanwhile, Williams felt a deep sense of gratitude towards Briscoe.

“You are talking about a pioneer. Marlin was a pioneer,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “When you look at it, his journey was much worse than mine. He was the first modern player to play the position, and he evidently did quite well. But it was during the time that it just wasn’t happening for black quarterbacks.

“When I think about Marlin, I think about the opportunities I had to play this game, whether we want to accept it or not, Marlin had an imprint on the whole situation to give me that opportunity to play … They gave me the best opportunities of any quarterback Shack was a starter, but as far as going in with an open mind of ‘you’re a starter,’ I was the first to do that and I owe it all to Marlin.”

Briscoe always found it important to support young black quarterbacks because he understood the challenges of playing such a demanding position while also dealing with racial persecution. In the early 2000s, Briscoe, Williams, Harris, Moon, Cunningham, and Evans formed a black quarterback fraternity called “The Field Generals”, with the goal of running camps for young black aspiring quarterbacks and advising to college and professional passers of color.

Now, 54 years after NFL teams took Briscoe out of his natural position, some of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the game are Black. Some still find themselves subject to racially charged criticism or attacks. However, as Williams said, Briscoe carried a much heavier and more painful load. And for that, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, Jameis Winston, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and their brothers should consider themselves blessed.

Some of them may not have known much about Briscoe before this week, and some of them may not yet. However, Briscoe deserves his admiration and gratitude, because without pioneers like him, his opportunities could look very different.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Today’s Black QBs Owe a Huge Debt to the Late Pioneer Marlin Briscoe

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