When Cam Newton attended a football camp about 10 years ago, the teenager from Atlanta met his future mentor, Warren Moon. With Moon at the camp was former NFL player Marlin Briscoe, nicknamed “The Magician,” but not for the circus catches he made with the Bills and Dolphins.
Briscoe won two Super Bowl rings with Miami, but there was something larger, though short-lived, about his professional career. In 1968, the quarterback from Nebraska-Omaha was drafted by the Denver Broncos as a defensive back but worked his way into becoming the first African American starting quarterback in the modern history of professional football.
Briscoe’s 1968 arrival with the Broncos, then a member of the American Football League, was not viewed as a seminal moment for the National Football League, in the days before the planned AFL-NFL merger took place. In fact, the importance of Briscoe’s accomplishment took a while to sink in.
“I didn’t know the significance until Ebony magazine came out and did a six-page spread on me,’’ Briscoe said recently. “Then I realized I was a source of pride to the black community. It was always said the black quarterback wasn’t smart enough to play, did not have the passing mechanics and there would be a backlash if they played. I’ve often been told that I’ve paved the way for these other black quarterbacks, and had I failed, it would have taken a longer period of time for others [to] get that shot.’’
The time has arrived for Briscoe’s contribution to be fully recognized.
“I think he needs to be recognized and identified,’’ said former Broncos teammate and Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little.
Briscoe is in demand as the Broncos and Panthers prepare for next Sunday’s Super Bowl. He will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next December, and “Magician,’’ a feature film on his life, is scheduled to begin shooting this year.
Moon, the first black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, paid tribute to Briscoe in his 2006 induction speech and was at that youth camp with Briscoe, who focused on one specific player.
“This big kid was hitting all the targets,’’ Briscoe said. “I told Warren, ‘That kid right there can play.’ After camp, I walked over and said, ‘What’s your name, son?’ He said, ‘Cam Newton, sir.’ He was so polite. I told him he had a future. He’s grown up to validate my opinion of him.’’
He certainly has. Newton’s Panthers have won 17 of 18 games this season, and now he will lead them against Peyton Manning’s Broncos in the Super Bowl.
Briscoe, 70, who lives in Long Beach, California, said he has no favorite in the Super Bowl but thinks Carolina will prevail.
The encounter with Newton brought Briscoe back to his roots in Omaha, Nebraska, and his own makeshift football camp. “I grew up in the projects and there was this little area right outside my house with slim trees,” he said. “I was Johnny Unitas, wearing these high-tops that my cousin got for me. And the trees were Raymond Berry. And I would throw whether it was snowing or cold or hot or whatever.’’
Less than a decade later, Briscoe was on the field with Unitas, though the two never spoke.
Briscoe was a star quarterback in college at then-Omaha University. “The white guys on the team said, ‘Don’t let them touch “The Magician,’’ ’ ’’ he said of his moniker. He was known for igniting comebacks as well as his escapability on the field; he had the running ability of a halfback.
There were no racial incidents that he could recall, Briscoe said, only his own self-inflicted pressures as he prepared to enter pro ball. “I had to prove to both black and white and the medias and the fans that I could play the position,’’ he said.
The 5-10, 177-pound Briscoe was drafted by the Broncos in the 14th round as a defensive back. He said he negotiated his own contract and insisted that he get a three-day trial at quarterback. “They thought I was absolutely nuts but acquiesced to my demands,’’ he said. He performed well enough to make the depth chart under coach Lou Saban. “I was so happy, but I kept it to myself because quarterbacks got to be cool,’’ he said. “Fate took over when [starter] Steve Tensi got hurt.’’
That occurred in the fourth quarter at Mile High Stadium against the Boston Patriots on Sept. 29, 1968, two seasons before the AFL would merge with the NFL. It was the first time a black quarterback had manned the position since Willie Thrower saw limited action with the Bears in 1953, but there are no reports suggesting that the crowd of 37,024 was hushed or that flashbulbs were popping when Briscoe took the field.
The moment created little fanfare. Wide receiver Al Denson, who is black, said, “I didn’t think anything about it in ’68, but now I know the history. I don’t think they even thought about putting a black quarterback in at that time.’’
Briscoe completed a 22-yard pass to Eric Crabtree in his first attempt. He then engineered an 80-yard scoring drive, carrying the ball for the final 12 yards for his first touchdown.
He made his first start the following week. His best game came Nov. 24 against Buffalo, when he threw for 355 yards and four touchdowns.
Little, a special assistant to the athletic director at Syracuse, his alma mater, certainly reveled in that game.
“He saved my job,’’ Little said. “I got fired by Saban for fumbling the ball.’’
After Little’s turnover led to a go-ahead field goal, he recalled Saban saying: “ ‘I want you out of here, you’re done.’ I refused to leave the field.’’
On the next series, “I told Marlin throw the ball as far as you can throw it and I’ll find a way to get it. He threw it  yards, I went up and caught it, they [facemasked] me up to move the ball to the 5 with  seconds left, and we won on a field goal. Saban said he was going to give me another week.’’
Briscoe passed for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns that season. He also rushed for 308 yards and scored three touchdowns. He was second to the Bengals’ Paul Robinson for AFL Rookie of the Year.
Perhaps because of what Briscoe accomplished, black quarterback James Harris was drafted by the Bills in 1969. By then, Briscoe also was in Buffalo, where he would emerge as an All-Pro — at wide receiver. He would never play quarterback again, but he amassed 3,537 yards as a receiver and scored 30 touchdowns.
For reasons he does not understand to this day, Denver did not want him back as a quarterback. Briscoe was not invited to offseason quarterback meetings and never asked the often fiery Saban for an explanation. When he sunk to the bottom of the depth chart in summer camp, he asked for his release.
“He and Lou had something going on,’’ Tensi said. “I don’t know what it was.’’
Little said he heard it was a salary dispute.
Said Briscoe, “I always thought I would have my career as a quarterback. I was disappointed. But I wasn’t bitter and I was never one to quit anything and I think I proved that with the way my career went after that.’’
Briscoe’s life took a dangerous turn after his playing days when he got involved with drugs, which he acknowledges. He fought back and became involved with the Boys & Girls Club in Long Beach, California. “Redemption is part of life. We all make mistakes,’’ he said. “Not that I’m condoning the mistakes I made.’’
Briscoe never sought any spotlight or attention for his place in history, and he learned there always are those who have received less recognition.
After the 1968 season, Briscoe was at the President’s Lounge in Chicago and teammate Jimmy Jones “was introducing me to everyone saying ‘This is Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback.’ A guy sitting next to me said, ‘No, you’re not, I was.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s your name?’ He said, ‘Willie Thrower.’ ’’
No one else may have known about Thrower (also cited by Moon when he entered the Hall of Fame), but Briscoe certainly did. “I was flabbergasted,’’ he said. “We sat and talked for an hour. I know my history.’’
And he’s part of it.