Young Warren Moon suddenly has a new hero.
The 12-year-old Los Angeles native loved football and enjoyed playing quarterback for his Pop Warner team. But Moon had never seen anyone like him among the professionals. He really rooted for Roman Gabriel, the Los Angeles Rams standout and Filipino-American trailblazer.
But then Moon discovered Marlin Briscoe, a black man who, after being forced to turn from college quarterback to NFL cornerback, was given a chance to fill his natural position with the Denver Broncos when the team’s seasoned passers were sidelined by injury.
“Marlin the Magician”, as Briscoe was nicknamed, turned the fourth-quarter relief effort into five games in 1968 as the starting quarterback to end his rookie season.
Briscoe, who became the first black quarterback in the modern era of pro football, didn’t just start out like that. He blinded.
Using his supreme athleticism and quick reflexes to elude defenders, as well as his strong arm and sharp instincts as a passer, Briscoe set the Broncos’ rookie passing record of 14 touchdowns.
“Marlin was the first guy I saw who let me know I could keep doing this,” Moon told USA TODAY Sports this week, sharing his memories of Briscoe, who died of pneumonia on Monday at the age of 76.
“I started playing quarterback at age 10 and I was always wondering what position I could play if I couldn’t keep playing it,” Moon continued. “But I was destined to be a quarterback and I couldn’t turn my back on it and Marlin was an inspiration. Seeing a black man do it really gave me a boost that helped me take off.”
Moon eventually built a notable 22-year quarterback career, earning him an induction into the Canadian and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He credits Briscoe to a large extent for contributing to his success even though his idol wasn’t so lucky.
Briscoe’s name and plight may not figure prominently in the minds of today’s black quarterbacks and fans. But he should be at the top of their list of heroes.
Briscoe’s NFL career has been one of the ugliest chapters in NFL history, and also provided a glimpse into a future where highly talented quarterbacks of color, when finally given the opportunity, dominate the elite level.
“They should look to Marlin as a trailblazer,” Moon said. “He paved the way for guys like me, Randall Cunningham, Vince Evans and all those who came after us. He was a quarterback, just like today. He could quit, but he could move. Because of this, he was called the “Magician Marlin”.
“At the time, everyone was looking for a formulaic 6-3 to 6-5 white quarterback who could stand in the pocket and throw the ball. It wasn’t Marlin, but that’s how the game developed. people want to know where the game is going, they can look at Marlin Briscoe.”
Briscoe’s numbers spoke for themselves – and still do. His 14 passing touchdowns remain a Broncos rookie record 54 years later.
He had what it takes to play quarterback at the highest level. But others rejected, disrespected or hated him for the color of his skin.
After that five-game stint with Denver, Briscoe never played his favorite position again. He didn’t even get to dress up for the Broncos again. The following offseason, he learned that Denver’s coaches and quarterbacks were holding meetings without informing him, and the Broncos soon traded him to the Buffalo, where the Bills demanded that Briscoe switch to wide receiver.
“When Marlin came to Buffalo, he was bummed, and I embittered him,” former teammate and roommate James “Shaq” Harris told USA TODAY Sports. “He was disappointed because he played well and they didn’t give him a chance. I felt his pain. … I felt bitter for him and for all the guys who were denied the opportunity to play.”
That 1969 season, Harris was another black quarterback trying to break into the NFL. Buffalo drafted him in the eighth round from Grambling State but buried him in the depth chart led by veterans Jack Kemp and Tom Flores.
Harris leaned heavily on Briscoe, who, despite focusing on his struggles for a spot on the roster as a wide receiver, taught Harris the nuances of a professional quarterback.
“In those days, we had to put on our own plays, and Jack Kemp and Tom Flores were there, so we moved at a veteran pace, and it was hard,” Harris said. “I understood football, but not at that pace. But Marlin was in Denver. The opportunity to talk with him in the evenings about all this helped me a lot. We talked about jokes, any kind of action, what he went through, what I had to go through, how he felt coming to his senses, and all that. He helped me a lot, it was just someone to return to.
“And we trained every day, we had seven people, so I didn’t have much practice, and he helped me a lot. And he came in as a receiver and he didn’t have much practice,” Harris continued. “We both realized that he, as a short guy who changes positions, has little chance of getting into the team. And me, a black quarterback with no league experience, we knew I had little chance of making the team. Then every day they cut out the players – 150, 125 guys, well, they cut them out. Marlin and I would meet and say, “Well, we got through another day.”
Briscoe asked Harris to throw him for 30-40 minutes after each workout, and in the end the work paid off. Both made the regular season, and in 1970 Briscoe turned into a Pro Bowl player.
Briscoe and Harris’ football travels took them away from Buffalo. Briscoe ended up in Miami, playing a major role in helping the Dolphins win two Super Bowls and become the only team in NFL history not to lose a campaign. Harris ended up in Los Angeles, where he won the 1974 Pro Bowl MVP award.
But these two stayed together. After his retirement, Briscoe moved two houses below Harris in Los Angeles.
Despite Briscoe’s championship record as a receiver, racial abuse has always hurt.
“I know what a tough time he went through because he wasn’t allowed to play quarterback,” Moon said. “He had a hard time with drugs and alcohol at some point in his life. He overcame this and was associated with the Boys & Girls Club for most of his life after his playing days were over. That period of his life really confused him because he knew he had the ability. He played it at a high level all his life and in college, and then he took it away from him, and he really struggled.
Briscoe lived off Harris, Moon, Doug Williams, and the black quarterbacks who came after him. In 1988, while in jail for drug possession, he was moved to tears as he watched Williams become the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
Years later, when he first met Williams, he spoke to the young quarterback about the impact his triumph had on him.
Meanwhile, Williams had a deep sense of gratitude for Briscoe.
You are talking about a pioneer. Marlin was a pioneer,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “If you look at it, his journey was much worse than mine. He was the first modern player to play this position, and he obviously played pretty well. But that was at a time when it just didn’t happen to black quarterbacks.
“When I think about Marlin, I think about the opportunities that I had to play this game, whether we want to accept it or not, Marlin had a handprint in the whole situation to give me this opportunity to play … I was given better opportunities any black quarterback. Shaq was a starter, but as far as I came in with an open mind, ‘You’re a starter’, I was the first to do it and I owe it all to Marlin.”
Briscoe always felt it was important to support young black quarterbacks because he understood the challenges of playing in such a difficult position and also faced racial harassment. In the early 2000s, Briscoe, Williams, Harris, Moon, Cunningham, and Evans formed a black quarterback fraternity called the Field Generals for the purpose of running camps for young black aspiring quarterbacks and mentoring colleges and bystanders of color.
Now, 54 years after Briscoe was ousted from his natural position by NFL teams, blacks are among the most dynamic quarterbacks in the game. Some are still criticized or attacked on racial grounds. However, as Williams said, Briscoe bore a much heavier and more painful burden. And for that, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Deshawn Watson, Jameis Winston, Jalen Herts, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and their brethren should count themselves blessed.
Some of them may not have known much about Brisco until this week, and some still don’t. However, Briscoe deserves their admiration and gratitude, because without pioneers like him, their opportunities would look very different.
Follow Mike Jones of USA TODAY Sports on Twitter. @ByMikeJones.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Today’s Black QBs Are Hugely Indebted to the Late Pioneer Marlin Briscoe