Lou Saban and staff coach the West stars
The Year of Marlin the Magician
The 1968 season saw modest improvement for the team from 3-11 to 5-9, and Floyd Little continued to blossom into a star. But this campaign will always be remembered for the jolt of electricity rookie quarterback Marlin Briscoe provided.
The season started with Steve Tensi at quarterback. Always under siege, Tensi struggled with injuries during his Broncos tenure. Early in the 1968 season, he fractured his collarbone. The second-teamer, Joe DiVito, failed to consistently move the team. With no other options on hand, Saban inserted a 14th-round pick into the lineup late in the Broncos’ third regular-season game.
But Marlin Briscoe was more than just a late-round pick from a small football program (Nebraska-Omaha) — he was the first African-American quarterback to play and start in the American Football League.
“As far as being black, white, pink or blue, it didn’t make a difference,” Saban later said. “Here was a talent that could electrify the fans and the team itself that surrounded him enjoyed seeing the things he was doing.”
With a strong arm and quick feet, Briscoe was a power surge to a team that needed it, running for a touchdown that narrowed the gap against Boston to 20-17. The Broncos lost by that score, but Briscoe won the fans’ hearts, and he finished the season with 14 passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. His completion percentage was low (41.5), but not the lowest in the AFL. Besides, this was an era where 47.5 percent of all passes were completed. Briscoe’s season was promising.
But, Saban had no intention of making him the full-time quarterback. Upon learning he would be a backup the next year with Tensi returning, Briscoe asked for his release, and it was granted. At his next stop, the Bills converted him to wide receiver, and at that position he was an All-Pro by 1970 and later earned two Super Bowl rings with the Miami Dolphins. He would also play for the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions, and New England Patriots before retiring after the 1976 season.
Despite his work in 1968, Briscoe never got another shot as a quarterback, in part a victim of the prejudices of the day. He threw just nine regular-season passes in his eight years after leaving the Broncos. He caught 224 for 3,537 yards and 30 touchdowns.
By the time Briscoe retired, other African-American quarterbacks had led NFL teams — Joe Gilliam in Pittsburgh and James Harris in Los Angeles. But the deserved opportunities still weren’t there. Change eventually came, although it was glacial.
But Briscoe’s work for the 1968 Broncos will always have a place in pro football history. He broke a barrier that never should have existed in the first place.