The NFL is one of the toughest sports leagues to succeed in. Even players who analysts agree are top-tier picks often fail to make the expected impact. Virtually every team has at least or two high-profile busts in their history. Yet in some cases, talented players never panned out for a far different reason: because the league itself would not let them.
For the perfect example, consider Marlin Briscoe. Briscoe had the makings of an elite quarterback, but was denied the opportunity to shine, all because he happened to be African-American. Here we take a look back at Briscoe’s NFL career, his life and struggles after football, and the moment that motivated him to turn his life around.
Marlin Bricoe’s thwarted football career
The Denver Broncos drafted Briscoe in the 14th round of the 1968 draft. Although Briscoe had been a talented quarterback in high school and college, the Broncos planned on converting him to cornerback.
At the time, football teams shared the frankly racist attitude that African-Americans could not be quarterbacks, if for no reason other than that teammates and fans would not accept it.
Nonetheless, during Briscoe’s rookie season, injuries to starters gave him the opportunity play quarterback, ultimately becoming the first black quarterback to start a game in the modern era of football.
In 15 games, five of which he started, Briscoe threw 93 completions for a total of 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns. Although his completion rate was just 41.5% percent, it was clear that Briscoe was skilled enough to succeed as a quarterback.
Except he never got the chance. When the Broncos made it clear they wouldn’t let him throw the ball, Briscoe asked to be released, thinking he could get a quarterback role with another team. He was wrong.
Instead, he signed with the Buffalo Bills and started playing wide receiver. In that capacity, he bounced around the league for eight more years before finally retiring in 1976.
Experiences with cocaine
By any standard, Marlin Briscoe’s NFL career was a successful one. He stuck around for nine years — far more than most players. He won two championships with the Miami Dolphins. Yet the disappointment of being refused an opportunity to quarterback left a lasting sting. Still, Briscoe was resolved to move past it as his career came to a close.
After retirement, Briscoe moved to Los Angeles, California. On the surface, his life was going well. He was wealthy. He soon got married and had a daughter, while pursuing a successful new career as a financial broker. There was just one problem: Briscoe was also developing a debilitating drug addiction to cocaine.
Soon he found himself spiraling out of control. Ultimately, cocaine would consume 10 years of his life, while robbing him of almost everything he had. Things got so bad that, for a period of time, he was homeless. He also did several stints in jail. It was on one of those occasions that Briscoe had the moment that would turn his life around.
Marlin Briscoe’s road to recovery
Briscoe’s moment of truth came in January 1988. At the time, he was in jail in San Diego, where the inmates were being allowed to watch Super Bowl XXII on a grainy television set. That game was played between the Denver Broncos, quarterbacked by John Elway, and the Washington Redskins. The Redskins’ quarterback was Doug Williams, an African American.
Williams turned in a dominant performance, besting Elway as he led the Redskins to victory. With that single game, Williams destroyed the myth that black players didn’t have what it took to be NFL quarterbacks. Williams made history as the first black starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He also earned Super Bowl MVP honors.
For Briscoe, getting to watch that game exorcised a demon that had been haunting him for years. Briscoe even gave Williams credit for inspiring him to get clean and turn his life around. As Briscoe put it in 2016 per The Undefeated, “I felt I was a part of what Doug did. I felt like what I did all those years ago helped Doug. It was the best feeling I had had in a long time.”
-All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference