Pioneer: QB Marlin Briscoe Finally Gets His Due

By Dave Hyde
Updated: September 17, 2006

Warren Moon and Marlin Briscoe

Warren Moon and Marlin Briscoe

MIAMI — Here’s the funny part: Most people watching the commercial miss the point. Well, OK, they get the main point about selling Nike shoes. And they get the entertaining point of big coaching names like Don Shula and Urban Meyer being typecast in high school roles.

But another point is so subtle even the kids Marlin Briscoe teaches don’t quite see it. They ask if the high school named for him in the commercial is real.

They don’t ask if his story is real.

They don’t ask if his life of being the NFL’s first black quarterback, then quickly its first black ex-quarterback, then quickly a star receiver and just as quickly forgotten and on the streets — no one asks if that life is real or if it’s why he’s on TV.

“Is there really a Marlin Briscoe High School?” is what the kids he works with at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Long Beach, Calif ., ask.

He laughs over the phone as he tells this, then says, “I’m not sure they understand or could be expected to.”

Sometimes there are happy endings. And every once in a while someone gets some notice so long in coming everyone should hear about it. Briscoe, at 61, finally gets a chunk if you are on the right channel at the right commercial break.

During the week the Dolphins play Buffalo, it’s fitting to tell about the man who once led both teams in receiving but goes down in the record books for something else entirely. That’s what led Nike to call.

It was putting together a commercial and wanted a historical figure in it. It didn’t matter no one would really know he was a historical figure in the commercial or even be able to recognize him amid the other celebrities.

By now, Briscoe didn’t think anyone remembered him besides the likes of Joe Namath, who never calls him by name when they meet. “The Quarterback,” Namath calls him, showing he remembers.

But Nike remembering?

“I was flabbergasted,” Briscoe said.

He never expected the path to take him to a field where the Shula was now an actor in a shirt that read, “Briscoe High Hawks.”

“Coach, never in a million years did you think you’d be wearing my jersey,” Briscoe told him.

There was no road map once he came off the sandlots and college field of Omaha, Neb. He was a 14th-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos, who played him at defensive back in training camp all but three days.

Briscoe had never played much defensive back before, but this was 1968. Blacks didn’t play NFL quarterback. After three scoreless games and three more scoreless quarters into the fourth game, coach Lou Saban tried Briscoe at quarterback.

He led two touchdown drives. He ended the year with 14 touchdown passes, still a Denver rookie record. Still he never threw another pass as a quarterback. He wasn’t told about quarterback meetings by Saban that offseason. He was told by another quarterback and finally drove from Omaha to confront the coach, then asked for his release.

He waited for another team to call. None did. After a stint in the Canadian Football League, he ended up with Buffalo as a receiver in 1969 despite never having played receiver. He studied Lance Alworth and Paul Warfield and made himself a receiver. In 1970, he led the AFC in receiving.

Just when he had carved a career for himself, and almost accepted it, Saban followed him to Buffalo like bad news. Briscoe knew he wasn’t long for Saban’s team again and, sure enough, in 1972 he was traded for Miami’s No. 1 pick.

“I went from a 14th[-round] pick to a No. 1 pick,” he says.

Here’s a story that tells of Briscoe: His role was so downscaled in ’72 that he only had one play in the Super Bowl. It’s one where Paul Warfield caught a touchdown pass only to have it called back because Briscoe started too early. He used that play for fuel that offseason and led the Dolphins in 1973 with 30 catches.

He was gone from Miami in 1975, then from the league in 1977. He spiraled down in drugs for a while, losing his family and everything he owned right down to his Super Bowl rings. “17-0,” other druggies called him.

Briscoe pulled himself up, day by day, until he now has a nice job, nice home and now even a commercial. There’s no mention of his pioneering ways. He doesn’t play himself like Shula and Meyer. He plays a coach who says, “Catch the ball, son!”

As for those who asked, no, Marlin Briscoe High School doesn’t exist. But there’s a good history lesson in seeing how, at 61, long after he thought no one cared, his career gets a happy ending.