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Marlin Briscoe, 1st Black starting QB in AFL, dies at 76

The 5-foot-10 dynamo nicknamed “The Magician” set the Denver Broncos record for touchdown passes as a rookie in 1968 with 14.

DENVER — Marlin Briscoe, who became the first Black starting quarterback in the American Football League more than 50 years ago, died Monday.

His daughter, Angela Marriott, told The Associated Press that Briscoe, 76, died of pneumonia at a hospital in Norwalk, California. He had been hospitalized with circulation issues in his legs.

Briscoe, an Omaha, Nebraska, native, was a star quarterback at Omaha University before the Denver Broncos drafted him as a cornerback in the 14th round in 1968. Briscoe told the team he’d return home to become a teacher if he couldn’t get a tryout at quarterback. Denver agreed to an audition, and the 5-foot-10 dynamo nicknamed “The Magician” made the starting lineup on October 6.

Briscoe started five games that season. He was runner-up for AFL rookie of the year after passing for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 308 yards and three scores.

His most memorable performance occurred Nov. 24, 1968, a 34-32, last-second comeback win against the Buffalo Bills. Briscoe completed just 12 of 29 passes in that game, but for -- get this -- 335 yards and 4 touchdowns. An oustanding 27.9 yards per completion.

One of his long completions saved The Franchise.

Floyd Little was the Broncos' second-year running back and Lou Saban was the Broncos' second-year head coach. As chronicled in the book "Mile High Magic, The 25 Greatest Moments in Denver Broncos History," the Broncos were up, 31-22 as the game ticked to inside the 2-minute warning.

Credit: AP
FILE - Marlin Briscoe stands in front of a street that was renamed for him in Omaha, Neb., on Oct. 22, 2014. Marlin Briscoe, the first Black starting quarterback in the American Football League, died Monday, June 27, 2022. His daughter, Angela Marriott, told The Associated Press that Briscoe, 76, died of pneumonia at a hospital in Norwalk, California. (Kent Sievers/Omaha World-Herald via AP, File)

Little was having a terrific game, accumulating 229 total yards in rushing, receiving and returning. But a blocked punt helped bring the Bills to within 31-29. With 42 seconds remaining, Little ran left on a third-and-15 play and was knocked toward the sideline. Trying to stay in bounds to keep the clock running, Little flailed his arms for balance and the ball  popped loose. Bills defensive back Butch Byrd picked  it up and  returned it to the Broncos’ 10, where a scrambling Little brought him down.

Instead of  running down the clock, the Bills immediately kicked a  field  goal for a 32-31 lead, but leaving 26 seconds.

At that point, Saban came up to Little and fired him. Right there during the game. Fired. As it turns out, Saban often screamed at players who made critical  mistakes, “You’re fired!”

"I got halfway up the tunnel beneath the South  Stands and turned around and came back and went to huddle,” Little said.

Little’s longtime roommate, Fran Lynch, had already replaced  him. The referee, John McDonough, stepped in and said there’s 12 guys in the huddle, somebody had to leave.

Credit: AP
Marlin Briscoe of the Buffalo Bills snares a first-quarter pass from quarterback Dennis Shaw for a first down as the underdogs held the Baltimore Colts on Sunday, Nov. 16, 1970 in Baltimore to a 17-17 tie Linebacker Mike Cutis (32) and safety Jerry Logan (20) close in for the tackle. (AP Photo)

“I said I ain’t going,” Little said. “Lou was yelling and screaming  and  jumping  up and down on the sidelines and I gave  him the bird a couple  times. I told the guys, ‘I’ll leave after this play.’ I told  Marlin,  “Hit me,  man. Do  what you’ve got to  do to save me.”

Briscoe heaved the ball to Little, who caught it for a 59-yard gain. A face mask penalty put the ball  at the 5, and from there Bobby Howfield kicked the chip shot field  goal and Little had been rescued, Abra Cadabra, by The Magician, for a 34-32 win.

When Briscoe learned Saban had acquired Pete Liske to become the Broncos’ QB in 1969, Briscoe asked for, and was granted his release. He was picked up by the Buffalo Bills where he became a Pro Bowl, 1,000-yard receiver in 1970 and helped the Miami Dolphins win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1972-73.

The Broncos now have a diversity intern coaching position named after Briscoe.

Briscoe was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

9NEWS Broncos reporter Mike Klis contributed to this report.

RELATED: Broncos name diversity coaching internship after Marlin Briscoe

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RELATED: Former Bronco, first black starting QB, reflects on changes in game, society

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