Marlin Briscoe, a pioneering scrambling quarterback who had to overcome prejudice against Black athletes playing that position during the 1960s, and who later won two Super Bowl rings as a wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins, died on Monday in Norwalk, Calif., outside Los Angeles. He was 76.
His daughter Angela Marriott said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was pneumonia. She said he had been having circulation problems in his legs.
Briscoe made pro football history in 1968, during his rookie year with the Denver Broncos, when he became the first Black player to start at quarterback in the Super Bowl era. Though he had starred at quarterback in college, many coaches at the time believed that Black players were incapable of handling the complexity of that position.
Briscoe went on to set a team rookie record by tossing 14 touchdowns for the Broncos (one fewer that year than Joe Namath of the New York Jets), when Denver was part of the American Football League. He played in 11 games that season, starting five, and ran for 308 yards and three scores.
Briscoe was known as the Magician, and his versatility as a passer and runner was a harbinger of the Black quarterbacks to come.
“He was born too soon,” Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, said in a phone interview. Williams, who led the Washington Redskins (now Commanders) to a 42-10 rout over Denver in Super Bowl XXII, capping the 1987 season, and was voted the game’s most valuable player, said that Briscoe was a forerunner of the modern Black quarterback.
“He was Michael Vick before there was Michael Vick,” Williams said. “He was Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson all tied up in one.”
Despite Briscoe’s achievements, the biases of the time kept him from playing quarterback past his rookie season. He said that Lou Saban, the Broncos’ head coach, forced him out as quarterback without an explanation before the 1969 season. After asking to be released, Briscoe joined the Buffalo Bills, where he switched to wide receiver and quickly learned the new position.
“All I wanted was a chance to showcase my skills,” he told The New York Times in 2014. “It was a mirror of what the ’60s were about, particularly in the African American community. We said, ‘No, this is what we want,’ so it was easier for me. If it had been in the ’50s, no way in the world would I have done that. But I grew up in the right time to express myself.”
Briscoe played three seasons in Buffalo and had his best year in 1970, when he caught 57 passes for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns and was chosen for the Pro Bowl.
In 1972 he joined the Miami Dolphins, who had lost in Super Bowl VI the previous season. The Dolphins were a run-first team and already had two established receivers in Paul Warfield and Howard Twilley, so Briscoe’s statistics declined.
But the Dolphins completed the N.F.L.’s only perfect season when they won Super Bowl VII, and they repeated as champions for the 1973 season. Briscoe later played for the Detroit Lions, the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots.
Marlin Oliver Briscoe Jr. was born on Sept. 10, 1945, in Oakland, Calif. His parents, Marlin Geneva Briscoe, moved to Omaha when he was young. Raised by his mother, who worked in a school cafeteria, he grew up in a multiethnic housing project that sat in the shadow of a meat packing plant and that produced other sports stars, among them Bob Gibson and Gale Sayers.
Briscoe played football at the Municipal University of Omaha (now the University of Nebraska Omaha), and though he was relatively small at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he was an excellent passer and runner and a natural leader. As a quarterback he set 22 school records, including for passing yards (5,114) and touchdowns (53).
He was selected by the Broncos in the 14th round of the pro football draft in 1968, but the team intended to use him as a defensive back.
Briscoe understood how difficult it would be to change his coach’s mind. He told Saban that he would sign as a defensive back if Saban gave him a tryout as a quarterback during training camp, in front of fans and reporters. He wanted to demonstrate his skills.
“I think they just did it to pacify me,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2000. “I knew that the powers that be in 1968 would be fearful of a Black quarterback.”
Saban played down Briscoe’s throwing and running skills, Briscoe said, and dispatched him to work with the defensive backs.
Still, Briscoe said, he had let people know that “a Black man could think and throw.”
A hamstring injury kept him from playing early in the season, but on Sept. 29, with Saban suddenly finding himself in need of a quarterback, Briscoe was called to fill in for the struggling starter, Jim Leclair, and Briscoe nearly led the team to a comeback victory over the Boston (now New England) Patriots.
Saban offered only a lukewarm assessment of the performance, but the next week Briscoe nevertheless became the first Black starting quarterback in A.F.L. history, against the Cincinnati Bengals; he was replaced in the second half by Steve Tensi in a 10-7 victory.
In one of his biggest games, against the Dolphins on Oct. 27, Briscoe took over for Tensi, after Tensi had thrown three interceptions, and rallied the Broncos to a 21-14 win. He had two rushing touchdowns, including one that put the Broncos in front for good.
For the 5-9 Broncos, Briscoe passed for 1,589 yards, threw 13 interceptions and had a 2-3 record as a starter.
After his playing career, he became a financial broker, but in the late 1970s he became addicted to cocaine. In the next decade he lived on the streets for a while; was kidnapped by drug dealers, who tossed him out of a car in a dispute over a drug debt; and gave his Super Bowl rings to a banker for collateral on a loan. (The banker sold them.)
On Jan. 31, 1988, Briscoe was serving a prison sentence for drug possession when he watched Williams lead Washington to victory in Super Bowl XXII.
“I was in a dark place,” Briscoe told the website The Undefeated (now Andscape) in 2016. “What happened — it cost me a lot. But I felt I was a part of what Doug did. I felt like what I did all those years ago helped Doug.”
After he stopped using drugs, Briscoe had a storage business and worked for a Boys & Girls Club in the Los Angeles area as a fund-raiser and assistant project manager.
In addition to his daughter Angela, he is survived by another daughter, Rebecca Briscoe. He was married and divorced three times.