Unstoppable. Brilliant. One of the most impactful figures in the history of our city. A really great human being.
Those were just a few of the superlatives assigned to Marlin Briscoe, the trailblazing football player and Omaha legend who died last month at age 76, during a celebration of life at Baxter Arena on Saturday. Longtime friends and admirers described Briscoe’s prowess on the field and his candor off of it.
Often called “The Magician,” Briscoe became the first Black quarterback to start for a professional team after he joined the Denver Broncos in 1968. But before that, he was an Omaha giant and a hometown hero.
“His is one of the greatest stories ever told,” said Johnny Rodgers, a friend of Briscoe’s, a former Husker football player and a Heisman Trophy winner. “And every man, woman and child should be proud to follow in his footsteps.”
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Raised in the South Omaha projects, Briscoe became a breakout star at Omaha South High School before graduating in 1963. He went on to play both football and basketball at Omaha University, which is now the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
John Beasley, who played football with Briscoe in college, joined the team after exiting the Army. When he went on the field for his first scrimmage, he could tell that some players were wary of him taking their spot.
“Marlin was the quarterback, he was the star,” Beasley said. “But he was the first person to approach me and make me feel at home.”
A star indeed. During his four years at Omaha University, Briscoe set 22 school records: 52 touchdown passes, 4,935 passing yards and a 55% completion rate … to name just a few.
In addition to his athleticism, Briscoe was just as — if not more — dedicated to his academics. A driven and passionate student, he was the first Black member of the university’s student council.
“Marlin believed that education is not just a part of your life, education is life itself,” Rodgers said.
Brenda Council, a former member of the Omaha City Council and state lawmaker, met Briscoe when he served as a student teacher at Horace Mann Junior High School. He helped teach algebra to Council’s ninth grade class in 1967.
Through no fault of his own, the lessons were not very effective.
“I can speak on behalf of all the other young women in that class: We couldn’t do an equation today if you paid us,” Council said. “It wasn’t because Marlin wasn’t an excellent teacher. It was because we were too busy crushing on him.”
After making a name for himself in Omaha, Briscoe was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1968. Though he wasn’t brought onto the team as a quarterback, a series of injuries led to an opportunity for Briscoe to shine. He played so well that he became the first starting Black quarterback in a professional football game the very next week.
When it became clear that the Broncos would not keep him on as a quarterback, Briscoe asked to be released. He went on to play for a total of six teams in the pro leagues, though he was never starting quarterback after leaving the Broncos. He helped the Dolphins win back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1972 and 1973 before ending his career in 1976.
Only recently has Briscoe been recognized on a larger scale for his trailblazing contributions to the sport. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016. But despite impressive statistics and his role in breaking down racial barriers in pro football, Briscoe is not a member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Nonetheless, Omaha is dedicated to keeping his legacy alive. A representative from the Mayor’s Office attended the ceremony to officially proclaim July 23, 2022, as Marlin Briscoe Memorial Day. The Marlin Briscoe Scholarship Fund at UNO provides athletic and academic scholarships for promising students. A lifesize statue of Briscoe watches over Al F. Caniglia Field on UNO’s Dodge Campus.
“You have my word that Omaha Athletics will quite literally do whatever it takes to make sure that his legacy endures the test of time,” Adrian Dowell, UNO’s athletic director, said to Saturday’s crowd. “Before there can be progress, there always has to be a trailblazer. And one of the most influential trailblazers from this institution, this city, and in American sports, is Marlin.”