Published Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 10:38 pm / Updated at 10:41 pm
Seattle's Wilson, others can thank Briscoe for opening door

The old Denver Bronco will be rooting for Seattle today. Marlin Briscoe can't help it.

“I'm pulling for Russell Wilson,” Briscoe said. “I feel a kinship with his style of play. It's a verification of how I played the game.”

The man's life keeps flashing before his eyes these days. Last summer, President Obama called Briscoe a “pioneer.” Now, a movie — “The Magician” — is in the works about his life growing up in south Omaha.

But when he settles in at his home in Long Beach, Calif., to watch the Super Bowl tonight, it will be another kind of tribute altogether.

He'll watch Wilson, the Seahawk quarterback, and his mind will drift back to those neighborhood days near the south Omaha stockyards.

He'll see Wilson, small but blessed with a cannon arm, and he'll remember the times he wowed them at the Shrine Bowl, but nobody but Al Caniglia at Omaha University (now UNO) wanted him at quarterback.

Wilson will roll out of the pocket and throw a 10-yard dart on the run, and Briscoe will go back to those Mile High days, when he was the first black quarterback to play professional football in the modern era.

That was 1968. Twenty years later, at the Super Bowl, a reporter asked Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams how long he had been a black quarterback.

Nobody asked Wilson that in the run-up to this Super Bowl. In fact, the color adjective has been missing from the football vernacular for a long time.

“That dialogue has changed,” Briscoe said. “It's not 'black quarterback' anymore, it's just 'He's a quarterback.' I knew it would happen. I'm glad I'm still here to see it.

“I think I was way ahead of my time. If I would have played today, I would have played quarterback, and I wouldn't have been moved to receiver.

“And if guys like Wilson and Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick and Michael Vick had played back then, they would have had to play another position.

“I have a soft spot for a guy like Russell Wilson. It's not the size of the ship, it's the motion of the ocean.”

Briscoe got one shot at quarterback. One season. It was his rookie year, 1968. An appropriate year for him to make history, as Briscoe recalls.

“We're talking about 1968,” Briscoe said. “That year, the racial climate was such that there was a rift in our country, across the board.

“Dr. (Martin Luther) King was killed. Robert Kennedy was killed. Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute at the Olympics.

“Everything seemed to happen in 1968, in terms of people being expressive, particularly in the black community. It was a time of having an aggressive attitude.”

Briscoe, too. After being drafted by the Broncos in the 14th round as a cornerback, he understood. But the Omaha U. quarterback negotiated his own contract. He demanded a three-day tryout at quarterback or he would take his talents to the American Basketball Association. Or teach.

He got that tryout.

Later that season, after Denver quarterback Steve Tensi was injured and the other quarterbacks struggled, Briscoe got the call. Sort of.

“I went to my locker one day and a No. 15 jersey was hanging there,” Briscoe said. “I thought I had been cut. That's how you found out. They would just take your stuff out of your locker.

“But then I turned around and (coach) Lou Saban said, 'That's yours. You're now a quarterback.' ”

Briscoe had success that year, throwing for 14 touchdowns. He led Denver to wins over Miami and Buffalo. He thought he should get a shot the next season. He didn't.

For years, Briscoe was bitter about it. He thought Saban had been a racist. But today he's backed off that. He says he doesn't know why Saban didn't give him another chance.

Most likely, Briscoe ran up against a stereotype — a football stereotype, one that others like James Harris and Williams would knock down, for others to follow.

Those kinds of football stereotypes didn't exist in neighborhoods where kids picked teams in the park.

“We were a block away from the stockyards,” Briscoe recalls. “It was 2834 S St. The packing houses formed a horseshoe around my community.

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“We had a no-class system. You had blacks, Hispanics, whites, Europeans who had come over after the war to work at the stockyards. It was a melting pot.

“Everyone made the same money, $200 a week. That was good money. You could buy a new Cadillac at the end of the week.

“That worked well for me. Because it was a melting pot, nobody thought twice about me playing quarterback. If you were the best, you played.”

Briscoe played quarterback at Omaha South until his senior year, when the coach decided he would be more effective at running back. Caniglia, the head coach at Omaha University, gave Briscoe a shot. Nebraska coach Bob Devaney didn't offer Briscoe a scholarship, mainly because Briscoe insisted on playing quarterback. Devaney instead signed Bob Churchich.

Sounds like a pretty good movie, doesn't it?

“The Magician” is still being put together, but it has potential to be a hit sports movie. Produced by West Omaha Films (Terry Hanna, Dave Clark and John Beasley) and Falconer Pictures, they've landed Gregory Howard (“Remember the Titans”) as a screenwriter. They expect to announce the director later this month. Two of the candidates are Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup”) and Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”).

Hanna says the producers are calling the project the “42” of pro football.

The website for the “Magician” says it will be about Briscoe's “racial confrontations” and “near-death personal struggles.” It also promotes the story of Briscoe's uncle, Bob Rose, who gave him “The Magic Box,” a box of old athletic gear, when he was 10 years old.

“It's a story about Omaha, the place where I grew up,” Briscoe said. “Omaha is a very special place, a unique city, and I grew up there in a very unique time.”

Briscoe sees many of the recent headlines, like the shooting death of 5-year-old Payton Benson, and it makes him sad. He wanted to talk about that, too.

“It breaks my heart to see what is going on not only in north Omaha, but south Omaha as well,” Briscoe said. “I dedicated my life after football to youth activities and changing attitudes. It flabbergasts me to see all the violence and gangs and things that are going on now.

“I'm so far away. I can't do anything. I know Johnny Rodgers and Ben Gray. It just broke my heart to see what happened to that little girl. It's maddening to think things are like that in a place where I grew up.”

There has always been violence in this town, but Briscoe talked about one benefit he grew up with: community mentors.

“Men like Bob Rose, Charlie Bryant and Joe Ramirez in south Omaha,” Briscoe said. “There were so many mentors who took you under their wing. They watched out for you.

“Joe (Ramirez) had a pool hall. On Friday nights, after a game, we weren't on the streets. We were at the pool hall, hanging out, staying out of trouble. There used to be a guy we called “Lightning.” He was a pimpish kind of guy. He made sure we stayed out of trouble. He was in trouble, but he kept us out of it.”

Briscoe wants the kids of Omaha to see this movie. He wants them to know his story. He wants them to know you can survive, you can overcome and have the kind of life where you meet a president and have a movie made about you.

And be that guy they will watch tonight in the Seattle uniform.

Movies and presidents aside, this is still Briscoe's favorite kind of tribute.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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