ESPYs Offer Shout-Out to Denver Broncos Groundbreaker Marlin Briscoe

Colorado sports personalities and franchises made a handful of appearances in ESPN's sixteenth-annual ESPY awards, broadcast on July 20 -- not all of them flattering. Carmelo Anthony (accompanied by significant other LaLa Vazquez) could be seen in several audience shots, and thanks to the magic of editing, he seemed to be enjoying host Justin Timberlake's often-tortured shtick a tad too much. In addition, viewers saw footage of best male athlete nominee Kobe Bryant slicing up Anthony's squad, the Denver Nuggets, and the Boston Red Sox, nominated in the best-team category, dismantling the Colorado Rockies. Oh, memories...

Fortunately, a more positive reference popped up during actor Samuel L. Jackson's introduction of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, honored with the Arthur Ashe award for defiantly raising their fists during a medal-presentation ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Jackson mentioned a handful of defining moments for African-American athletes in '68 -- among them Marlin Briscoe's stint as quarterback for your Denver Broncos, which made him the first black professional signal caller in the modern era.

Many viewers probably responded to this reference by asking themselves, "Marlin who?" Here's part of the answer to that question:

According to a biography on the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame website, Briscoe earned all-city and all-state honors while attending Omaha South High School, after which he headed to Omaha University (now the University of Nebraska-Omaha), where he was dubbed "The Magician" for his passing prowess. Despite his skills, however, the Broncos drafted Briscoe as a defensive back -- a common slight inflicted upon African-American QBs during that period. Nonetheless, Briscoe managed to convince the team to give him a three-day try-out under center, and he was impressive enough that when starting quarterback Steve Tensi broke his collarbone, Marlin the Magician got a chance to take his place.

Briscoe's stats weren't especially impressive: he completed 41.5 percent of his passes (93 out of 224), with fourteen touchdowns. Given that the Broncos finished with a record of 5-9, it's no surprise he was cut after the season -- but rather than vanishing from the scene, he switched to wide receiver and played for several more years, first with the Buffalo Bills and later with the Miami Dolphins' unbeaten Super Bowl championship squad. Once his playing days were through, he descended into drug abuse before cleaning himself up -- and in 2006, his pioneer status was acknowledged, albeit subtly, in a Nike commercial set at the fictional Marlin Briscoe High School.

Every diehard Broncos fan should sign up for classes there. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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