Marlin Briscoe ran onto the field with his Denver Broncos trailing the Boston Patriots by 10 points. It was September 29, 1968. The game was in the fourth quarter. He would call a 22-yard slant pass over the middle. He felt the pressure.
Briscoe, who was trying to become the first black starting quarterback in the NFL, said he had had to complete that first ball. He needed to do so not only for himself but, as it turned out, for others to come. If he hadn't, a more noble version of American history would not be written for a long, long time.
So Briscoe dropped back from under center and fired right on the money to his receiver. Then came another completion. And then another.
Those pass plays ensured that Briscoe stayed on the field and that he was called on to start at quarterback in subsequent games that season. And because of all that, he paved the way for his successors.
Four African American quarterbacks were drafted the following season.
Had it not been for the outcome of those vital snaps, the history of the NFL would have remained static with the names of white-only quarterbacks well beyond 1968. But Briscoe made good on those plays, and the kid who grew up in South Omaha and played his college ball at the Omaha University, made it possible for other black quarterbacks to get a shot in the NFL.
All of that didn't depend so much on Briscoe's entire season in 1968. The much finer point is there wouldn't have been a season if those first plays had gone wrong. Marlin Briscoe's passes that day gave berth to an important racial sea change in the NFL. The Broncos lost to the Patriots but Briscoe started the next game against Cincinnati.
The irony of Marlin Briscoe's story and contribution is that while it is so very much about race, Briscoe says he never considered himself to be a "black" quarterback. Others surely did. Those were race-charged days following the civil rights act of 1964. But Briscoe says his skin color was never a factor in being given the opportunity to play quarterback in Omaha. Briscoe was a quarterback from his childhood days through his career at South High and Omaha University.
Briscoe, who spoke recently at Metropolitan Community College, and who was a guest on my "Metro & More" TV show, told viewers it "would easily have been ten more years for other black quarterbacks to get a chance in the NFL," had he not done well in that game.
Consider the contribution of serendipty and good karma in all of this:
What if the Denver media had not been watching Briscoe closely in fall camp and saw that he was capable? What if reporters hadn't made a lot of noise about Briscoe getting a chance?
What if Lou Saban hadn't had the guts to play a black quarterback? If Denver had been coached by somebody else?
What if that first pass had been off the mark, or dropped?
All of those things came together to advance American professional football and social concience because of Briscoe's talent and being in the right place at the right time. It is an example of how life usually works, or doesn't work, for all of us. Too often we dismiss the element of blind luck and the good favor of others in the fortune we find in life. Too often we attribute the good stuff that happens to us to our own effort and talent. But way more gifted people fail to reach lofty ambition and achievement even though they have tried hard and are gifted. Usually it is simply because things just didn't line-up quite right.
So this was an opportunity capitalized on by a black quarterback from Omaha. A slant over the middle. A very important pass completion.
Briscoe, who's life will be the subject of a movie currently being planned, went on to start six games for the Bronocs in 1968. It was his only year to play quarterback in professional football. He later, of course, wound up being an all-pro receiver with the Buffalo Bills.
The TV interview provided several other tidbits about the reality of being black in the NFL back-in-the-day. Briscoe noted that blacks also did not start at middle linebacker or at center. Something about not being able to "think, throw, and lead" if you were an African American. Those were so called thinking positions.
And if you are old enough to remember the NFL in 1968, you probably never saw Marlin Briscoe play quarterback on TV. Marlin claims that wasn't by accident. League officials and TV executives didn't go there. The Broncos weren't on the tube because of the obvious.
Marlin Briscoe is one of Omaha's most important racial stories. His accompishments are important. The city and state of Nebraska are remiss for, so far, not having officially honored his contributions.
The movie being planned, with the help of Omaha favorite-son John Beasley, is the stuff of a potential block-buster: Marlin "The Magician" Briscoe. Yet Omaha seems mostly disinterested and oblivious to the story.
Why is there not a Marlin Briscoe street, park, football field, or something else appropriate named after him?
Why does Omaha largely ignore him and what he did? Could the color of his skin, after all these years, still be the issue?
(Watch Cox Channel 18 in Omaha for the Marlin Briscoe episode of "Metro & More")