Last Sunday, when Lynn Redden, the superintendent of the Houston-area Onalaska Independent School District , posted, When you need precision decision making you cant count on a black quarterback, about the Houston Texans Deshaun Watson, we recognized that racist language.
Redden, who has since resigned after the backlash that his comments created, represents a bigoted belief that Black quarterbacks dont have the brains to devour a playbook, the dedication and determination to develop the proper throwing mechanics, the toughness to stay in the pocket, or the leadership skills to run a team.
These are the beliefs that have historically plagued the Black quarterback, keeping him out of modern American pro football until 1968 when Marlin The Magician Briscoe got his first start.
And these are the thoughts that continue to police the Black quarterbacks play. Since Briscoe became the first Black quarterback to start in professional football 50 years ago, nothing much has changed. What happened to Briscoe in his first and only year playing quarterback is instructive. Its a lesson in leading while Black.
Calling Redden’s remark shocking in an interview with The Washington Post last week, Briscoe said, It was very disturbing, to say the least. In this day and age, to think that the color of your skin, playing that position, is still a sore spot.”
It was very disturbing, to say the least. In this day and age, to think that the color of your skin, playing that position, is still a sore spot,” Briscoe said https://t.co/SGd4RN0XWw
During the fall of 1968, after coach Lou Saban tabbed Briscoe as the starter for the Denver Broncos, Briscoe instantly became one of the most significant Black athletes in America. The Magicians performance put him in the same cast as ace pitcher Bob Gibson, Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and eventual Heisman winner O.J. Simpson.
In the long battle to integrate sports, fighting for a starting Black quarterback in professional football constituted one of the most important contests. Black athletes and sports writers understood what was at stake. The quarterbacks presence and play at the pro level, Black pundits believed, would shift conversations about Black athletes specifically, and Black people in general.
These writers knew that racism kept the Black quarterback on the sidelines and believed that once he received his opportunity to show and prove, hed dispel myths about Black intellect and leadership while also providing a working example of integration. In other words, if White Americans could see a Black man lead on the professional football field, and his white teammates excepted his orders, then Black people had a shot off the football field too.
All that pressure weighed heavy on the new quarterback in Denver, a city in a nasty battle to integrate their public schools. To ease the tension, he tried sidestepping the race question like avoiding a Buck Buchannan blitz. Thats what the Black quarterback has been trained to do.
Former Omaha University quarterback Marlin Briscoe is among the class of 2016 inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. During Briscoe’s career from 1963-67, Omaha had a 27-11 record, including three conference championships. He set 22 records, including 52 touchdown passes, 4,935 yards passing, a 55 percent completion record and a career total offense record of 6,253.
But race, and more specifically blackness, is always in the conversation when talking about the Black quarterback. He knows he cant run from that fact. And the Magician knew he had an important role to play.
After Briscoe won the AFLs Offensive Player of the Week for his week 8 performance against the Miami Dolphins, in a game where he came off the bench and led the team back from a 14-0 deficit and showed off his intelligence and his athleticism when he audibled to a quarterback sneak for the game winning touchdown, prompting the fans to chant We want Briscoe, he told a reporter that knowing he was the first Black quarterback …makes me work that much harder, knowing I have to prove myself because I am the first. It might be a stepping stone for others to get into the pros as a quarterback instead of being switched.
But Briscoe, like other Black quarterbacks since, quickly learned that he had to repeatedly prove himself just to receive a legitimate shot. The skeptics never stopped. As local white writer Dick Connor described before the Dolphins game, In a world inhabited by white Gullivers, Marlin Briscoe is a black Lilliputian.
This is America. Racism doesnt die easily.
Deshaun Watson – Blocking QB. https://t.co/gRkmY7FDGi
Despite coming off the bench the previous week against the Chargers and throwing for three touchdowns, prompting Chargers players to speak in awe of his awareness and his athleticism, and the comeback win against the Dolphins, he still couldnt get the starting job. His coach was too enamored with the tall traditional starting quarterback, Steve Tensi, to appreciate Black talent.
In fact, Briscoe did not see significant playing time for another two weeks. It took a season-ending injury to Tensi to force Sabans hand. This time, Saban had no choice but to give the keys to the offense to his trailblazing quarterback that ran a 4.5 forty-yard dash. The realization that Briscoe was going to be the full-time starter, however, made some in the white press pump the brakes.
Local writer Jim Graham did his best to remind readers they had a Black quarterback on their hands. In his first piece after Briscoe got the starting nod, Graham griped, The Denver Broncos do not have a No. 1. Pro quarterback.
But the emphasis on pro was telling. It was a dog whistle to everyone who knew what had been said about the Black quarterback in the past. He could play in college, under the college system and use his speed, but he did not have the intellect or fortitude for pro football.
As Graham tried to explain, This is not said as any put down on Marlin Briscoe. The young man has enough of a load on his shoulders already. Too many are trying to turn him into a racial symbol when all he wants to be known as in the first place is a football player.
Graham, like Superintendent Redden, was not comfortable with what a Black quarterback represented, on or off the field.
Marlin Briscoe broke almost every rookie quarterback record in Denver Broncos history, but was released without explanation. Then Marlin switched to wide receiver, earning All-Pro honors and two Super Bowl rings. But despite his lifetime of success on the football field, Marlin the Magician’s toughest opposition was against drugs and himself – a struggle that left him on the streets of L.A.
And that very day, things went from bad to worse for Briscoe. The same day Graham attacked Briscoes ability, a record store in Denver had Briscoe arrested for supposedly stealing a record, claiming he bought two records, but stole a third. Fortunately, he had receipts for the records. He also had receipts for Graham.
The following game, his second official start of the season, Briscoe threw for four touchdowns and passed for 335 yards, including a 56-yard bomb where he rolled left and threw down the right sideline to a streaking Floyd Little to set up the game winning field goal.
The following week he had three touchdowns and then added another two more in his fourth start.
Briscoe was unlike anything the league had ever seen. He was smooth Jazz, improvising on a playbook he hardly knew because the coaches never groomed him properly. The rollouts, the bombs, the 4.5 40 speed; every play was a breathtaking performance that left the fans wanting more and the defenders gasping for air.
Despite all of this, questions still lingered; did he have the mental capacity to be a full-time starting quarterback? For the Black quarterback, its the same old song.
@deshaunwatson + @deandrehopkins… So good! : FOX #Texans https://t.co/VfkHrtLtiB
The soundtrack to the Black quarterback is a consistent groove of always having to show and prove. Despite the adulation, Briscoe had to perform. Briscoe was up. Briscoe was down. Normal rookie play. But the politics of being a Black quarterback didnt allow for mistakes.
The allusion of hope the Magician presented, and the stereotypes his blackness conjured, meant his performance would be rated differently. He was exciting, but “erratic”. He had arm strength, but lacked “accuracy”. Thats the history of the Black quarterback. Every compliment came with a qualifier. After his rookie season ended, Briscoe never received an opportunity again to play quarterback. Before the 1969 season, the Broncos traded him to the Bills.
But this isnt a story just about Black quarterbacks. This is America.
The racist remarks aimed at the quarterback reach beyond their specific target. The knocks against the Black quarterback arent just a swipe at the athlete, they are shots at all of us. Black people hear the barbs thrown at the Black quarterbacks and understand thats a shot at them too.
Marlin Briscoe scrambled so Patrick Mahomes could fly. https://t.co/uGKgQP6kxi
Those are questions about our character. Those are insults about our intellect. Those are slights at our leadership. When former Superintendent Redden looked at the sensational Deshaun Watson and said you cant count on a Black quarterback, hes looking at his students too; telling them, telling the world, he has no expectations for Black people beyond their ability to temporarily entertain him.
Thats the history of being Black in America.