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COMMENTARY

Chatelain: Marlin Briscoe, The Magician, had magic ability to live in two worlds

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A picture can’t tell the whole story — it never does — but it can seize a moment. A flicker in time.

On that day, Aug. 4, 2019, the photo captured a grizzled 73-year-old football pioneer reaching out to a little boy.

The World-Herald had just published “24th & Glory,” a book celebrating the epic generation of North Omaha athletes during the civil rights era. That Sunday afternoon, we hosted a book signing event at Omaha Central. There were Johnny Rodgers and Roger Sayers, John Beasley and Ron Boone, Rodney Wead and Preston Love. Titans of North Omaha.

Marlin Briscoe’s autograph line spanned across the room. When my kids reached the front, The Magician did something more than scribble his name. He pulled off his 1972-73 Super Bowl ring and slid it onto the left index finger of my 4-year-old son.

A magic trick.

I love the look on my son’s face. (He doesn’t know what it means, exactly, but he knows it’s a big deal.) I love how the image crosses racial and generational boundaries. And I love what it says about Briscoe, a troubled, resilient, tender soul who died Monday at age 76.

Magician

When my kids reached the front, The Magician did something more than scribble his name. He pulled off his 1972-73 Super Bowl ring and slid it onto the left index finger of my 4-year-old son. A magic trick, writes Dirk Chatelain.

This is a man who endured despicable racism. Who never got his worthy credit in sports history. Never got his chance to be an all-time great. The man should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, like the stars who followed him.

“Today is a sad day for me,” Warren Moon tweeted Monday. “One of my idols growing up, Marlin Briscoe, passed away. He was one of a few Black QBs of the late 60s that gave me the inspiration that one day I could play QB as a professional.”

Discrimination robbed Briscoe of opportunity. And yet ... Marlin exuded sincerity. He epitomized humanity. He always preached compassion.

Never give up on anyone, he said. Learn from your mistakes. Every child, Marlin frequently said, starts as an acorn. If nurtured, he’ll grow to be an oak tree.

Briscoe never towered over this town like Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Bob Boozer or Johnny Rodgers. But somehow it made him more compelling.

Occasionally, people ask me to identify my favorite character in “24th & Glory.” No favorites, of course, but I was most drawn to Marlin.

Partly because I got to know him better than the others — initial conversations with Briscoe in 2006 actually sparked the idea for “24th & Glory.”

Partly because his memory was so sharp. And partly because he was the ultimate underdog. Here was a guy who worked at the packinghouse the same spring he got drafted by the Broncos.

Of Omaha’s greatest generation of athletes, Briscoe is the most fascinating “what-if” story. The one most derailed by stereotypes. When you see Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray today, picture Marlin 50 years ago.

“The greatest quickness of any college quarterback we’ve ever seen,” hall of fame Dallas Cowboys scout Gil Brandt said before the 1968 draft. “He’s as good as any big-time quarterback in college right now.”

“He’s got the greatest arm I have ever seen on any quarterback — college or pro,” the New Orleans Saints’ Dave Smith said. “He’s the only man I have ever seen who can run to his left and throw the ball right-handed 55 yards through the air with complete accuracy.”

Yet Briscoe didn’t even get drafted as a quarterback. Most coaches and executives didn’t believe a Black man could handle the position.

Briscoe received his opportunity only because a rash of injuries made Broncos coach Lou Saban desperate.

Starting quarterback Steve Tensi broke his collarbone. Then three backups tried and failed.

Marlin played well (by any objective standard) the final month of the ’68 season. In five starts, he threw for 14 touchdowns, one fewer than MVP Joe Namath produced the entire season. But Briscoe didn’t get invited to quarterback meetings the next season.

Saban didn’t know how to utilize Briscoe’s unique talent. Or perhaps he didn’t want to.

Marlin switched teams, switched positions and immediately became one of the league’s best wide receivers in Buffalo. In 1970, he finished second in the NFL in receiving yards. In 1973, he led the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins in catches. Magician indeed.

But Marlin was fragile, too.

Abandoned by his father, his mother raised him in the South Omaha projects, up the hill from the gory packinghouses. Marlin spent more time shadowing pimps and prostitutes than college graduates.

Most of his life, he walked the tightrope between triumph and failure.

He could’ve been one of the greatest names in NFL history. A Jackie Robinson-type figure. Yet he easily could've spent his 20s on the kill floor at Armour or Swift.

He wrestled with that reality. One cleat in both worlds.

I saved nearly all of my interviews from “24th & Glory,” including a conversation when Marlin rattled off a whole list of Omaha peers who were equal, if not better, than him. As I wrote then:

Charlie Thomas and Walt Gullie. Johnny Ray and Johnny Alexander. Ernie Britt and Dwaine Dillard.

Under different circumstances, those names might have been famous, too. All were talented enough to be pros and fragile enough to be forgotten.

Gibson, Boozer and Sayers showed North Omaha what was possible. But with no intention, they also widened the gap between those who made it out and those who didn’t. The burden of falling short weighed even heavier.

In the ghetto, Briscoe said, athleticism was currency and identity. When it wasn’t maximized — when it was taken away — young phenoms saw nothing left.

“The disappointment of life hit them and took them out,” Briscoe said. “They never did recover. They carried that burden all their life.”

Briscoe’s self-reflection and self-awareness made him a riveting source. Here he was describing the tension of the civil rights era.

“Black girls getting killed and bombs in the church and hoses on the citizens in the South. Even the riots in Omaha. I was beat up by the police right on Dodge Street across the street from the university.

“Here I am an All-American and I stopped to help this kid during the riots because the police were beating him up. And they beat me up. I was on my way home from school. That’s how we lived.”

Did injustice breed hatred? I asked.

“It’s kind of hard to hate when you know that’s just the way it is. You can’t join in it. If you sit there and be bitter, you tend to not do anything. That’s just wasteful. You roll up your sleeves and say, ‘OK, this is what I have to do to overcome all of this.’

“We had no real power as Blacks here in Omaha. We were on an island, so to speak. So sports was a way we could release those frustrations and have power.”

Marlin never established substantial power or influence. Not like Gibson or Sayers or Boozer or Rodgers. He squandered time, treasure and credibility when he slipped into drug abuse and briefly incarceration.

But he rebuilt his life and directed a Boys & Girls Club in Long Beach, California, holding out hope that his achievements would age better than his body.

His struggles produced empathy and compassion.

The man who accompanied O.J. Simpson to North 24th Street in 1969 understood fame and fortune. He also understood the life of a South Omaha street hustler. He could watch Randall Cunningham and think, “That could’ve been me.” And he looked at his role models confined to the kill floors and thought, “That could’ve been me, too.”

He never big-timed a stranger. And he badly wanted to make Omaha proud, even when Omaha didn’t celebrate him.

For years now, I’ve looked at Marlin’s career with wonder, of course, but mostly with frustration. He got shorted. Snubbed.

He started five games as a pro quarterback and it should’ve been 50 or 100. He had to live with that.

But the day he died, the other side of the story finally dawned on me: Marlin’s brush with history might never have happened at all.

Without the injuries to Denver quarterbacks, Briscoe might have been forgotten entirely. He never would’ve befriended Warren Moon. He never would’ve appeared in Nike commercials. There’s no movie project about him. There’s no "24th & Glory."

It’s OK to view his career with regret and gratitude. One cleat in both worlds.

Briscoe deserved more glory, but he also seized a moment. He captured his snapshot in history. He won. To confront hatred, fight off his demons and find humanity and grace? That says more about a man than a bronze statue in Canton. That’s a legacy that outlasts a life.

So I cherish the magic tricks. The highlights, the interviews and the photos that freeze time.

My favorite? The 2019 image of a pioneer extending his hand to a new Omaha generation and, one more time, delivering inspiration.

When the grizzled quarterback slid his Super Bowl ring onto my son’s finger, I merely saw an acorn. Marlin saw an oak tree.

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Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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