PHOTO: Marlin Briscoe as a Denver Broncos rookie quarterback before he was switched to receiver.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
In many ways Jimmy Raye was Marlin Briscoe and Marlin Briscoe was Jimmy Raye. They were both pioneering figures connected in similar but different ways.
Briscoe died on Monday at age 76 from circulation problems in his legs and from pneumonia. Raye recalled how he and his old friend were tied together in history as he prepared to travel to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Raye is among five long-time NFL assistant coaches to receive on Thursday the inaugural “Awards of Excellence.”
“Marlin was a great guy,” Raye said. “As a quarterback, he could spin it and run with it.”
Raye and Briscoe were Black starting college quarterbacks in the mid-1960s when such opportunities were rare for African Americans. Raye played in the Big Ten for Michigan State, Briscoe for Omaha University (now Nebrasaka-Omaha), which was a Division II program.
My appearance on the Adam Gold show discussing Marlin Briscoe and his friend Jimmy Raye
I’m on at the 33:00 mark
The prevailing attitude in those days was African Americans weren’t smart enough to play quarterback or able to lead a huddle with white players. Raye and Briscoe defied those stereotypes behind coaches who gave them a chance, Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty and Omaha’s Al Caniglia.
Raye was the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title. He was a sophomore backup who played frequently behind All-American senior Steve Juday on the 1965 national title roster and a junior starter earning second-team All-Big Ten honors (behind All-American Bob Griese of Purdue) on the 1966 team that shared the national title with Notre Dame. Injuries hampered him as a senior starter in 1967, but he posted a second career win over Michigan as a starter.
Briscoe was a three-year starter, leading Omaha to three straight conference titles (the school dropped football after the 2010 season).” Raye and Briscoe were both drafted as defensive backs — Briscoe a 14th-rounder by Denver and Raye a 16th-rounder by the Los Angeles Rams — but through a twist of fate Briscoe was the NFL’s first Black starting quarterback as a rookie in 1968.
Black quarterbacks drafted to play another position was nothing new for the handful that gained the opportunity. The University of Minnesota’s Sandy Stephens also was a victim, even though in 1960 he was the first Black quarterback to win a national title and earn All-American honors. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the AFL’s New York Jets (then the Titans) drafted Stephens but informed him he wouldn’t play quarterback. Stephens instead signed and played quarterback for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League.
Briscoe’s NFL opportunity came about when starter Steve Tensil was injured in the third game against the Boston Patriots at a time when Denver was shorthanded at the position. Broncos’ head coach Lou Saban called upon Briscoe, who directed an 80-yard TD drive. Denver lost 20-17, but Briscoe earned a start the next week, a 10-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. That earned Brisco his immortal place in history as the NFL’s first Black starting quarterback.
In another Raye-Briscoe small-world example, the NFL’s first Black quarterback was Michigan State’s Willie Thrower in 1953 with the Chicago Bears. Thrower’s career was one of the reasons Raye trusted the Spartans to give him a fair chance to play quarterback.
Briscoe ended the 1968 season starting five games and playing in 11. He finished the year leading the team with 1,589 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Tensil’s final numbers in seven games, six starts, were 709 yards with five TDs and nine interceptions.
Raye, who noticed Briscoe’s regular-season success from afar as a Rams rookie DB, nearly had his own fateful chance to play quarterback as a 1968 rookie. The 1968 season was the first NFL lockout. In the 12 days of the lockout Raye was the only player in the Rams’ camp who could throw the ball. He was taking snaps in practice — until the veterans – Roman Gabriel, Milt Plum and Karl Sweetan – returned at the end of the lockout.
But Raye followed from afar Briscoe’s opportunity at quarterback. In the days before every game was on TV and Sunday NFL highlight shows, that meant studying box scores in the Monday morning newspaper.
Raye was both proud and envious.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow! That could have been me,’” he said “But I was thrilled for him. Sandy Stephens never got that chance. Marlin got his chance and then he had success at it.”
But not for long.
As the Broncos assembled for the 1969 season, Saban invited his quarterbacks to camp early for meetings. When Briscoe learned he hadn’t been invited among the QBs, he showed up anyway at Saban’s office. He confronted Saban. The result was asking for his release, which Saban granted.
In another twist, Briscoe subsequently signed with the Buffalo Bills for the 1969 season. That year Buffalo had drafted James Harris as a quarterback out of Grambling, the Historically Black College and University. Harris had the prototype size for a QB as a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder and was installed as the backup for established starter Jack Kemp. Briscoe (5-10, 177) was converted to wide receiver.
Briscoe accepted the move and Harris was thrilled to have Briscoe as a teammate. Years later, Harris told Raye he followed Raye’s and Briscoe’s college careers. He visited the Grambling library to find newspaper results.
“He told me we were the two quarterbacks he followed,” Raye said.
Raye and Harris had their own small-world story when they met as young teen-agers at Seabrook Park in Raye’s hometown, Fayetteville, N.C. Harris, who was from Monroe, Louisiana, was in Fayetteville with his family to visit an older brother who was stationed at Fort Bragg. In those days, Raye could be found either at home or next door at Seabrook.
Raye and Harris were soon engaged in marathon pickup basketball games that drew a crowd.
Briscoe enjoyed success with the Bills, including the 1970 Pro Bowl. But he was traded after the 1971 season for a 1973 first-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins. Briscoe won two Super Bowl titles with the Dolphins. The Dolphins were a run-oriented team in a run-first league, but Briscoe finished his career with 234 catches for 3,537 yards and 30 touchdowns.
In another small-world story, the Bills used the draft pick for Briscoe to take Michigan State All-American guard Joe DeLamielleure, who went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career. DeLamielleure was a All-American pick for the Spartans in 1972, which was Raye’s first year as a full-time coach.
Seven degrees of Jimmy Raye.
Duffy Daugherty had hired both Sherman Lewis in 1969 and Raye as pioneering Black college assistant coaches before both moved on to the NFL as pioneering assistants and offensive coordinators.
Raye first met Briscoe in 1968 through his Michigan State teammate Drake Garrett, who was drafted by the Broncos in 1968 as a DB. Raye and Briscoe remained friends, including when Briscoe fell on hard times.
By the time Briscoe retired, he settled in Los Angeles, working as a financial broker. He was later addicted to cocaine, but he has candidly told his story about drugs and time spent in jail. During his downfall years, Raye was with the Rams as only the second Black offensive coordinator in NFL history, 1983-84.
“I tried to help him out and gave him some money, but he was too deep into his drug addiction,” Raye said. “But he came out of it years later. He did a great job working in Long Beach (with the Boys and Girls Clubs).
In 2016, Briscoe was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as Division All-American player. Nebraska-Omaha erected a statue of him the same year outside the school’s Baxter Arena.
Raye is having his moment at the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Awards of Excellence ceremonies.
In so many ways. Jimmy Raye was Marlin Briscoe and Marlin Briscoe was Jimmy Raye.
The other assistant coaches receiving the “Awards of Excellence” are Alex Gibbs, Terry Robiskie, Fritz Shurmur and Ernie Zampese.
The names of the winners will be on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Raye will be joining two other Spartans honored with a display in Canton. Thrower has been recognized among the Black pioneers quarterbacks. Gideon Smith, Michigan State’s first Black player from 1913 to 1915 who led the Spartans to their first two wins over Michigan, is listed among the early Black NFL players. Smith played with Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs.
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I tell untold stories about Michigan State’s pioneering role leading college football integration in “Raye of Light.” Click here to purchase.