The statue near the Arts and Science Hall enshrines the man who inspired many black athletes in the Omaha area and beyond. That statue is of UNO alumnus and first black quarterback in modern NFL history, “The Magician” Marlin Briscoe.
Vice Chancellor of UNO Athletics, Trev Alberts, said Briscoe has always been extraordinarily humble in his interactions with him.
“He’s so grateful to several people in Omaha that had made a big difference in his life,” Alberts said. “He didn’t always have an easy road when he left UNO and went to the NFL.”
Briscoe was born on Sept. 10, 1945, in Oakland, California. He attended Omaha South High School, where he was a star basketball and football player prior to his 1963 graduation.
Alberts said Omaha University and coach, Al Caniglia, recruited Marlin in promise of a shot at the quarterback position. Briscoe accepted the offer and was given a partial scholarship to play basketball, football and study engineering at the Omaha University.
During Briscoe’s football season from 1963-67, he set 22 records including 52 touchdown passes, 4,935 yards passing, a 55% completion rate and a career-total offense record of 6,253 according to the Omaha Mavericks’ website.
“A lot of times people would say ‘He’s a great athlete’ but Marlin was more than just an athlete,” Alberts said.
Aside from football, Briscoe also played basketball and was a member of the O Club, an honor society for letterman, according to the UNO Library Archive website. Briscoe was involved with student government as the first black member of the Omaha University Student Council, as well as the only “unaffiliated” student elected that year.
After he graduated UNO in 1968, he was drafted in the 14th round to the Denver Broncos as a defensive back, despite his successful college career as a quarterback. At the time, black football players were not allowed to play the quarterback position, but that all changed when one of his teammates was injured.
“In those days, young African Americans didn’t get to play quarterback,” Alberts said. “It was not a position where often they got that opportunity.”
Alberts said the same challenges that he faced as a black athlete at Omaha University extended into the American Football League (AFL) at the time.
“The only reason he got to play quarterback is because he got a bunch of guys hurt in Denver,” said Alberts.
Briscoe made his historic debut as a quarterback on Sept. 29, 1968, in a game against the Boston Patriots by scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown, even though the Broncos lost, 20-17.
He then started regularly with the team for the remainder of the season, making him the first African American professional quarterback in the history of the NFL. He was nominated and became runner up for Rookie of the Year the same year.
In spite of that, they didn’t let Briscoe continue in the quarterback position, Alberts said.
Briscoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills in 1970 where he played as a wide receiver. He also played as a defensive back and wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins.
Briscoe played for multiple teams including the Miami Dolphins, winning two Super Bowls as a wide receiver and becoming part of the 1972 undefeated team. He also played for the San Diego Chargers, the Detroit Lions and the New England Patriots.
Before retiring in 1976, Briscoe had 224 career catches for 3,537 yards and scored 30 touchdowns, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website.
Briscoe worked in Los Angeles as a broker after his retirement. He also struggled with a drug addiction that lasted around 10 years.
“When he was at his lowest point, he remembered thinking to himself, ‘I wonder what this person would think of me in this position?’ And they were Omaha people that invested in him as a young man,” Alberts said. “And that really made a big difference.”
In 1990, he turned his life around and moved back to L.A. to teach and coach football at a Southern California high school.
“His whole life is centered right now around service,” Alberts said. “He’s at the Boys and Girls Club out in California and trying to help other young people sort through the realities of life today, which are very difficult sometimes.”
Alberts said UNO finds a way to honor the Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer. On Sept. 23, 2016, a life size bronze statue of Briscoe was unveiled at Baxter Arena to honor him.
“We started looking at ‘What would be the appropriate ways to immortalize what he’s accomplished,” Alberts said. “It’s not just football—it’s the inspirational story of a young man who accomplished some amazing things.”
Alberts said Briscoe is more than just an athlete.
“He was a true pioneer from a football perspective, but he was much bigger than that, and that’s why we got the statue out there,” Alberts said. “We had a lot of great athletes but not every great athlete should have a statue.”
Alberts said Briscoe continues to inspire today with the scholarships he endowed to UNO from the funds raised to honor him by the community advisory group in Omaha.
“He could’ve said ‘I would like that money to go to me,’ but he didn’t. He said he liked that money that we raised to endow two scholarships to other young people,” Alberts said. “A lot of times, they may not even know that it’s him.”
The two recipients for the Marlin Briscoe Scholarships this year were UNO volleyball player Claire Leonard and men’s basketball player Wanjang Tut.
Briscoe was among the inaugural inductees into the UNO Athletics Hall of Fame in 1975.
Alberts said the impact of Briscoe becoming the first black quarterback in the NFL is very significant.
“It shows perseverance and the ability to overcome obstacles that most of us have no idea about in a totally different time,” Alberts said.