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Marlin Briscoe didn’t want to be pigeonholed simply because of stereotypes against black men. He was a star quarterback in college, and he believed he had the talent, intelligence and leadership skills to be one in the pros.
Fifty years ago, during an era of massive social upheaval in the United States, just getting a chance to prove it took a risky ultimatum.
Briscoe refused to switch positions after being drafted as a cornerback by the Denver Broncos, telling his team that he’d return home to become a teacher if he couldn’t get a tryout at quarterback. Denver agreed to an audition, and that season the 5-foot-10 dynamo nicknamed “The Magician” became the first black quarterback to start a game in the American Football League.
“It’s just so many different historic things that happened in the year 1968, it was unfathomable,” Briscoe, now 73, told The Associated Press. “It just seemed poetic justice, so to speak, that the color barrier be broken that year at that position. For some reason, I was ordained to be the litmus test for that. I think I did a good job.”
Briscoe’s groundbreaking accomplishments were somewhat lost in the shuffle during one of the most transformative years in U.S. history. Civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Civil rights riots broke out across the country and there were numerous protests of the Vietnam War. And less than two weeks after Briscoe’s first start, U.S. track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the Olympics to protest America’s social injustices.
But Briscoe’s legacy resonates among his contemporaries 50 years later, hitting on race as well as the pressures athletes face in pro sports. The Pro Football Hall of Fame calls Briscoe the first African-American starting quarterback in modern pro football history. Carolina’s Cam Newton and Seattle’s Russell Wilson have both considered Briscoe’s past as they contend for championships. Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, counts Briscoe as one of his most important inspirational figures.
“I know the little bit that I had to go through, so I can imagine what he had to go through,” said Williams, who won the 1988 Super Bowl with Washington. “People were a little more accepted when I came through than when he came through.”
GETTING ON THE FIELD
Though Briscoe starred at Omaha University and eventually landed in the College Football Hall of Fame, he was drafted By Denver as a cornerback in the 14th round. Briscoe started last among eight quarterbacks during his tryout.
Helped by injuries and erratic play, Briscoe eventually stepped in for the Broncos as a reserve on Sept. 29, 1968, and nearly led a comeback against the Boston Patriots. He earned the next start against the Cincinnati Bengals, making him the first black quarterback to start a game in the AFL.
Briscoe started five games that season and was runner-up for AFL rookie of the year, attracting strong crowds and energizing a franchise that had yet to establish a winning tradition.
Despite his breakout season — he passed for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 308 yards and three scores — Denver didn’t give him a chance to compete for the quarterback job in 1969. He said he was never given a reason why, so he asked to be released. He headed briefly to British Columbia, but decided Canadian football wasn’t for him. He returned to the United States and was picked up for the 1969 season by Buffalo, where he played receiver. He was a Pro Bowl receiver with the Bills in 1970 and won two Super Bowls as a receiver with the Miami Dolphins, but he never played quarterback again.
“The more I’ve known him and been around him and talked to him, you’ve got to give him respect for what he did during that time and what happened to him after that time,” Williams said. “That’s the part that gets me. But that’s the time he was in.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
As a senior at Grambling, James Harris kept up with Briscoe’s 1968 season by going to the library to look up his statistics.
As fate would have it, Buffalo drafted Harris as a quarterback in 1969, putting him on the same team as Briscoe. It was Harris who became the AFL’s first black quarterback to open the season as a starter, and he said his roommate Briscoe was a critical mentor.
“We used to talk a lot about the dos and don’ts and things that he had been through. He was telling me the things I needed to be prepared for,” Harris said. “I felt that Marlin was the only person on the team that understood what I was going through.”
That included death threats, Briscoe said. “We had the race card on our careers because we were the first,” he said.
Harris blossomed at QB. In 1974, he played for the Los Angeles Rams and became the first black quarterback to win an NFL playoff game. He also was Pro Bowl MVP that year.
Briscoe said more work needs to be done both in the league and society. He has noticed that Colin Kaepernick has not been given a contract since his decision to kneel during “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest racial and social inequality. He believes President Donald Trump, an outspoken critic of Kaepernick, also bears some responsibility for some fans making racial comments toward black players, like a Texas superintendent who resigned last week after criticizing Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson by saying black QBs can’t be trusted.
After all these years, Briscoe still sees shades of his old struggles.
“I grew up in the ’50s and the ’60s, when all that stuff was rampant, but you knew where you stood,” Briscoe said. “Today, you thought that all those attitudes were non-existent or filtered away to some degree, but with the Trump-isms, his philosophy has brought out of the woodwork that old-time thought process. That’s scary. It really is. It’s a scary situation.”
Davion Taylor might have been great in high school, if he had played in games, rather than just practiced with his team.
Hard to really know.
The hints of the hybrid linebacker’s talent, however, may just be presenting themselves at Colorado this season.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, Taylor observed the Sabbath from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays during his high school days by resting and worshipping. Meaning, he didn’t play in Friday night games. So he didn’t star at South Pike High in Mississippi and instead helped fill water bottles before games, then headed home for prayer.
He didn’t give up on his dream, though.
Taylor adjusted his religious observances once he turned 18, attended Coahoma Community College, caught the eye of Colorado, and now everyone’s seeing what South Pike High’s best practice player looks like in the big time .
“I sometimes doubt myself since I didn’t play high school ball. But I know I’m good enough,” said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Taylor, who had a fumble recovery in a win at Nebraska on Saturday as the Buffaloes moved to 2-0. “I know I made it here for a reason.”
Taylor hails from Magnolia, Mississippi. He’s the son of Stephanie Taylor, who was drawn to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in her early 20s and raised Davion and his older brother Ladarris on the teachings of the religion. Friday nights were for tranquility of mind in keeping the Sabbath. The family prayed, studied the bible and watched Christian programming.
And Saturdays were reserved for church.
“This was a way to keep us spiritually fed,” his mother said.
As a kid, Taylor frequently attended the youth practices of his friends — just to watch and study the game.
He eventually went out for the middle school football team. His coach, John Culpepper, can still recall the first time he spotted Taylor, who was all of 120 pounds at the time.
“A little bitty fella,” said Culpepper, who would later be his varsity coach his senior year at South Pike. “You sometimes overlooked them when they’re that small. But not him. You could see he had all the talent in the world.”
At South Pike High, he prepared like he was a starter and went through all the drills, even if he wasn’t going to see the field. He was like another coach out there.
For Friday night home games, the routine was pretty much the same: Prepare the Gatorade, help line the field and set up the equipment. He would have the pregame meal with the team, wish them luck and head home before sundown.
His friends texted updates. When he had a chance, he’d watch the game film.
“I know,” he said, “that I could’ve helped get us a win or make plays.”
In his senior season, Taylor suited up in one game, since it was an early kickoff and well before sunset. From his safety position, he remembers having an interception and 10 tackles.
Mostly, though, it was just the grind of drills.
“As I was practicing, I just kept thinking, ‘This will just make my story even better,'” said Taylor, a state champion sprinter and triple jumper in high school who missed the state meet his junior year because it was held on a Saturday. “I was like, ‘I’m going to try out somewhere.'”
When he turned 18, his mom left his path up to him — his decisions were his to make, she said. He wanted to play football on the next level even if that meant playing on a Friday or Saturday.
“You have to give them rope,” his mom said. “I always wanted to see him strive to be the best.”
Taylor wants this to be clear: He wasn’t choosing football over his faith. His religion remains of utmost importance to him. He was trying to make both fit harmoniously into his life.
“If I’m doing this good and making it this far, I felt like God is on my side when it comes to this,” Taylor said. “He wouldn’t bring me this far just to let me fail and not be on my side.”
The dilemma: Getting recruiters to take notice with basically no game film. Culpepper put in a good word for him at Coahoma, a school that was featured in an episode of the football documentary “Last Chance U” for a losing streak.
“I told coaches, ‘He’s an athlete. Teach him to play, he’ll be great,'” Culpepper said.
As a walk-on at Coahoma, Taylor was nearly cut. He said he earned one of the last spots.
His freshman season he started the final three games as he moved to linebacker. His sprinter’s speed and raw ability attracted the attention of the Buffaloes, who told him they were interested.
Taylor turned in a monster sophomore season with 87 tackles. He was rated the top junior college outside linebacker in the country.
More schools expressed interest: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Baylor and Vanderbilt, to name a few. He honored his commitment to the Buffaloes after they showed early faith in him.
Taylor enrolled last January and went through spring practice while also competing in track. He finished sixth at the Pac-12 championships in the 100 meters.
To improve on the track, he studies the technique of Jamaican standout Usain Bolt, the world-record holder in the 100 and 200.
To improve on the field, the junior watches the moves of Broncos great Von Miller. Taylor is a hybrid linebacker in Colorado’s scheme and came up with a fumble recovery in the 33-28 win over Nebraska.
“He’s really catching on,” Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. “Every day you see the light bulb go off a little more.”
Especially in practice, where he’s long excelled.
“I just see myself getting better and better,” Taylor said. “It just gives me more and more belief that I can make it.”
Devi Brown, a Los Angeles-based radio personality and author, said she prays and talks to God regularly.
But then she adds: “I have found absolutely beautiful life-changing things in the Christian faith, in the Hindu faith, in Buddhism. So, for me, I believe in being Christ-like, being kind, being of service so I kind of let that lead who I am.”
Like other African-American millennials, Brown, 33, author of “Crystal Bliss: Attract Love. Feed Your Spirit. Manifest Your Dreams,” is charting her own course when it comes to spirituality.
On Friday (Aug. 24), she’ll explain her faith at a pilot event in Los Angeles that explores new ways black people born between 1981 and 1996 are embracing religion and spirituality at a time when the black church is no longer the central organizing force for some African-Americans.
The new series, called “gOD-Talk: A Black Millennials and Faith Conversation,” is a joint project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Pew Research Center.
Teddy Reeves, a specialist in the museum’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life, said the project’s nontraditional treatment of the word “God” is intentional, in hopes that the conversations will include blacks with Judeo-Christian perspectives, adherents of Islam and African spirituality, and humanists and atheists.
“The ‘g’ is allowing everyone to come to the table,” said Reeves, 31, who is set to moderate the discussion for which more than 700 people have registered. “We’re really kind of transgressing traditional orthodox boundaries of what we consider sacred.”
Besheer Mohamed, a Pew senior researcher, said African-American young adults stand out from others in their age group as well as their racial group.
“Black millennials are sort of at the intersection of two broad patterns of American religiosity,” said Mohamed, who plans to present research as the project holds events across the country. “Black millennials on average are more religious and also more spiritual than other millennials and less religious and less spiritual than other blacks.”
While fewer than 4 in 10 African-American millennials say they attend services weekly, far more — 61 percent — say religion is very important to them. Six in 10 of them also say they pray daily and “feel spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly.” More than a third meditate at least once a week.
Brown, who did not grow up in a religious household but has enjoyed attending Christian churches since high school, uses crystals for meditation, explaining that they don’t replace God but instead serve as a way of “being grounded and being connected to my source, which is the earth that God created.”
Reeves, who is also an ordained minister of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, said the Pew findings reflect both a historical connection to the divine for African-Americans that dates to the time of slavery and the influence of rising secularism within the “brunch culture” of millennials.
Some of the disengagement may come from a sense of frustration that traditional black churches are not sufficiently addressing justice issues that are a priority for many of these young adults — LGBTQ rights, violence in urban African-American communities and inclusion of women’s ordination and leadership, he suggested.
Black millennials also have more secular and spiritual options, and often no longer keep weekend worship services as standing appointments on their calendars.
“Whether it is protesting, whether it is feeding the homeless, whether it is creating programs and nonprofits,” Reeves said, the “definition of sacredness” is expanding.
“Moving forward, I wonder what that means for our traditional religious spaces.”
Black church leaders are mulling that too. It was one of the questions raised during a summit of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies held at the Museum of the Bible in Washington on Tuesday.
One participant was applauded when she implored pastors to train the younger people in their congregations and give them something to do.
“These young people are leaving the church,” she warned. “They don’t even believe in Jesus anymore. They call him Baby J.”
The Rev. Beverly Frazier, a fellow of the University of Pennsylvania who pastors Morning Star Church in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, told summit participants her church recently put up colored lights and held a concert for several hours.
“That was the largest service we’ve had since I’ve been at the church,” she said, as she spoke on research about the value black churches add to neighborhoods. “For four hours, people just coming and going. Why? ’Cause you have to meet the needs. You have to be relevant.”
Pew researchers found that 53 percent of African-Americans said they were affiliated with historically black denominations in 2014, but significantly fewer (41 percent) of black millennials claimed such a tie. Mohamed said the share of black millennials who say they are non-Christian has increased from 3 percent in 2007 to 5 percent in 2014.
There is no Pew data available for the percentage of black millennials who fall into the “spiritual but not religious” category.
But Mohamed said “there is no reason to assume black millennials would not follow the broader societal trend of more Americans saying they’re spiritual but not religious.”
He is scheduled to be a panelist at the California African American Museum event along with other scholars and people of a variety of faiths, including Christians, a Muslim, a former Buddhist and a practitioner of Ifa, a Nigerian spiritual tradition. Other gOD-Talk events, to be held through 2020, are planned for Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, New York and Baltimore.
Music is composed of sounds and silences. The sounds are indicated by notes, the silences by rests. Sometimes when we most want the Lord to speak, He is silent, and when we most want Him to be silent, He speaks!
The desperate Syrophoenician mother made a fervent plea for her daughter, but Jesus answered her “not a word” (Matthew 15:23). David knew that the Lord was aware of his sins, but I think he was hoping the Lord wouldn’t tell anybody especially the outspoken prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11-12).
The Syrophoenician mother was hoping the Lord would change the melody of her life from minor to major. And David was hoping he wouldn’t have to face the music of his messed up life. In music, the silences are often welcome intervals that enhance the rest of the composition. In life, silences are sometimes frustrating interruptions.
Both in music and in life, rests are pauses, not endings. The mother received her request for her daughter’s healing; David confessed his sins and received forgiveness. The pauses in our lives are temporary.
Are you having a “rest experience?” Be encouraged. After a rest, the music continues.
Thank You, dear Lord, that You are always with us. Help us to remember that Your silences are not absences. Amen.