Cam Newton has been the talk of the NFL this season. As the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, he led his team to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career with his dynamic, electrifying play.
Newton is widely considered the favorite for league MVP, but his history-making, logic-defying numbers aren’t what’s generating the most headlines. Rather, it’s everything else — the touchdown celebrations, the sideline victory photos, the child out of wedlock, the eccentric wardrobe — that has made him a lightning rod for hand-wringing letters to the editor and endless hot-takes. If all of that sounds inconsequential, that’s because it is. Or rather, it should be. Unfortunately, the rules that apply to other star quarterbacks in the NFL don’t seem to apply to Newton. And he knows exactly why.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people,” Newton said frankly just days after winning the NFC Championship game. “[B]ecause they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
The reason Newton still seems like an anomaly to many is because generations upon generations of black athletes were either steered away from the quarterback position in their youth, or forced to abandon it before they were allowed to play football professionally.
There were many excuses given for this: Black athletes weren’t intelligent enough to play the position of quarterback, and their athleticism could be better used in skill positions. Besides, white linemen might not block for a black quarterback, and white fans might not be able to cheer for him. Essentially, it boiled down to racism.
Nobody knows this better than Marlin Briscoe, who in 1968 made history with the Denver Broncos as the first black quarterback to start a game in the NFL, after he was drafted into the league as a cornerback and before he was forced to change positions to wide receiver.
“I am impressed by Cam’s ascension to what, to me, is greatness,” Briscoe said by phone from Long Beach, California. “But if Cam Newton was playing in ’68, there’s no way he’d be playing quarterback. He’d be a tight end.”
Like most great stories that history has forgotten, Briscoe’s journey to the record books was rocky, inspirational, and, at times, just plain lucky.
Briscoe grew up in what he calls a “melting pot community” in Omaha, Nebraska. He was an incredible all-around athlete, but he loved football the most and idolized everything about Johnny Unitas — right down to the high tops. He learned how to play the position during scrimmages in the projects, and finally went out for the Pop Warner league when he was nine years old.
At tryouts, the coach asked all of the kids to line up by their preferred position. Briscoe went straight to the quarterback line. The coach looked at him like he was crazy.
“Son, do you want to go to the running back line or the wide receiver line or the defensive back line?” Briscoe recalls the coach asking. But Briscoe didn’t budge.
“No sir, I want to play quarterback,” he said.
To his credit, the coach allowed Briscoe to stay with the quarterbacks, and it quickly became apparent that he had made the right decision. Briscoe was a natural, and after the tryout the coach approached him and said, “Okay son, you’re a quarterback.”
“He didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body,” Briscoe said. “He really didn’t have to give me an opportunity to play, but he gave me a break and I was forever grateful.”
Briscoe developed into a phenomenal scrambling quarterback in high school, and after realizing that his first choice, the University of Nebraska, wasn’t willing to let a black man play quarterback, he ended up at Omaha University for college, where he led an explosive offense by throwing for 5,114 yards and setting 22 school records. He received support from everyone at Omaha University — the students, alumni, and fans from both black and white neighborhoods — and just this January was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Despite his success in college, however, Briscoe’s greatest challenge lie ahead: convincing an NFL team that he could play quarterback. In 1968, only one black quarterback had ever taken a snap in a modern NFL game — Willie Thrower, a backup quarterback on the Chicago Bears who took a few snaps in relief of future Hall of Famer George Blanda during one game in 1953.
“They denied access to that position to the black man, because it was held in such high esteem, because it was a position of power on the football field,” Briscoe said.
So, it came as no surprise when the Denver Broncos drafted Briscoe in the 14th round as a defensive back. But he was determined not to let his dream die without a fight.
“I told the general manager of the Broncos that I would play cornerback, but only if they gave me a three-day trial at quarterback. They thought I was crazy — how is a 14th-round draft pick going to negotiate his own contract?”
“They thought I was crazy — how is a 14th-round draft pick going to negotiate his own contract?”
But Briscoe knew what he was doing. His college coach had informed him that Denver was the only team in the league that held their practices and training camps right in the city, in front of media and fans. He believed in his quarterbacking ability enough to know that he would be able to impress in a trial, and if this trial happened in public he knew the Broncos would have a hard time ignoring it.
His wild plan worked — well, kind of. Broncos starting quarterback Steve Tinsley broke his collarbone before the season even began, and Briscoe was one of eight quarterbacks to try out during training camp. All of the other quarterbacks would get 10 reps, while he would only get five or six, and he would always have to go last, but he made enough of an impression that famed Denver Post columnist Dick Connor wrote a column advocating for the coaching staff to give Briscoe a chance to be quarterback.
But the coaching staff, led by head coach Lou Saban, wasn’t swayed, and Briscoe was named starting cornerback. When he injured his hamstring in preseason, Briscoe feared that not only were his dreams of being a quarterback over, but his entire pro football career might be finished before it began.
However, the hamstring injury ended up being a blessing in disguise. Briscoe sat out the preseason and the first two games of the season, so he didn’t get a chance to shine at cornerback. And during those games, the Broncos offense was putrid — they could hardly score a touchdown. Much to Briscoe’s surprise, when he was finally healthy enough to play again, he went to his locker to find a quarterback jersey hanging there. He had not been in at quarterback at all during the preseason or regular season, and he had never even played in the NFL before, but he was named the back-up quarterback for the upcoming game against the Boston Patriots.
That Sunday he found himself on the sidelines as the starting quarterback struggled and the offense failed to gain any momentum. So, with just 10 minutes left in the game, Briscoe stepped out onto the field with only one thought on his mind: complete the first pass. He did, for 22 yards. Then he scrambled for a 12-yard touchdown. Just like that, the Broncos were back in the game and the crowd was electrified.
His offensive linemen — all white players from the south who had never even had a black teammate before coming to the NFL — were thrilled with the production. They immediately developed a new team motto: “Don’t let them touch the Magician.”
The Broncos ended up falling one score short of making a miracle comeback against the Patriots, but Briscoe’s performance was so impressive that he made history the following week when he was named the starter against the Cincinnati Bengals on October 6, 1968. There was so much excitement over the Magician’s performance against the Patriots that 1,000 more fans showed up for that game.
“All of the things that management thought would happen if they let a black quarterback play didn’t happen,” Briscoe said. “In fact, the opposite happened.”
Since that momentous day in Denver 48 years ago, black quarterbacks have continued to push for the right to play their chosen position in the NFL. In 1969, James Harris became the first black quarterback to be named a starter for an entire season. In 1978, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback drafted in the first round, and 10 years later he became the first black quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl. In 1998, Randall Cunningham was the first black quarterback to lead the league in points scored. In 2001, Michael Vick became the first black quarterback drafted No. 1 overall. In 2003, Steve McNair was the first black quarterback to be named the MVP of the league — an honor he shared that year with Peyton Manning. And in 2006, Vince Young was the first black quarterback to be named Rookie of the Year.
Lately, black quarterbacks have been more prominent than ever, playing in the last four Super Bowls, including this Sunday’s. Yet, here we are, the week of the 50th Super Bowl, focusing more on Newton’s race than his red-zone efficiency.
The conversation around Newton has become so heated that there is now backlash to the backlash to the backlash. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark said on ESPN that the criticism of Newton is “not about race, it’s about culture,” and a modern vs. old-school way of looking at things. But intersectionality cannot be severed in that way — those are all code for the same thing. Newton freestyle raps, wears puzzling pants, talks about collard greens during press conferences, and is unapologetically confident about his abilities and aspirations. He is a loud and proud black quarterback. That makes people uncomfortable.
This isn’t surprising to Dr. Harry Edwards, a renowned sociologist who focuses on the experiences of the black athlete.
“The reception that Cam Newton has received is consistent with the reception of black athletes over the decades who have had the audacity not just to play the position of quarterback, but to be fairly competent — or even successful — at the position,” he said.
The way Edwards sees it, black quarterbacks became more prevalent in the league because of a shift in the way the game was played, not because of a shift in cultural ideals. As the modern NFL game evolved into it’s current pass-heavy form, and linebackers became more athletic and began going after the quarterback, owners were forced to start considering better, more mobile athletes for the quarterback position; they couldn’t keep paying upwards of $60 million just for their quarterbacks to be injured for most of the season.
“It wasn’t a change of viewpoint that brought Russell Wilson or Cam Newton to the quarterback position, it was a change in the needs and demands of football,” Edwards said.
“There’s black quarterback wreckage all over the place.”
While he doesn’t want to discount the significance of having four straight black quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, Edwards is cautious not to overstate the meaning of that statistic.
“It’s important that all of these great black athletes are playing quarterback, because that says something in the context of the ongoing struggle for justice, equality of opportunity, dignity and respect in the American sports institution, which inevitably reflects American society,” he said.
“But beneath that, the same values and sentiments prevail. A black quarterback that comes into the league does not play his way out of that perspective from the broader society and the fans and so forth by being exceptional at his position. He’s going to have to deal with that, and in some instances it breaks quarterbacks. Look at what happened to Vince Young [a 2006 first-round draft pick who had early success in the NFL but crashed out of the league in just six seasons amidst financial and emotional turmoil]. He couldn’t do anything right… everything that he did was questioned. I think that Vince’s issue wasn’t that he couldn’t play, it wasn’t that he wasn’t prepared to compete, but he wasn’t prepared to deal with the racist bullshit.”
Edwards is quick to point out that he doesn’t just hurl around the term “racist” in a knee-jerk fashion — after all, he has staunchly defended Chip Kelly from the accusations of racism he faced as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. “I’ve known Chip Kelly since Oregon,” Edwards said. “If Chip Kelly is racist, I’m the tooth fairy.”
But it’s hard for Edwards to see talented players like Young falter and not associate their troubles with the long-standing, systemic mistreatment of black quarterbacks in the NFL.
In 1974, Joe Gilliam Jr. won the starting job as quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers over Terry Bradshaw and was put on the front page of Sports Illustrated with a caption that read, “Pittsburgh’s Black Quarterback.” But outspoken racists in the Pittsburgh community began to bother Gilliam, who began carrying a gun everywhere he went to protect himself and his family. Gilliam quickly turned to drugs; he was benched after six games and out of the NFL the following year. He eventually died of a drug overdose in 2000.
While no story is as tragic as Gilliam’s, there have been other cautionary tales. Besides Young, there was JaMarcus Russell — a black quarterback chosen first overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, who crashed out of the league in two seasons after problems with fitness, drugs, and attitude. Now there’s Robert Griffin III, the quarterback formerly known as “Black Jesus,” who is in career purgatory after a whirlwind of mismanagement, media scrutiny, and injuries stunted his potential in the league.
Each case is unique, but as Edwards puts it, “there’s black quarterback wreckage all over the place.”
However, Edwards thinks that unlike some of the black quarterbacks before him, Newton has the mental strength to brush off the inane criticisms and the talent to take the entire quarterback position to the next level.
“Whether you win, lose or draw, people are going to talk,” Newton said last week. “Now the true fans — they know what’s up. They’re going to be supportive whatever happens… But people are going to judge and have their own opinion on certain things that I don’t have control over nor does anybody else.”
Briscoe set a rookie passing record of 14 touchdowns during that first season with the Broncos, despite splitting playing time with Tinsley once his collarbone healed. The Omahan thought 1969 would be his breakout season — he felt that he had earned the right to challengefor the starting quarterback position, and was excited to see what he could do with a year of experience and a full training camp under his belt.
Unfortunately, coach Saban had other ideas. During the offseason, Briscoe found out that Saban had signed a quarterback from Canada and that quarterback meetings were being held without him. Saban had been forced to start a black quarterback the previous year; he was making sure that didn’t happen again.
Briscoe demanded to be let out of his contract, and Saban obliged — but not before calling other NFL teams and encouraging them not to sign Briscoe. After an exhaustive search, Briscoe finally signed on with the Buffalo Bills as wide receiver — a position he’d never played.
In Buffalo, Briscoe got an up-close and personal view of the progression of black quarterbacks when he roomed with Harris, the first black quarterback to be named starter for a season. He watched as Harris, who came from an all-black college, subdued his exuberance and sense of humor on the field, fearing that his white teammates wouldn’t accept his personality. Briscoe watched as Harris would attempt to hide his athleticism, knowing that his coaches would try to switch him to another position if they knew how fast he could run. Harris would come in last place in sprints during practice; after practice, when he was hanging out with just his black teammates, he would come in second — right behind O.J. Simpson.
He also watched that season as Harris opened his hate mail, filled with death threats. Briscoe was confused, because he had quarterbacked the prior season and hadn’t received anything like that. But only recently did he find out that one of his teammates on the Broncos would go through his mail and remove the death threats before Briscoe could see them.
While appreciative, Briscoe thinks that he would have been able to handle the hate mail had he seen it.
“You have to understand, back then, the era in which I grew up, we had to have thick skin about this stuff,” he said. “I could handle that because all my life, up to that point, I was bombarded by racism and bigotry and hate.”
Briscoe and Harris weren’t roommates at Buffalo for long; Saban became the coach of the Bills a couple of years later and cut Harris and traded Briscoe. By then, Briscoe was so established as a wide receiver that he was worth a first-round pick from the Miami Dolphins. Briscoes’ first season in Miami the team went undefeated and won the Super Bowl. His teammate and friend, white quarterback Bob Griese, was universally praised for his scrambling abilities, the same scrambling abilities that black quarterbacks were criticized for.
“… all my life, up to that point, I was bombarded by racism and bigotry and hate.”
After football, Briscoe had a really tough time. He found himself in Los Angeles with a great job as a broker and no reason to stay in football shape, and quickly became a part of the cocaine era. Drugs led him to homelessness, jail, and nearly death. For a while he seemed to be going in the same direction as Gilliam.
“I often thought about my addictions — were they related to the disappointment and the shunning of not being able to play the position that I had always coveted and succeeded at?” Briscoe asked. “Could that have, consciously or subconsciously, been a part of my change in attitude through life?”
Ultimately, Briscoe was able to find sobriety and reconnect with his football family. He published an autobiography, The First Black Quarterback, in 2000, and his life story is currently being developed into a motion picture, The Magician. The late Steve Sabol of NFL Films has called Briscoe’s journey “one of the most inspirational in NFL history.”
Along with other trailblazing black quarterbacks Harris, Warren Moon, and Doug Williams, Briscoe founded the Field Generals, a foundation for black quarterbacks, and began holding skills camps for black quarterbacks in Super Bowl cities every year. The four men know better than anyone what it takes to make it in pro football.
“Things are better for black Americans, but not totally the way they should be,” Briscoe said. “We’ve come a long way but we have along way to go still, and it’s the same in the NFL.”
It was at one of these skills camps 11 years ago in Jacksonville when Briscoe first laid eyes on a tall and muscular 15-year-old black quarterback, hitting all of the targets with ease and grace. Nobody knew who the kid was, so Briscoe walked over and asked the boy for his name.
“Cam Newton, sir,” he replied.
“That was my first encounter with Cam,” Briscoe said. “He was very polite to the point of being quiet. He was a man among boys. I was impressed then, and I am impressed now. He’s very mature for his age.”
That day, The Magician told Newton, “‘You have a great future, don’t mess it up, you can go places.”
Briscoe was right, of course. Newton won the Heisman trophy and the national championship in college, was drafted first overall, was voted the Rookie of the Year his first season with the Panthers, and now, as the country debates his divisiveness, Newton has a chance to become the third black quarterback in NFL history to win the Super Bowl.
Even though Newton is taking on the team that drafted Briscoe, the team where he made history of his own, there’s no question where his allegiance lies during this game.
“I’m rooting for Cam. I’m rooting for Cam all the way.”