Posts Tagged ‘NFL’

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

May 13, 2016 1 comment

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Some thoughts about Marlin Briscoe in the year that he is:
•being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame
•having a life-size status of his likeness dedicated at UNO
•and seeing a feature film about himself going into production this fall


For years, Marlin Briscoe never quite got his due nationally or even locally. Sure, he got props for being a brilliant improviser at Omaha U. but that was small college ball far off most people’s radar. Even fewer folks saw him star before college for the Omaha South High Packers. Yes, he got mentioned as being the first black quarterback in the NFL, but it took two or three decades after he retired from the game for that distinction to sink in and to resonate with contemporary players, coaches, fans and journalists. It really wasn’t until his autobiography came out that the significance of that achievement was duly noted and appreciated. Helping make the case were then-current NFL black quarterbacks, led by Warren Moon, who credited Briscoe for making their opportunity possible by breaking that barrier and overturning race bias concerning the quarterback position. Of course, the sad irony of it all is that Briscoe only got his chance to make history as a last resort by the Denver Broncos, who succumbed to public pressure after their other quarterbacks failed miserably or got injured. And then even after Briscoe proved he could play the position better than anyone else on the squad, he was never given another chance to play QB with the Broncos or any other team. He was still the victim of old attitudes and perceptions, which have not entirely gone away by the way, that blacks don’t have the mental acuity to run a pro-style offensive system or that they are naturally scramblers and not pocket passers or that they are better with their feet and their athleticism than they are with their arms or their head. Briscoe heard it all, and in his case he also heard that he was too small.

After Briscoe swallowed the bitter pill that he would be denied a chance to play QB in The League after that one glorious go of it in 1968, he dedicated himself to learning an entirely new position – wide receiver – as his only way to stay in the NFL. In truth, he could have presumably made it as a defensive back and return specialist. In fact, he was primarily on the Broncos roster as a DB when he finally got the nod to start at QB after only seeing spot duty there. Briscoe threw himself into the transition to receiver with the Buffalo Bills and was good enough to become an All-Pro with them and a contributing wideout with the back to back Super Bowl winning Miami Dolphins. As unfair as it was, Briscoe didn’t make a big stink about what happened to him and his QB aspirations, He didn’t resist or refuse the transition to receiver. He worked at it and made it work for him and the teams he played on. The successful transition he made from signal caller to received is one of the most remarkable and overlooked feats in American sports history.

About a quarter century after Briscoe’s dreams of playing QB were dashed and he reinvented himself as a receiver, another great Omaha athlete, Eric Crouch, faced a similar crossroads. The Heisman Trophy winner was an option quarterback with great athleticism and not well suited to being a pro style pocket passer. He was drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams as an athlete first, but ostensibly to play receiver, not quarterback. He insisted on getting a tryout at QB and failed. The Rams really wanted him to embrace being a receiver but his heart wasn’t in it and he loudly complained about not being given a shot at QB. He went from franchise to franchise and from league to league chasing a dream that was not only unrealistic but a bad fit that would not, could not, did not fit his skills set at that level of competition. Unlike Briscoe, who lost the opportunity to play QB because he was black, Crouch lost the opportunity because he wasn’t good enough. Briscoe handled the discrimination he faced with great integrity and maturity. Crouch responded to being told the truth with petulance and a sense of denial and entitlement. That contrast made a big impression on me. I don’t know if Crouch would have made a successful transition to receiver the way Brsicoe did, but he certainly had the skils to do it, as he showed at Nebraska. I always thought NU should have kept him at wingback and Bobby Newcombe at QB, but that’s for another post.

But the real point is that when the going got tough for Briscoe, he rose to the occasion. That strong character is what has allowed him to recover from a serious drug addiction and to live a sober, successful life these past two-plus decades. John Beasley is producing a feature film about Briscoe called “The Magician” and its story of personal fortitude will touch many lives.

Link to my profile of Marlin Briscoe at–

Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

Link to my collection of stories on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends: Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness at–


Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL

March 5, 2015 1 comment

As much as I enjoy writing about the arts and artists, I equally enjoy writing about athletics and athletes.  I finally caught up with a former football great from Nebraska, Joe Arenas, who has never really gotten his full due.  If the name isn’t familiar, it’s because his professional and college exploits happened about 60 years ago.  And though he was a very fine player – so good that he is still among the NFL’s all-time leaders in career kick return average – his jack of all trades verstality as a returner, running back, receiver, and defensive back made it hard for him to really stand out except as a returner.  When you come right down to it, how many returners other than maybe Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, and Devin Hester really made a dent in the national consciousness?  Sayers was of course a great running back in addition to being a great returner.  The other thing working against Arenas was that he had two future NFL Hall of Fame teammates, in Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who got most of the offensive touches out of the backfield.  Before playing pro ball Arenas starred in the single-wing at then-Omaha University, where again he did a little of everything.  In the single-wing Joe played a half-back spot in that offense but he did everything a quarterback does.  Before he ever played college ball Joe served as a U.S. Marine in World War II.  He was wounded at Iwo Jima.  My story about Joe for El Perico newspaper refers to the fact that Arenas was among a small number of Hispanic football players who made a mark in the game.  I also reference how Omaha U., which today is the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is where another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, played quarterback in an era when that was very rare at a predominantly white university. What I didn’t mention in the article is that a third athlete of color with local ties, Wilburn Hollis, played quarterback at two mostly white institutions, first at Boys Town and then at the University of Iowa.  I was delighted to find Joe a still vital man in his late 80s.



Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL

October 5, 2010 4 comments

In 2004 I first became enamored with the story of Danny Woodhead, a North Platte, Neb. all-around athlete who became a living legend in high school for his exploits in football, basketball, and track.  He set all kinds of records on the gridiron but large colleges were put off by his small size. He was maybe 5’8 and 180-190 pounds then.  Many a big school has bypassed a great player by only looking at the measurables and not assessing an individual’s heart, worth ethic, competitiveness, and instincts for the game.  Woodhead clearly had those qualities and if coaches had only believed their own eyes they would have seen a special athlete with big-time running capability.  Without an attractive offer in hand, however, Woodhead decided to stay close to home and attend nearby Chadron State College, an obscure Division II school. There, his legend only increased.  Long story short, he became the leading rusher in NCAA history, regardless of division. He personally ran for more yards from scrimmage than the majority of college teams did during his four-year career.  He helped lead a turnaround at Chadron, which went from doormat to contender, I finally caught up with him in 2006, when he won the Harlon Hill Trophy as D-II’s best player for the first time.  The award is D-II’s equivalent of the Heisman, and he won it again at the end of the 2007 season.  No one will ever know what Woodhead would have done at a D-I football power like Nebraska, which showed only tepid interest in him at best when he was in high school, but it’s safe to say that after what he did in college and what he’d done by not only making it to the National Football League but thriving there, that he would have performed very well had he been given the opportunity.

In 2008  he was signed as a free agent by the New York Jets, and he so impressed the coaching staff that after suffering a serious injury in preseason camp he was retained by the team, and he once again made the squad for the 20o9 season.  He shined in some exhibition games and though he saw limited action during the regular season he did produce well when given the chance.  He became a darling of the Jet press corps and fan base, and his legend grew more when he was featured in the HBO reality show, “Hard Knocks. ” Head coach Rex Ryan often praised Woodhead. Woodhead recovered from his injury and made the team to start the 2010 season but he was released only two weeks into the campaign.  That’s when the folktale of Woodhead took another fateful turn:  the NFL’s premier franchise did what it’s done innumerable times before by picking up a cast-off that the brain trust of coach Bill Belichick & Co. recognized as having real value.  The Pats’ acquisition of the no-name Woodhead has more than panned out, as Woodhead has scored a touchdown in each of his first two games with the club, earning praise from his new coaches and teammates, and along the way he’s become an instant folk hero in New England.

The following story for The Reader ( appeared after Woodhead’s Harlon Hill-winning junior season at Chadron, when the thought of an NFL career was yet a distant dream. That dream has now been fulfilled and it still has a long way to go before it’s finished.  Indeed, Woodhead is only just getting started.


Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


By winning the Harlon Hill Trophy last weekend as the nation’s best Division II college football player for 2006 Danny Woodhead won one for all the guys told they’re too small, too slow or from the wrong athletic pedigree. Coming out of North Platte, Woodhead, now the super stud, record-setting tailback for Chadron State College (Neb.), heard doubts about his ability despite being Nebraska Class A football’s all-time rushing-scoring leader.

The modest Woodhead isn’t sure his award is vindication so much as inspiration for underdogs. “I don’t know if it’s a win for ‘em, but I think it’s encouraging,” he said. “It makes ‘em think they have a chance because if I had a chance of doing it I think anyone can. It’s not about your size. It’s about how if you keep working hard something like this could happen. It probably teaches don’t let people tell you you can’t do it, because I’ve been told I couldn’t do stuff since I was in 8th grade.”

D-I schools gave him a look after high school but no offers. A pair of D-II schools courted him and the one he chose, Chadron, lacked a powerhouse program. He followed older brother Ben there. Besides, it was closer to home than his only other suitor, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

At North Platte High he compiled huge numbers, but didn’t meet the profile of a big-time back. In the eyes of major college recruiters he was under weight, (190 pounds) and a step slow (4.6 in the 40). Also hurting his cred was where he played. Western Nebraska doesn’t produce many D-I prospects. Most of his yards came against the Grand Islands and Cretes, not Lincoln or Metro Omaha schools. The theory went, You-may-be-all-that-in-the-sticks, but-you-ain’t-shit-where-it-counts. Then, too, he’s white, when the prototype ballcarrier is black. What’s a guy to do?

Well, in Woodhead’s case he got bigger, stronger and faster and in the process put up eye-popping stats his freshman and sophomore years, rushing 562 times for 3,609 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns for Chadron teams that were competitive but lost as often as they won. He also proved a dangerous receiver. Each year he made the Associated Press Little All-America Team. Combining great lower body strength, superb balance, uncanny vision, excellent speed and rare endurance, he sheds tacklers and makes people miss and just keeps coming at you.

Then he took his game up a notch in 2006. In a year in which Chadron went 12-1, advanced to the playoffs and nearly beat D-II finalist Northwest Missouri State, he went off the way Barry Sanders did his Heisman year. Woodhead earned 1st Team All America honors and D-II’s Heisman equivalent when he gained 2,736 rushing yards and 3,158 all-purpose yards and scored 38 touchdowns and 228 points, tops in each NCAA category. To put it in perspective, by himself he outrushed and outscored most collegiate gridiron teams. His 2,736 rushing yards set the all-division single season mark. With a full season to play, Woodhead, a junior, has 6,345 rushing yards and 84 touchdowns. He’s on pace to break every NCAA career rushing, all-purpose yardage and scoring record. He may eclipse some marks by huge margins.

Like all great athletes he’s not content. “I don’t want to be satisfied with what I’ve done,” he said. “I want to work just as hard as I can to get better.” He intends leading Chadron to the D-II title game, which the return of 19 players with starting experience makes plausible. He’ll be the favorite to win a second Harlon Hill.

Whatever he does next, he knows people will ask, Could he have done it in D-I? “We could play the what if game,” he said, “but honestly it’s not going to get us anywhere. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m having a blast playing football. It’s something you don’t want to end, so I’m just going to cherish it while I have it and I’m not really worried about what I could be or would be doing in Division I.”

The next question is, Can he make it in the NFL? It doesn’t matter. You see, he’s already a legend. His feats should do wonders for recruiting. Thanks to him, other  guys who don’t fit the mold may be dreaming big . Now that’s a legacy, man.





Woodhead compiled just under 10,000 all-purpose yards during his Chadron State career.  Here are a few of his college stats:

11    250     1646   49     1597   6.4       21    89    145.2
13    344     2854   98     2756   8.0       34    88    212.0
10    278     1854   85     1769   6.4       21    91    176.9
10    284     1892   52     1840   6.5       25    73    184.0
44   1156     8266          7962            101
GP     NO.     YDS   AVG.   TDS  LNG
11     38      484   12.7   2    85
13     45      403    9.0   4    43
10     30      367   12.2   0    32
10     16      163   10.2   2    55
44    129     1417          8
GP     TDS      PTS

11            23               138

13             38              228

10             21              126

10             27             162

44           109            654

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