It is incredibly hard to be a fan of the NFL right now. The powers that be keep finding ways to make you even less of one, but when the season begins, millions of people will jump back into the madness because they have fantasy football leagues to win.
But the one thing that this season-long streak of NFL Gone Bad can’t shake, it’s the appreciation for its mythology. In becoming the biggest entertainment company in the United States today, the NFL has allowed for incredible storytelling to shape its platform over the years – from its iconic Films arm to media partners to even advertisers plucking the right people at the right time.
Yes, we’re becoming less naïve about what these men have endured playing professional football at the highest level. And yes, there are some ongoing narratives that should have better analysis than what they are getting now. (Hello, Colin.) However, even as we strip the veneers of the game, there are hundreds upon hundreds of stories that may not always get the shine that they deserve.
Many of you have players, games, and events that you’d like to see deep dives on, but here are three historical stories that this Scribe would be interested in seeing someday soon.
The story of Marlin Briscoe
As much as we are constantly reminded of Major League Baseball’s struggle to re-integrate itself upon the arrival of Jackie Robinson, the NFL’s own issues with the admission of black players have a much dimmer spotlight. And though African-Americans would eventually make their way onto the field – a slow trickle, of course – for too long, none were seen to ever believed to have the ability to play quarterback.
After relieving the injured Steve Tensi the week before, Marlin Briscoe was the first black player to start at quarterback in the AFL when he went under center for the Denver Broncos on October 6th, 1968. When you consider the year itself – 1968 may have been the most volatile year in American history since Reconstruction – Briscoe’s chance to disprove the racist trope that black players were ‘too intellectually inferior’ to play quarterback almost slips under the radar.
There had been a featured film in the works about Briscoe for over a decade, but there has not been an update on production since its potential lead was announced in 2016. However, with the fiftieth anniversary of Briscoe’s first start coming this season, we should expect the league to highlight the moment. Ideally, there would be an episode of A Football Life from NFL Network to introduce his story to younger fans, but that currently remains to be seen since this season’s episodes have yet to be announced.
Place your bets… someday
Let’s be for real about something with this league – despite its arms’ length posturing about betting on the games, a significant part of NFL history was literally built by gamblers. Specifically, it was built on legalized gambling when the New York (Football) Giants were born after Tim Mara, a bookmaker, purchased the rights to this new expansion franchise for $500 in 1925. (That would be about $7,200 now.) Surely, he wasn’t the only bookie involved with the league as it was starting to grow back then, but let’s assume that everyone adhered to some sort of rules just a few years after the Black Sox scandal in baseball a few years before. Yet, over time, the NFL – at least in the public eye – became averse to betting, scared of how games could be potentially influenced by some very desperate and scary people.
Fast forward over 90 years later where more states are racing to get legal sportsbooks going after the Supreme Court’s decision this past spring. And while fans are going to be visiting sports betting sites like ComeOn, there’s no doubt that the league is monitoring how legalized betting performs in states with or near NFL teams. This could be a good time for football fans to trace a century-plus timeline on how the league had grown an adversarial relationship with betting. Maybe in understanding the past, current and future bettors can gain an appreciation of how far society, and maybe the league, has come over time.
The USFL players that made it
One of the most revered editions of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is ‘Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?’. The documentary focused on how the United States Football League shot for the stars for a brief four-year period until in-fighting, financial mismanagement and the involvement of a certain ‘businessman’ pretty much killed the league. As great as it was – or infuriating, in retrospect – the one aspect that deserves attention would be the adjustment of former USFL players that would be picked up by NFL teams upon the upstart league’s demise.
Some guys were just incredibly gifted like the living legend called Hershel Walker. Beyond him, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman, and Reggie White are the only former USFL players to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There were plenty of other guys who faced long odds and never reached the stratosphere of those men but were able to have a cup of coffee in the NFL, if not outright carve solid careers. Through interviews and archival footage, it could be interesting to see how those players made the change into the NFL – a league that may have been a boyhood dream to play in but were initially passed over because of big money promises by the USFL. Some of these guys may have never played pro football again until the doomed league gave them the opportunity, potentially making their stories all the more compelling to tell. (And there’s some ideal source material coming soon.)
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.