Friday, August 23, 2019

The First African-American Battery—Marlin Briscoe and Buzz Highsmith

By John Turney
We are not sure who the first African-American player to snap in the NFL is. In the NFL's early days there were some black players and it's possible that someone played center in the 1920s, though if it happened it's never been noted.

That was followed by a shameful period when black players were banned from the NFL, a practice that ended in 1946 in both the NFL and the AAFC.

From that time until the 1960s we are unaware of any black players who played center. However, we do know that in 1965 Winston Hill, an excellent tackle for the AFL's New York jets was the backup center and in one game versus the Chargers the starter went down and Hill played the majority of the game at center.

In 1968 Walter "Buzz" Highsmith was the first African-American to start a game in the major leagues when he opened the game at center in the fourth game of the 1968 season. The quarterback for that game was Marlin Briscoe, the first quarterback to be a starter in the major leagues in modern history. Briscoe didn't start the opener, but he was the starter for the majority of the games. 

There were some black quarterbacks in the pre-modern era such as Fritz Pollard, Joe Lillard, George Taliaferro, Willie Thrower, and Charlie Brackins but only Pollard got real playing time. Taliaferro played tailback in a single wing and as such threw a lot, so in a sense he was the "passer" but Glen Dobbs got more playing time and threw more passes so we don't think he was the "starter".
Highsmith at Center, Briscoe at Quarterback
It was, however, Briscoe's first start that season and that, coupled with Highsmith, made them the first African-American battery (a stolen baseball term referring to the pitcher and catcher) in history. The fact that both were in their first-ever starts is also notable. 

It didn't last long. Briscoe struggled and was benched at the half and it seems Highsmith was, too. In the second half usually starting center Larry Kaminski was back at the pivot and Steve Tensi took on the quarterback duties.
Kaminski and Tensi battery versus Bengals, 1968
Sylvester Croom played one game and started it in 1975 for the Saints. Croom is best known as an NFL position coach and NCAA head coach. Croom started the opener on September 21, 1975 but was cut on the 23rd of September. Late in the season began his coaching career.

In 1981 there were two starting black centers, Ray Donaldson and Dwight Stephenson, however, Donaldson started all sixteen games and Stephenson started just five. (Both entered the NFL in 1980 but neither started a game as a rookie). So, Donaldson should rightly carry the title of the NFL's first African-American starting center, when "starting" is defined as starting the majority of the games for a given team.

Kevin Glover became the Lions starting center in 1987 and two years later Rodney Peete took over as the Lions signal-caller. We're confident this is the second African-American "battery" in league history. (Glover also started with Warren Moon in 1998 which, we think, would be the fourth tandum ever).

In 1988 Dermontti Dawson, as a rookie, started five games and was a starter the rest of his career. In 1997 when Kordell Stewart earned the starting quarterback position he and Dawson became the third-ever all African-American "battery".

Tony Mayberry became the Buccaneers center in 1991 and in 1999 he and Shaun King stated five games together and we think is the fifth pairing ever.

After that, we've not looked into the subject much so this is definitely not the definitive work on the subject so we may have missed some key details. We simply wanted to highlight Buzz and Marlin's accomplishments but it has raised some questions in our mind.

There have been over 100 black quarterbacks in the NFL (includes AFL/AAFC) but nothing near that in centers. The first starting black quarterback happened in 1968 and there were black starting quarterbacks in 1969, 1973-77, 1979-80 but it wasn't until 1981 when there was a starting center.

Honestly, we don't know how many black centers there have been in the NFL, it's not something we've tallied. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reported that from 1999-14 that 13% to 31% of NFL centers were black in any given year. Eyeballing the data it seems that the average is around 20% in that span. But it does seem that center and kicker/punter (about 3% black) are positions that there are not many black participants. 

We do note that of the centers who are black, many have been great. Stephenson (the best ever) and Dawson are Hall of Famers. Ray Donaldson is not, but he's close to that level. Jason Brown was very good, Mayberry was a Pro Bowler.

On a personal note in the seven years, I coached semi-pro football we never had a white center. For five years it was one smart, tough kid, and when he hung 'em up he was replaced by a younger, bigger kid who was also the quarterback of our line, very smart.  It just begs the question, why so few black centers in the NFL? 

In this case, in this day and age, we find it's hard to believe it's pure racism, not that racism is 100% over, but teams want to win and coaches are going to play the best players in perhaps 99% of the cases. Maybe it's just moving good college centers to guard or tackle? Maybe it's too few black centers in high school in college... we don't know, we're just curious. Smarter minds than ours will eventually give is some answers.


  1. Some great information here ... I would love to have seen Briscoe get another opportunity to play quarterback after the 1968 season. The Broncos lured Pete Liske away from the CFL in 1969 and he took over as the back up to Tensi.

    The first starting black quarterback in major professional football was really Bernie Custis of the Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1951. Custis started every game for Hamilton that season and led tbem to the playoffs.The Canadian League lured some big name players away from U.S. teams in the 1950's because the money was better.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi! Nice post!!Thanks for sharing it with us....really needed.On our Check Ordering Online website, we will show you the most effective way to check ordering. You’ll be able to order checks for personal or business use like NFL Football checks. you will not need to concern yourself with having someone else do this once arduous task.NFL Football