The stench assaults Browning Nagle before he gets halfway through the front door of his condominium. It's near dusk in Orlando and the end of a long day for Nagle, 31, who after a two-year layoff is trying to play his way back into the NFL as quarterback for the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League. Throughout a trying day Nagle's pleasant demeanor hasn't changed. Not after two hours of practice in the hot sun, when players were greeted with this message on the training room refrigerator: ONE BOTTLE OF WATER PER DAY!! Not after his round of golf was interrupted twice by thunderstorms. Not even now, after discovering the present his golden retriever puppy, Kimmy, has left for him on the living room carpet.
"Hey, man, no problem," says Nagle, reaching for some paper towels and carpet cleaner. "S—- happens."
The cleanup job at home is nothing new for Nagle, who dealt with perhaps more than his fair share of crap during six years in the NFL. The atmosphere smells a little sweeter in the AFL. At week's end he had thrown for more than 1,100 yards and a gaudy 22 touchdowns in five games for the defending league champion Predators.
A standout at Louisville, Nagle led the Cardinals to an 11-1 record in 1990. In a season-ending 34-7 romp over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl, he threw for 451 yards and three TDs. When the New York Jets chose him with the 34th pick in the '91 NFL draft—much higher than he'd been projected to go—Nagle assumed that his stock had risen because of his superb bowl performance. What really happened was that the Jets had their hearts set on Brett Favre but were caught off guard when the Atlanta Falcons took Favre with the 33rd pick. With no backup plan, and in need of a quarterback, New York hastily selected Nagle as a consolation. Strike one.
After Ken O'Brien took the Jets to the playoffs in 1991, then coach Bruce Coslet—under orders from team management, according to Coslet—benched O'Brien in favor of Nagle the following season. "The biggest mistake of my coaching career," says Coslet, now coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. "[The New York front office] didn't care if we won or lost, they were just sick and tired of Ken O'Brien. Browning wasn't ready to be the starter, and he threw seven touchdowns and 17 interceptions and won four games with a team that had just been to the playoffs." Strike two.
During that off-season Coslet traded for Boomer Esiason. The cannon-armed Nagle (6'3", 220 pounds), who was already behind the curve in reading defenses and throwing the touch pass, was released and then signed as a free agent by the Indianapolis Colts and finally, in 1995, picked up by the Falcons. He threw only one more touchdown pass in the NFL and was—strike three—out of the league by 1997.
After being cut by the Falcons, Nagle and his wife, Mallie Jo, enrolled at the University of Memphis and resumed working toward their degrees in communications. (They're both still a semester short.) Browning also lowered his golf handicap from four to scratch, hit the celebrity golf tour and took care of the Nagles' three-year-old son, B.J., while Mallie Jo went back to competing in beauty pageants. (On May 15 in Memphis, Mallie Jo won the Mrs. Tennessee America pageant, and she will compete for the Mrs. USA crown in September. "Browning is officially excused if he's in the NFL," she says.)
Nagle never gave up on his search for an NFL job. He regularly scanned the waiver wire and made hundreds of calls and sent faxes to almost every team in the league, hoping to arrange a tryout—all to no avail. "That really crushes your psyche," he says. "There wasn't just one low point. When people won't even call you back, you go from low to lower to lowest pretty quick."
Part of Nagle's problem was—and is—his price tag. With six years experience Nagle would have to be paid a minimum NFL salary of $400,000 (roughly 10 times what he earns in the AFL). In the era of the salary cap, most general managers would rather sign three rookies for that amount. Nagle believes that another factor has also worked against him: He is convinced that Coslet poisoned his name in the coaching fraternity.
"That is not true," says Coslet. "I'm sorry he feels that way, but numbers don't lie." Nagle contends that he was never given an adequate chance to develop. "By no sense was I perfect," says Nagle. "I was making mistakes that 95 percent of the young quarterbacks in the league make. Bruce just bailed on me and then turned me into a scapegoat. Then he dogged me around the NFL so I'd go away and never be able to show him up. Well, I've got news for him, I'm back."