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
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."
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."
It was an Oliver Stone film that brought Nagle back to the game.
After last year's Arena Bowl, Stone hired the Predators'
starting quarterback, Pat O'Hara, to play a small role in a
football movie he was making titled On Any Given Sunday. Filming
ran long, however, and when the AFL season opened in February,
O'Hara was still on location in South Florida. Orlando needed a
quarterback. Predators coach Jay Gruden, younger brother of
Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, called Nagle, whom he had
known from their days as teammates at Louisville. Gruden says it
took five phone calls to convince Nagle that the AFL wasn't a
Gruden played quarterback for the AFL's Tampa Bay Storm from
1991 to '96, leading the team to four league championships.
Since luring Nagle back into action, he has been tutoring him on
the nuances of the eight-to-a-side indoor game, which is played
on a 50-yard field that has boards on the sidelines and nets in
the end zones.
Crossovers from the AFL to the NFL are rare, though many AFL
players are good enough to make an NFL training camp roster, and
last year receiver Oronde Gadsen played his way from the AFL's
Portland Forest Dragons to the Miami Dolphins' starting lineup.
"At this point I'd play flag football if it would help me get
back to the NFL," says Nagle, who is the second-highest NFL
draft pick to play Arenaball. (Quarterback Art Schlichter, a
Colts' No. 1 choice--fourth overall--in 1982, played for the
Detroit Drive and the Cincinnati Rockers between 1990 and '92.)
"I'm just happy to be slinging the rock again."
In his Arena league debut Nagle threw for five TDs. Last
Saturday he returned to the Meadowlands and threw for 79 yards
and one touchdown before separating his right shoulder in a
51-38 overtime win over the New Jersey Red Dogs.
Nagle has taken other lumps too. He was knocked around like a
pinball in a 64-47 loss to the Iowa Barnstormers on May 1. "I
have never been pummeled in my entire career like I was in
Iowa," he says. "The next day, oh, all the pain just came
crashing back down on me, and it was like, Hello, it's me again,
your old friend football--did you miss me?"
Nagle doesn't seem to mind the rug burns, the coach-class
flights to cities like Des Moines or the tight budget that
limits the Predators' coaching staff to one video camera with
which to record practice. Most days he's the first one on the
field, happy just to smell the freshly cut grass and snap up his
chin strap again. "Even if nothing comes of this, at least
Browning got his spirit back," says Mallie Jo. "He was about as
low as you can get, but now he's back to the guy I met in
The plan is to finish the season with the Predators in July and
head straight into an NFL training camp. After last season,
during which retread quarterbacks such as Randall Cunningham,
Doug Flutie and Vinny Testaverde were all the rage, there may be
a place in the NFL for Nagle after all. "I come into this with
no expectations," says Nagle. "But this is no pipe dream,
either. With my kind of talent I should be in the NFL. It's
still not too late for me to change my career into a success
NFL," says the Predators' quarterback.