Max Browne’s story is written on the wall.

There are two pictures hanging above the desk in his office, stark examples of athletic extremes. The first is a photograph taken Dec. 1, 2012, 28 minutes and 29 seconds before kickoff of the Class 4A state championship game. The Skyline Spartans stood on the precipice of a second consecutive state football title, with the nation’s premier passer flame-throwing the field. In an undefeated 14-0 season, they scored a KingCo-record 715 points and eviscerated opponents by an average of nearly five touchdowns. And Browne — a five-star recruit and USC commit — closed his career with more passing yards (12,953) and completions (882) than any quarterback in the history of the state.

So you can understand why they stood there, exalted, in the Tacoma Dome end zone — reveling in the twilight of a remarkable run. With his best friends beside him, Browne raised both arms — beaming, with eye black smudged above his smile. In a way, it looked like he’d already won.

Of course, the coronation would come soon enough. In a 49-24 pummeling of Bellarmine Prep, Browne threw for 384 yards — a 4A title-game record — with four touchdowns and one interception, capping his career with a 20th consecutive win. Then-USC coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Clay Helton were there to see it, standing in suits just outside the end zone — symbols of Browne’s prodigious success.

That picture was blown up and printed in black-and-white ink, framed and hung behind Browne’s computer. And it’s accompanied by a second photo — this one taken nearly four years later. In it, Browne is attempting a pass — with Helton, again, standing somewhere on the sideline. It’s positioned below five foreboding words bordering its edges in bold black type:

All-Decade: The biggest busts

The article was published by Rivals.com on Nov. 19, 2019, before eventually settling on the wall of its subject. Both here, and in life, he isn’t willing to hide.

Browne framed them both — the fairy tale, and the fall. He uses the past to propel him forward.

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An article hangs above Max Browne’s home office that read All-Decade: The biggest busts”. Browne uses it as fuel to fight the narrative that he is a failure. (Courtesy of Max Browne)
An article hangs above Max Browne’s home office that read All-Decade: The biggest busts”. Browne uses it as fuel to fight the narrative that he is a failure. (Courtesy of Max Browne)

· · ·

Chapter I: The fairy tale

All Browne wanted to be was a Skyline Spartan.

His brother, Mitch Browne, set the bar at the school — becoming its inaugural quarterback when it opened in 1997. As a senior he led the Spartans to their first state title, and Max memorized the names of every Skyline starter.

“I would never have taken another 5-year-old or any of his friends (to Mitch’s games), because no way could a 5-year-old sit through a three-hour game,” said Cheryl Browne, Max’s mother. “He always was just way more focused.”

From the beginning, Max — the youngest of four Browne boys — was dedicated to a dream. His best friend, Nic Sblendorio, said he was “the chosen one, so to speak, in the neighborhood.” He had curly brown hair and an incomparable arm. He separated himself with a singular obsession.

“Fourth through sixth grade, my team was running no-huddle, spread offenses, and I remember we were the only team in the league that ever threw the football,” said Max, who routinely played one or two years up. “We were throwing 35 times a game in early middle school.”

Regardless of the sport, or season, Max kept throwing. In seventh grade, he’d play in AAU basketball games, then drive with his dad to UW’s Dempsey Center to train with former Husky quarterback Taylor Barton. As a freshman he took every snap for Skyline’s junior-varsity team, then doubled as the varsity backup behind BYU commit Jake Heaps. Browne earned his first scholarship offer from the in-state Huskies at a 7-on-7 tournament the summer before his sophomore season, without ever starting a varsity game.

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“I first heard about him when he was a freshman and Jake Heaps was a senior,” said Brandon Huffman, the national recruiting editor for 247Sports.com. “There was a lot of talk about, ‘Hey, this quarterback situation at Skyline might actually get better with Max Browne.’ ”

Sure enough, Browne threw for 418 yards and five touchdowns against Liberty in his first career start — breaking the program’s single-game passing record in the process. Clemson, Auburn, USC and Oklahoma all offered. On his 17th birthday, Alabama coach Nick Saban called to extend a scholarship.

“It felt like there was a rock star at our school, but you’d never hear about it,” said Sblendorio, a former Skyline and Eastern Washington receiver. “I’d be looking at Scout.com like, ‘Wait, you got offered by Clemson last week?’ I had to verify it with him after the fact.”

Added Huffman, who worked at the aforementioned Scout.com: “When he would get offers, his brother (Mitch) would send me an email — not even a text — saying, ‘Hey, so-and-so offered Max.’ He was just a great kid. He wasn’t cocky. He didn’t act like the No. 1 quarterback in the country.”

And yet, that’s exactly what he was. A 6-foot-5, 210-pound passer, Browne threw for 4,182 yards with 50 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his sophomore season — before finally falling to Ferris of Spokane in the state-title game. He avenged that loss with back-to-back Class 4A championships, developing into what ex-Spartans coach Mat Taylor called “the best leader I’ve ever been around.”

All the while, Browne followed a familiar formula:

He outworked everyone, and he won. And he won. And he won.

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On Dec. 18, 2012, just weeks before he set off for USC, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson surprised Browne with the Gatorade National Player of the Year trophy in a ceremony at his school.

“I lived a fairy-tale childhood,” Browne admitted last month. “That first recess in first grade, when the ball’s rolled out, everybody wants to be quarterback. I was the quarterback, and I was still the best quarterback in 12th grade. It definitely was a dream come true.”

· · ·

Chapter II: The fall

Unfortunately for Browne, the fairy tale faded.

As a freshman at USC, he finished third in a quarterback competition — behind a pair of redshirt sophomores in eventual starter Cody Kessler and Max Wittek. Kessler won the job again the following fall.

Even so, Browne fell back on the formula. He remembers peeking at the playbook in astronomy classes, pressing for hours before a weekday practice. He woke at 4:45 a.m. for additional lifts. Before games as the Trojans’ backup quarterback, he’d return to the locker room soaked in sweat — unable to stop throwing until everything clicked.

The harder he fought, the faster he fell — and his struggles were incessantly analyzed.

“I remember going to practice and then going to the ice bath and scrolling through Twitter and seeing what the beat writers wrote for that day,” he said. “I was aware of (the idea) that, ‘Hey Max, this is just Twitter. These are just reporters. It doesn’t matter. Just tune it out.’ But it’s a whole other battle when it’s your life.

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“I felt like I was a mentally strong kid. But at the same time, when you’re seeing those things and I’d had nothing but success in my entire athletic career, it was tough. It was really tough. There were two years or so of unfavorable reviews.”

Browne’s fairy tale was built on bricks and sweat.

He outworked everyone, and he won. Until the formula failed him.

“There’s a fine line,” said Browne, who credits work with a sports psychologist for help during his time at USC. “We talk about ‘Mamba Mentality’ and pushing yourself and doing another rep and being your worst critic or your biggest motivator. But the flip side of that is, I think there was a time there in my first two years at USC when I was my biggest enemy. I didn’t give myself an opportunity to make mistakes. Because in my head, and in other people’s heads as well, I was expected to play right now.

“There’s a blessing of being a five-star recruit, don’t get me wrong. But I think the curse of it is that the second you step on campus, there is an urgency to play and produce right away.” 

***

Browne didn’t play right away.

But he decided to stay.

And there was some precedent to support this decision. Though Matt Barkley started at QB as a freshman at USC in 2009, his predecessor waited for three seasons to become the full-time starter. And, after throwing 34 touchdown passes in 2008, Mark Sanchez was selected fifth overall in the NFL draft. He waited and worked, and his patience paid off.

So Browne embraced the Sanchez track. He placed his faith in the formula. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, he was named the program’s co-weightlifter of the year — an unprecedented honor for a quarterback. The next year, he won the Bob Chandler award — given to the underclassman “with outstanding athletic ability, academic achievement and character.” He earned a business degree in two-and-a-half years, the first of three degrees in his college career.

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And, after three seasons at USC — same as Sanchez — Browne, too, was named the starter. His entire high-school team sent a video congratulating “QB1.” His girlfriend, Victoria Garrick, delivered a bottle of Champagne.

Two weeks later, Browne stood in front of a bathroom mirror at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. For 20 seconds, he stared at himself — the Spartan, turned Trojan, with a “C” on his shoulder. It was his first start since the Tacoma Dome nearly four years before, and he was ready for another remarkable run.

Against reigning national champion Alabama — one of the most dominant defenses in the history of the game — Browne delivered immediate déjà vu. On his second play from scrimmage, he faked a handoff, turned and uncorked a deep ball to Darreus Rogers for a 36-yard gain. It was almost identical to the opening sequence in his first start for Skyline, when he set the program’s passing record as a skinny sophomore.

On the next drive, with a 3-0 lead, Browne doubled down. On third-and-10 from his 33-yard line, he sidestepped a sack and scampered up the middle for a 17-yard gain. After sliding to a stop, he instantly erupted — unfurling a fist pump and a primal roar.

“That drive, man, it really felt like things were going according to plan,” Browne said.

Added former Mercer Island and USC kicker Alex Wood, Max’s longtime roommate: “Then, Alabama happened.”

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Specifically, the Tide flipped a 3-0 deficit into a 52-6 win — allowing an average of 2.9 yards per play in the process. The Trojans went 4 for 18 on third down, and Browne completed 14 of 29 passes for 101 yards and an interception — with Helton alternating between Browne and Sam Darnold in the second half.

In his long-awaited debut, Browne became the unfortunate face of the Trojans’ flop.

“The trolling and the hate comments and the attacking was horrible. Horrible,” said Garrick, who had begun dating Browne only weeks before.

“There were memes making fun of his appearance, of his play. It was so nasty. Even my mom and dad couldn’t believe it. My mom was on her Twitter account, trying to defend Max. I was like, ‘Mom, there’s like thousands of tweets. You’re not doing anything.’ ”

Added Wood: “That was the birth of Sam Darnold and Jalen Hurts that game. When for us, it was supposed to be the birth of Max Browne.”

Two weeks later, after a 27-10 loss to No. 7 Stanford, Helton called Browne into his office on a Sunday afternoon. He said they’d decided to go with Darnold — that he appreciated his efforts, but the team needed a spark. They spoke for 10 minutes, and that was it. He worked for three seasons to start three games.

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Browne left the McKay Center without attending the team meal. On his red Razor scooter, he coasted slowly through campus. He lived with seven football players; he didn’t want to go home. Instead, he sent a short text to friends and family and stopped at a chapel tucked between buildings of the business school. He folded his 220-pound frame into a bench in the back.

“I basically cried my eyes out for an hour,” he said.

Since he was 5 years old, Max was focused on football. He was convinced, no matter the competition, that eventually, inevitably, his work would win.

But on Sept. 18, 2016, that belief was broken.

“That meeting (with Helton) kind of represented, ‘All right, this is just not happening,’ ” said Browne, who led the scout team while Darnold ascended. “There’s no more, ‘OK, there’s another rep or another practice.’ No, that’s the end of the road at USC. All the juice was sucked out of me.

“I wouldn’t say I went into full-on, clinically diagnosed depression. But there were certainly dark days in the months to come.”

***

And yet, they weren’t all dark days.

One, in particular, was practically perfect.

On Sept. 30, 2017, Browne — who transferred to Pitt the previous offseason — led the Panthers to a 42-10 home win over Rice. He passed for 410 yards and four touchdowns, completing 28 of 32 passes (with three of the four incompletions being drops). After the game, the fifth-year quarterback and two-time captain told a crowd of reporters “that’s about as good of a feeling as you can have.” He was named ACC Offensive Player of the Week.

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This April 15, 2017 file photo shows Pittsburgh quarterback Max Browne (4) warming up before the annual Pittsburgh Spring NCAA football scrimmage in Pittsburgh.  (Keith Srakocic / AP)
This April 15, 2017 file photo shows Pittsburgh quarterback Max Browne (4) warming up before the annual Pittsburgh Spring NCAA football scrimmage in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic / AP)

The next week, it took two tries to pop his shoulder back into place.

Trailing Syracuse 17-13 in the Carrier Dome, Browne took a shotgun snap and dropped back to pass, while tight end Matt Flanagan blew a block on current Seahawk Alton Robinson. Browne was lassoed around the shoulders and slammed to the turf.

Unfortunately, Mike and Cheryl Browne had been there before.

“When they’re calling the doctor out and circling around him and he’s writhing on the ground, you know (it’s serious),” said Cheryl Browne, Max’s mother. “Plus, we’ve had probably four dislocated shoulders in our kids’ careers. Mitch has had both. Marcus has had one. Everybody has had ’em. We must make weak shoulders.”

Still, Browne forced himself to stand and trot off the field. On a cold metal table in the X-ray room, with a student trainer — a stranger — standing at his side, Browne cried uncontrollably. He emptied himself. He was nearly 3,000 miles from home, five years removed from the fairy tale. When he exited the tunnel, his arm in a sling, he instantly saw his dad, and the tears returned.

“It wasn’t even the pain,” Browne said. “It was what that injury symbolized.”

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His career essentially ended in the Carrier Dome.

For 15 months, Browne rehabbed a torn labrum on his throwing shoulder — before eventually participating in NFL tryouts with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Football Team. But he couldn’t be the same quarterback, so he called it quits.

“I think the phrase he used was, ‘I’m knocking on a door that just isn’t going to open,’ ” Garrick said.

The truth is, Max Browne never stopped knocking.

He just found different doors.  

· · ·

Former five-star quarterback Max Browne, from Sammamish at LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on March 28, 2021. Browne’s football career didn’t go as expected coming in as a break-out star in high school, ending his college career with more college degrees than wins. “You never think it’s going to be you that actually needs to use those degrees” says Browne. “The athlete in you is like, ‘hey man, that’s never going to be me. I’ll be done playing football in 15 years and then I’ll figure it out
Former five-star quarterback Max Browne, from Sammamish at LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on March 28, 2021. Browne’s football career didn’t go as expected coming in as a break-out star in high school, ending his college career with more college degrees than wins. “You never think it’s going to be you that actually needs to use those degrees” says Browne. “The athlete in you is like, ‘hey man, that’s never going to be me. I’ll be done playing football in 15 years and then I’ll figure it out’”. Failing to crack into the NFL, Browne has pivoted into working as a football analyst on radio. (Andy Bao/For The Seattle Times)

Chapter III: The future

So, he fell. We all fall. Browne just fell further. And the world is unwilling to let him forget.

“One of the analogies I heard was, in the year 2000 if you were a five-star recruit and things didn’t work out, it would be like falling off a two-story building and spraining your ankle. But nowadays with social media, if it doesn’t work out, it’s like falling off a 10-story building. It can be a broken leg or worse,” said Browne, 26, who worked for two years in social-media marketing.

“Back in the day, everyone wasn’t connected to every single update you had. My parents and loved ones and high-school coaches weren’t able to follow the beat writers at the USC practice on Twitter. Now it feels like everyone knows every nuance of my college career, and it’s awesome when things work out, but it’s tough when things don’t. There’s nowhere to hide.”

He isn’t trying to.

Instead, through his Twitter account and YouTube channel, Browne has embraced the opposite approach. The “all-decade bust” is sharing his story — providing proof that the fall doesn’t have to be fatal.

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“It’s a story that for so long we don’t like telling, we don’t like reading, we don’t like seeing, because I don’t think anybody wants to accept that their dream might not happen,” said Garrick, a former volleyball player at USC. “But the reality is, only 1% of NCAA athletes go pro. For every Steve Carell, there’s Bob Jones, who didn’t get chosen to be Michael Scott. There’s always that person that didn’t get the thing.

“Yeah, society loves a success. They love those stories. But the majority of people aren’t going to get that result, and it might have nothing to do with how hard they worked, or how capable they are. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Max exemplifies the idea that there is light at the end of any tunnel.”

In Los Angeles, Browne is trying to live in the light. He recently started a job at a commercial real estate company called Kennedy Wilson, and moved in with Garrick — his girlfriend of four-and-a-half years. He dabbles as a football analyst as well, even calling a game between Louisiana Tech and UAB for Stadium last season.

Meanwhile, Sam Huard — who moved past Browne and Denver Broncos quarterback Brett Rypien to become the state’s all-time passing leader in his last game at Kennedy Catholic — begins spring practices at Washington next week. When it comes to college football’s recruiting carousel, the wheel keeps spinning.

As for Browne, he doesn’t know why the door didn’t open. But through his actions, he’s making peace with his past.

“If it wasn’t for Max, I would never watch another football game again, because it hurts my heart to watch football … and I’m not even the person that this happened to,” Garrick said. “But Max is out there showing up to the Coliseum, commentating on games.”

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Since 2019, Browne has served as an analyst on USC’s pregame and postgame radio shows. Ultimately, he said, “it’s been a big blessing.”

For five years, Browne outworked everyone … and lost. In the aftermath, he learned that life wasn’t over.

From his desk, he looks up and sees his story. He also sees room for more pictures on the wall.