Who is this guy? That’s the question Sports Illustrated posed on a 1999 cover featuring Kurt Warner. Football fans—at least those in Carolina and Philadelphia—are still pondering that one. All these years later, Kurt is still proving the experts wrong and making the league’s talent gurus look like fantasy football nerds. A decade ago, he brought a new passing style to the NFL. In 2008, he brought the sad-sack Arizona Cardinals to the brink of history. A strong arm, quick mind and unwavering faith have served Kurt well through the ups and downs of his storybook career. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Kurt Warner was born on June 22, 1971 in Burlington, Iowa. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Gene and Sue, were divorced when Kurt was a pre-schooler. He and his older brother, Matt, took the news hard. Kurt blamed his mother. To make her feel bad, he would try to hurt himself. He could hold his breath until he passed out. 

Sue remarried in 1981. Her husband was not terribly fond of Kurt and Matt. He also hit Sue. She ended the marriage quickly and decided she and the boys would go it alone. Kurt and Matt took on extra household chores, while their mom worked two or three jobs to keep the lights on.

During this time, Kurt got heavily involved in sports. He was a standout at flag football at a local rec center. Kurt could look at the tangle of bodies in front of him and sense where the openings were and where trouble lurked. He was a beefy kid for his age, but he was quick and had a remarkable way of running into a swirl of players and emerge on the other side, his flags still flapping.

Kurt graduated to tackle football in seventh grade. He told his mother that he would one day be a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. He was crestfallen to find that he was above the weight limit to play receiver in his youth league. He ended up playing on the line. Kurt hated it. He couldn't stand a position where he never touched the ball. He thought about quitting, but stuck it out for two seasons and picked up some good knowledge about what goes on in the trenches.

Kurt enrolled at Regis High School in 1985 and went out for the football team. Kurt was still bigger than the other boys his age, but his pudginess had been replaced by lean muscle. Coach Jim Padlock lined up all of his players and asked them to throw the ball as far they could. Kurt outdistanced them all. When Padlock informed him that he would be the team’s new quarterback, Kurt recoiled. He still wanted to be a receiver. He begged the coach to make him a tight end.

Kurt evolved quickly as a passer. By the end of his freshman year, he loved the position. In four varsity seasons at Regis, Kurt broke every school passing record and became known as one of the state's top all-around athletes. As a senior in 1988, Kurt was named All-State and played in the North-South Shrine Bowl. With the stands full of college recruiters, he led the North to a last-second victory. 

To Kurt’s dismay, the scholarship offers did not come rolling in. The prevailing wisdom was that he had reached the apex of his talents. He was a great prep passer, but college coaches didn't figure that his development would continue. Not even Iowa or Iowa State contacted him. Without a single Division I offer, Kurt had to lower his sights. He accepted a partial scholarship from Northern Iowa in nearby Cedar Falls.

UNI had one of the top Division I–AA programs in the country. Kurt red-shirted in 1989 and then set his sights on the Panthers’ starting job. Things did not come that easily to him. Much of what the recruiters had criticized in his game as a high-schooler was what kept him on the bench. For his first three year in Cedar Falls—in 1990, 1991 and 1992—he was the backup.

Coach Terry Allen spotted Kurt in a few games in ’92, and he did well. But Kurt could not supplant starter Jay Johnson, who led the team to the Division I–AA title game that year. At one point, Kurt called his mother and his father and told each he was going to quit. They told him to stick it out, earn his diploma, and wait for his big chance in 1993.

Kurt finally became the team’s starter as a senior. He lost his first two games, separating his shoulder in the second contest. He told the coaches he was fine for the home opener against Jacksonville and played in excruciating pain. Kurt played terribly, but he led the Panthers to victory. As Kurt improved, so did UNI’s record. The Panthersblew out Southern Illinois at the end of the year to clinch the Gateway Conference championship. In his lone season as a starter, Kurt threw for 2,747 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was named conference Player of the Year.


 

 

 


Kurt Warner book

     
 

That year, Kurt also met his wife, Brenda, an ex-Marine and single mother of two. Her son, Zach, suffered a brain injury as an infant when he was dropped on his head. Kurt thought she was amazing. He wanted to meet her kids. Brenda reminded Kurt of his mom.

Kurt hoped to play pro football. He was not invited to the NFL combine, nor was his name called in the draft. As the 1994 season neared, the Green Bay Packers called. They were auditioning backups for Brett Favre. Ty Detmer and Mark Brunnell got the spots. In talking to the pair, Kurt realized they knew far more about NFL offenses than he did. It was time to regroup and reevaluate his pro ambitions.

In the meantime, Kurt returned to Iowa and moved in with Brenda and her parents. To contribute to the household, He got a job stocking shelves at a grocery store for $5.50 an hour.

ON THE RISE

As he had done in high school, Kurt set his sights a little lower in terms of his football career. When a call came from the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League, he grabbed the chance to improve his skills. Kurt figured the AFL was just a smaller, easier version of the game he’d been playing his whole life. He learned otherwise in the team’s first exhibition game, against the St. Louis Stampede. The game was so fast and there was so little space to maneuver that he was totally lost. Kurt was a quick study and made the necessary adjustments. He had a decent year by AFL standards in 1995, throwing for 2,980 yards and 43 touchdowns.  

Prior to the 1996 season, tragedy struck Kurt and Brenda. A tornado swept through Waterloo, Iowa and killed her parents. Kurt played much of the AFL season in a fog. He began to wonder if anything was ever going to break his way. In the fifth game of the year, Barnstormers coach John Gregory pulled Kurt. He sat on the bench with his team far behind and questioned whether his career was over. 

Then something amazing happened. As Kurt watched his Iowa teammates close the gap without him, he regained his competitive fire. With Iowa down five points and time running out, Gregory put Kurt back in, and he won the game with a great TD pass. By the end of the season, Kurt was the AFL’s best quarterback. He finished the '96 campaign with 3,336 yards and 61 TD passes. The Barnstormers went all the way to the championship game.


Brett Favre,
Black Book Partners archive
     
 

Kurt was even better in 1997. The speed of the AFL was no longer confusing to him. Kurt knew his audibles, got rid of the ball quickly and displayed tremendous accuracy with his right arm. He threw for 79 touchdown and more than 4,000 yards as Iowa returned to the title game.

Having conquered Arena League ball, Kurt was hoping the NFL would be the next step. Again, he had to settle for something less. No offers came his way, so he signed to play in NFL Europe. It was a development league and far from home, but this was real football, so it felt good. Kurt played for the Amsterdam Admirals. His contract included language that said if he signed with an NFL club, the deal would be meaningless. Amsterdam coach Al Luginbill pulled some strings and got the St. Louis Rams to “sponsor” Kurt. If he played well, he would be invited to training camp with the Rams.

Kurt did more than simply play well in Europe—he was unstoppable. The lightning-fast playing style he developed in the AFL made everything on the bigger field seem like it was moving in slow motion. Kurt picked enemy defenses apart. No one in football—and this included the NFL—worked as quickly as he did. Kurt led the Admirals to the 1998 NFL Europe championship.  

Shortly after the title game, Kurt received an invitation to the Rams’ training camp. His career ws suddenly taking shape. Kurt loved playing for Dick Vermeil, who had ended a 14-year retirement to coach St. Louis. He impressed Vermail with his unique ability of getting the most from his teammates. Kurt won the third-string quarterback job behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono.

Injuries wrecked the Rams in 1998. Vermeil caught a lot of heat from the fans as St. Louis dropped nine of its last 11 games. Kurt saw action in the last game of the year, against the San Francisco 49ers, and completed four passes. The season had been a learning experience. He was now sure he could succeed in the NFL.

In 1999, the Rams signed Trent Green—a local high school product—to be their starting quarterback. Vermeil installed Kurt the backup. With speedy receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and newly acquired Marshall Faulk in the backfield, Green was at the helm of a formidable offense. In the third game of the exhibition season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Rams were devastated. Vermeil wept at the postgame press conference. 

MAKING HIS MARK 

Vermeil and his staff turned to Kurt. In the final preseason game, he looked shaky in the first quarter but was throwing like Joe Namath by the end of the contest. On the sidelines, the St. Louis coaches were hiding smiles behind their clipboards. Had the next great NFL quarterback been under their noses all along? 

Indeed he was. Kurt threw for more than 300 yards in an opening-week victory over the Baltimore Ravens, who boasted one of the league’s top defenses. The following week, he torched the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons for three touchdown passes as the Rams won again. He hit for three more TDs against the Cincinnati Bengals in a Week 3 victory. Kurt was literally shredding enemy secondaries. He got the ball to his receivers so quickly that the Xs and Os no longer made sense. The Rams were running a short-passing offense for which no one had yet invented a defense.


Kurt Warner, 1997 AFL card
     
 

Of course, by this time NFL teams were starting to get enough film on Kurt to analyze his strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. Knowing this, Vermeil told him to look deep first and then take the short stuff. That completely crossed up the Rams’ Week 4 foes, the 49ers. St. Louis demolished them, 42–20.

Kurt continued to roll, and the Rams kept winning. Their glaring weakness was their run defense, but injuries to Ricky Williams of the New Orleans Saints and Jamal Anderson of the Falcons spared them having to deal with this problem in four crucial division match-ups. St. Louis won all four games and finished atop the NFL West with a record of 13–3. Kurt finished the year with 41 touchdowns and was named NFL MVP.

After a first-round bye, the Rams faced Minnesota in the playoffs. The St. Louis special teams gave the team a boost in a tight game, and Kurt finished off the Vikings in a 49–37 barnburner. After the game, Kurt was stunned that he had to answer questions about what it felt like to win a playoff game. It never occurred to him that reporters saw him as a rookie. He explained that he had led teams in two other pro leagues into the postseason, and that the pressure of do-or-die didn’t faze him a bit.

In the NFC Championship against the Buccaneers, Kurt struggled against Tampa Bay’s magnificent defense. He waited patiently for an opportunity, and with less than five minutes left, he spotted it. The Rams had the ball on the Tampe Bay 30-yard-line. Kurt read single coverage on veteran Ricky Proehl, sent Proehl into the end zone and lofted a soft pass over his head. Proehl dove, caught the ball with one hand, and pulled it to his body before he hit the turf. The touchdown pass sent the Rams to Super Bowl XXXIV.

St. Louis faced the Tennessee Titans, whose Music City Miracle had helped them get into the big game. Both clubs seemed like teams of destiny. Of course, only one would hold that honor after 60 minutes. Kurt was able to move the ball against Tennessee’s defense, but St. Louis had to settle for field goals in a well-played first half. The Rams led 9–0 after two quarters. Kurt, who had found some holes in the seconday, was getting battered by the Titans' pass rush.

In the third quarter, Kurt finally broke through with a touchdown pass to Holt. That made the score 16–0. The Titans came charging back and tied the game with less than three minutes left. With the ball on his own 23-yard-line, Kurt called for a long pass to Bruce. As Kurt let the ball go, Jevon Kearse swatted his hand, which took some of the zing off his pass. Bruce noticed this and cut back toward the ball. He caught it and broke a couple of tackles before sprinting all the way into the end zone.

With a 23–16 lead, the Rams' lead seemed safe. But Steve McNair was on fire. He moved the Titans quickly down the field. Tennessee reached the 10-yard-line with time left for one play. Kurt and his teammates held their breath as McNair hit Kevin Dyson with a short slant over the middle. Linebacker Mike Jones wrapped himself around Dyson’s legs and brought him to the ground before he could stretch across the goal line. It was the most exciting finish ever to a Super Bowl. After the game Kurt was named MVP. He had set a Super Bowl record with 414 passing yards.

Kurt proved '99 was no fluke when he came back in 2000 and threw for 300 yards in each of his first six games. He then hurt his hand and missed several games, but Green filled in admirably. The Rams finished the year with 5,232 net passing yards, a new NFL record. Kurt finished with 3,429 yards in 11 games. He threw 21 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. St. Louis stumbled in the playoffs, losing to the Saints. The defense was the culprit. After the year, nine of the 11 starters were cut loose.


Kurt Warner, 2000 NFL Insider
     
 

The Greatest Show on Turf returned at full strength in 2001, as Kurt amassed 4,830 passing yards and 36 TD passes. For the third year in a row with Kurt at the helm, the Rams got off to a 6–0 start. He won his second MVP award as St. Louis finished with a league-best 14–2 record under new coach Mike Martz, the team's former offensive coordinator.

The Rams destroyed the Packers in the playoffs, 45–17 . Then they defeated the Eagles in the NFC Championship. Philadelphia had the NFL’s toughest defense, and things looked bleak with St. Louis trailing 17–13 at halftime. Kurt helped turn the game around in the third period, when the St. Louis offense held the ball for all but five plays. The Rams scored twice to grab the lead. In the fourth quarter, Faulk took over and bludgeoned the Philadelphia defense for another touchdown to give the Rams a 29–24 victory and another trip to the Super Bowl. 

This time, the Rams faced Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. St. Louis was a big favorite, but the Rams fell behind 17–3. They closed the gap in the fourth quarter with a pair of touchdowns, one on a sneak by Kurt and another on a pass to Proehl with less than two minutes left. That was all the time Brady needed. He maneuvered the Pats into field goal range, and Adam Vinatieri split the uprights for a 20–17 victory. Kurt finished the game with 365 passing yards. The difference in the game was turnovers. New England had three takeaways (which it converted into 17 points), while the Rams had none. 

Some noticed a change in Kurt during the '01 season. He had lost velocity on his throws at times, and many believed the injury he sustained in the previous season was the cause. Kurt denied this, but in 2002 he clearly wasn’t the same passer. The Rams dropped their first three games and then Kurt was sidelined in Week 4 against Dallas with a broken finger. He returned for two games at the end of what was a lost year for St. Louis. He was still ineffective.

Things got even worse in 2003. In the opener against the Giants, New York’s defense poured through gaping holes in the line and crashed into Kurt again and again. He fumbled six times in the game and suffered a concussion. Even for Giants fans it was a hard thing to watch. Martz benched Kurt and replaced him with Marc Bulger, who went on to lead the team back to the playoffs. Kurt supported Bulger all the way, telling him that he was OK being his backup. Brenda wasn’t as open-minded. She criticized her husband’s replacement in the papers and on radio.

Feeling more secure with the younger quarterback at the helm, the Rams released Kurt in June of 2004. He immediately looked to latch on with another club. Two days later, the Giants signed him. They had just acquired Eli Manning in a draft-day swap and needed a mentor for their young star. The plan was for Kurt to start and ultimately give way when Manning was ready. It wasn't an ideal spot, but he took the job knowing he could showcase his talents for a longer-term gig.


Kurt Warner, 2001 SI for Kids
     
 

Kurt was his old self again, leading the Giants to five wins in their first seven games in '04. But when his performance drooped and the team lost a couple of games, coach Tom Coughlin decided the future was now. Manning replaced Kurt, who watched in frustration as the team he had guided to a 5–4 record went 1–6 the rest of the way. He began thinking about a new address.

That address would be in Arizona. Unhappy with starter Josh McCown, coach Dennis Green needed an experienced quarterback. The Cardinals signed Kurt to a one-year deal. He injured his groin early in the season and later tore his medial collateral ligament. When healthy, however, he was productive. The Cards, in turn, inked him to a three-year heading into the 2006 season.

Kurt opened the new year with 301 yards in a dismantling of the 49ers. He earned Player of the Week honors for his performance but was unable to sustain this performance. Under pressure from fans and the media, Green replaced him rookie Matt Leinart, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. When Leinart was hurt late in the year, Kurt filled in nicely. It seemed that he was settling into the role of veteran backup.

Of course, Kurt still felt like he could be a productive starter, especially with the fast-improving Cardinals. What quarterback wouldn’t want two targets like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin? Early in the 2007 season, new coach Ken Whisenhunt pulled Leinart and reinserted Kurt in a couple of games. This was the chance he had been waiting for. He led furious comebacks each time. When Leinart was injured Kurt was officially anointed the new starter. He finished the year with 3,417 passing yards and 27 touchdowns—just one short of the team record—and led Arizona to a respectable 8–8 finish.

Officially, the quarterback job in Arizona was up for grabs when training camp began in 2008. But by the end of August, Whisenhunt happily named Kurt his starter. The Cardinals had exciting young talent on both sides of the ball and needed a been-there, done-that presence in the huddle.

Kurt started all 16 games for only the third time in his career and put up his best numbers since 2001. He completed 401 passes for 4,583 yards and 30 touchdowns, which set a team record. In the club’s first game of December, Arizona beat the Rams to clinch the NFC West crown for the franchise's first trip to the playoffs in a decade. It was the Cards' first division title since 1975.

In the first round of the playoffs, Arizona hosted a playoff game for the first time since 1947 and beat the Falcons, 30–24. Kurt completed 19 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns. The Cards advanced to a second-round showdown with the favored Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. Kurt was money once again, completing 22 of 32 attempts for two TDs in a 33–13 win. After the Eagles upset the Giants, Arizona would host Philly in the NFC Championship Game.


Kurt Warner, 2004 New York Post sticker
     
 

Kurt was the man once again against the Eagles, as the Cards continued theirremarkable postseason run. He connected for four touchowns against Philadelphia’s vaunted defense, including three beauties to Fitzgerald. He threw for 279 yards in an exciting 32–25 victory that put the Cardinals in the last place anyone outside Arizona dreamed the team—or Kurt—would be: on their way to Tampa for the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals did their best to make the trip worth it. They faced the Pittsbrugh Steelers, who were favored by a touchdown. Arizona had enjoyed its role as the underdog throughout the playoffs, so the team wasn't fazed by predictions that the Steelers would roll on Super Sunday.

The game was somewhat of a hum-drum affair until the last play of the first half. With the Cardinals inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard-line, Wisenhunt chose to go for the touchdown instead of the tying field goal. The coach put the ball in Kurt's hands, and he made an uncharacteristic mistake. Reading a blitz, he fired a short pass to Boldin, but linebacker James Harrison dropped into the throwing lane. One hundred yards later, Pittsburgh held a 17-7 lead.

Arizona didn't seem to recover from the blunder until the fourth quarter. Down by 13 points, the Cardinals shifted into their hurry-up offense. With more time to throw, Kurt picked apart the Pittsburgh defense. He hit Fitzgerald with two scoring passes, including a 64-yarder with under three minutes remaining. But the Cards left too much time for Ben Roethlisberger, who zipped a pass to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone with 35 seconds on the clock.

Kurt moved his team to midfield, but was sacked and lost the ball with time running out. Amazingly, the officialls in the booth did not review the play—even though it appeared that the fumble could have been ruled an incomplete pass. The Cards lost, 27-23. Depsite his untimely interception, Kurt had a great game. He threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns—all of this in the face of intense pressure.

So who is Kurt Warner? Opposing defenses will tell you that he's a quick-trigger passer who furstrates them with his ability to read coverages. Teammates will say he's a bonafide winner who they are happy to follow into battle. Some fans argue he's a Hall of Famer. What does Kurt say? Always modest, he's happy to have a job.

KURT THE PLAYER

After Kurt’s amazing 1999 season, a book entitled Can’t Keep Him Down told his life story. That is perhaps the most important thing to know about Kurt. Regardless of the odds or the circumstances, he has always found a way to come out on top.

Of course, it helps to have a strong arm and a keen eye for opportunity. When Kurt is healthy, these qualities make him one of the game’s most dangerous passers. He is a big, powerful athlete with surprisingly quick feet and a high threshold for punishment.

As tempting as it may be to say the 2008 season was the crowning moment of his career, history tells us there may be more surprises to come. Kurt is a lusty competitor who appreciates his success as deeply as anyone in the game. Victory is a hard thing to give up once you’ve tasted it as sweetly as he has.  

 

 


Kurt Warner, 2009 Sports Ilustrated


 

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