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Kurt Warner and the power of belief
Another class enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. Arguably no one in Canton had a more surreal journey than Warner, who relives it all with Go Long.
The sight of Kurt Warner alone at these NFL training camps should give players hope.
That Santa beard growing will catch your eye first. He’s at camp as an analyst for NFL Network, not a quarterback, nowadays. But if any player on any 90-man roster needed a source of hope, this Hall of Famer is it. His rise is unlike anything we’ve seen.
Undrafted out of Northern Iowa, Warner was cut from Packers training camp in 1994, stocked shelves at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, starred in the Arena League, NFL Europe and — finally — got his NFL shot in St. Louis. He did not waste it. After one season as the third-stringer, Warner busted onto the scene in 1999.
The man running the “Greatest Show on Turf” won league MVP and Super Bowl MVP that season. He nearly won two more Super Bowls, too, before earning his bust in Canton.
Now, there will be a movie made about him. “American Underdog” is set to hit theaters this December with Zachary Levi playing the role of Warner. Between seeing this movie for the first time himself and hitting the road for training camps, Warner spent an hour discussing his improbable life with Go Long.
The football chapters to his life are crazy enough but, as Warner explains, there’s far more.
Your life, your career, was there any moment where you’re in the moment—at the grocery store or leading the Rams to a Super Bowl — that it hit you: “Holy crap. This is made for a movie?”
Warner: It does once you make it, once you get there. That’s the amazing thing about my journey. The journey was the journey. But then my first year starting was just this magical season. It took no time. It was nowhere to somewhere — from the valley to the mountaintop — all in one season. You win the Super Bowl and not only do you win it but you throw a touchdown pass with two minutes left, I mean, you couldn’t write that part of it any better.
You never really think to yourself, “They’re going to make a movie about me.” But that’s when people started talking about it. “I’m going to Disney World!” — I did that commercial. You do that whole thing where it feels like a Disney movie. It feels like it’s made for the big screen. I think that was the first moment where I looked back over the journey and said, “Holy cow! There’s nothing like this and there probably never will be anything else like this.” So you start to see it and grasp it from that bigger picture, even though you don’t consider it being a movie until years later. You see how it finishes. You get to the Hall of Fame. Then, it starts to become, “Yeah, this has to be a movie.” You watch movies like The Blind Side, movies like Invincible and Rudy and you go, “Great movies. Great stories.” But I think from where I was to where I ended up, I don’t think any of those stories have the arc that mine does.
You don’t get that shot in Green Bay. You’re in the Arena League. You’re literally across the globe. How do you think this is just different — your rise?
Warner: It’s got a bigger arc to go from where you were to where I ended up. But I think the coolest part of this story — when you see it on the big screen — and the title is “American Underdog,” there are numerous underdog themes under it. Yes, there’s my underdog story and the story of football. But there’s also my wife’s story and our journey together. There’s my son’s story. He suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was four months old. All of those journeys interconnect. All of those underdog stories have a way of shaping and pushing and giving perspective and driving all of us in different ways.
That, to me, is the story.
The football stuff will resonate because we’ve all been in situations where we’ve had a bigger dream and any time you have somebody who fights through it and makes it, those are great stories. But I think it’s the stories within the story that are intertwined that will really connect with the masses. There’s layers to it that really make it special. That will really touch all audiences. If a wife goes with a husband to watch a football movie, I think the wife will be just as impacted. If parents go to see a movie, they’ll be impacted by the journey. Parents with their child. This goes beyond somebody fighting an athletic battle, even though that’s the crux of the movie.
I don’t think many people know about Zach, your son, who suffered that brain injury.
Warner: They might understand that he’s injured or deals with disabilities. But I don’t think you can fully understand. Nobody really understands the impact a child who goes through struggles has on the people around them — unless you experience that. You see the perspective. A lot of times I see my journey in Zach’s life and I can tie into the struggles and the dreams because even though he has disabilities, he still dreams. He still had a dream of what he wanted to be where all of us are looking at him like, “I don’t know if you’ll be able to do that.” Which is exactly what people were saying about me. Everybody was saying, “I know you want to do that but you’re working at a grocery store. You just got cut by the Packers. You didn’t even start in college.”
That, to me, is what’s really, really cool. You have three different stories that resonate with people. That underdog mentality. They found themselves in a position that most of us find ourselves in. We’re in a place going, “How did we get here?” And then, “How do we get out of here? How do we get to where we want to be?” Because that’s real life. Being drafted No. 1 and having a Hall of Fame career and winning seven Super Bowls, that’s not real life. People can’t associate with that. What they can associate with are those moments of being down, those moments of having to work in a grocery store. It’s the line from my Hall of Fame speech: “Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do while you’re waiting to do what you were born to do.”
That will really connect with the every man, the every woman battling for whatever their dream is.
I’m seeing the details here now. When Zach was 3 ½ months old, he slipped from his birth father’s hands (your wife’s ex-husband), and landed on his head in the bath tub. And they didn’t know if he’d make it through the night?
Warner: They didn’t know what the end result would be. He had brain damage. He’s legally blind right now.
How is life today? And how does that impact you? I imagine when you’re playing, you’re thinking about his fight?
Warner: He’s doing great. He’s phenomenal. We built a living facility for young adults with intellectual developmental disabilities called “Treasure House.” It allows these young men and women to live a full life even if they’re not able to be fully independent. But it pushes them to a new level. He works a job. He lives in a community. He’s got friends. He’s thriving right now.
When he first suffered the injury, they wondered if he would live. And if he lived, they said he’d be lucky to ever sit up. So against all odds and overcoming — even as parents, you put limitations on your kids and what they may not be able to accomplish — and, sometimes, you hold them back. That’s something we realized along the way and why we built Treasure House. We don’t want to hold him back.
It’s a cool layer to the story that a lot of people don’t fully know. I think it’ll inspire a lot of people.
So, 1994. You’re there in Green Bay with Brett Favre and Mark Brunell and Ty Detmer. I don’t know what your expectations were going into that training camp but when the Packers tell you that you’re cut, what’s running through your mind?
Warner: When I went there, it was just the four of us quarterbacks. Those three guys were really good and had great resumes but my mindset was simply to beat one out. Or even, at that time, when the practice squad was a big deal, I’m thinking, “If they keep three on the roster, I can easily make the practice squad and that’s my foot in the door.” When I was there, ironically enough, even though I got cut, I had more confidence when I left there then I did going in that I could play at the NFL level simply because I was competing against these guys every day. Favre was just coming into his own. You could see it when you were around him — this guy has a chance to be really special.
But I expected to get more of an opportunity than I did. The Packers, of course, had three guys they loved and knew could play and as long as something didn’t happen to them, they didn’t really need another guy.
From the day I was cut by the Packers in ’94 to the day I retired, Brett Favre didn’t miss a single start in the NFL. So when you talk about blessings in disguise and how things really shaped you and helped you, man, if I would’ve made it? I would’ve been a backup there for however long. I never see the field. Maybe a little bit in the preseason. And, instead, I get cut and I take this crazy journey. And I got to play a whole bunch of football. There is no doubt that I was so much better when I came back to the NFL than I was when I first was there.
That time helped me. So that first year, I was able to excel and have the year that I did right off the bat because I had played a lot of football and been in a lot of different environments and been through adversity. There was nothing that’d overwhelm me getting thrown in and having to play that first year.
I loved that point you made in talking about Josh Allen. All the snaps. All the throws. All the situations. People probably glossed over that but, in ’99, you seemed ready for anything. But back to Hy-Vee. Was it really $5.50 an hour?
Warner: That’s exactly what it was. Granted, I don’t know in that point in time if that was minimum wage or whatever. I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream so I had to figure out, where can I get a job where I can still work out? At that time, my wife was going to nursing school so she had the two kids. I was living in her parents’ basement. The deal was, I wanted to bring in some money to help where I could. I’d watch the kids during the day when she was in school. We’d have dinner together. And then I’d go work all night. Work out in the afternoon. Then, we’d have dinner at night. And we’d just do that all over again.
Neither of us had much. We were trying to make it. That’s what worked for us.
When did you start playing for the Iowa Barnstormers? How long was this period at the grocery store?
Warner: The grocery store was probably about five or six months. It’s that period you’re going through before the NFL draft and you’re trying to get signed and trying to get signed in Europe and just trying to find a place. When I got cut in ’94 it was that whole cycle of trying to get with a team the next year. As that wasn’t happening, I found myself working at a grocery store going, “OK, now what? Can I possibly go through another cycle? Another year of not playing football?” I’m thinking, “I have no idea how I’m going to get from Aisle 7 at Hy-Vee to the NFL.” I got a few calls from Arena teams that wanted me to play for them. Of course, up to that point I’m telling them “No” and “There’s no way I’m playing Arena Football. I’m so much better than Arena Football.” But at some point, you go from, “OK, I’m working for $5.50 an hour here or I could be playing football and not making great money but maybe $1,000 a week or $1,200 a week. How much further can that go?” So that’s where you really start to go, “Who knows? I have to take this chance. I need to try this. I need to take care of my family.” Ultimately, it was — by far — the best decision for me to just play football, to be out there, to be getting better and making money.
Nobody was going to discover me in Aisle 7. So at least it gave me the opportunity to build some tape and hope that somebody saw me.
And thank goodness for the timing of your wedding and the spider bite on your honeymoon, right? A spider bite on your elbow prevented you from working out for the Bears in ’97?
Warner: Right, that’s a whole other part of the journey. When you look back at it now, you’re amazed at how everything shapes who you were. You say, “I don’t know if it would’ve been the same without those crazy happenings like the bug bite that lands me in St. Louis instead of Chicago. And it was the perfect storm in St. Louis with the guys we had. And the unfortunate injury with Trent (Green) catapulted me into a starting role that quickly. There were so many different things. You look back and it’s crazy.
There were so many different versions of the story, and I remember you clearing it up on “Pardon My Take.” Initially, you missed a workout with the Bears because of your wedding. Your wife looked at you like, “We’re getting married!”
Warner: Exactly. You get so excited when you get that call. Everything else disappeared. I’m like, “Any time! Anywhere! Tell me and I’m there.” And, yeah, I had to tell the Bears no twice. First, with my wedding. Then, the next week, with my honeymoon. Then of course, the third time, with my bite. I can only imagine what they were doing on the other end of the line. They were probably rolling their eyes like, “Who is this guy? What is the deal here?” Obviously there was no fourth call after that which, when you think back to it, of course not. They’ve got guys beating down their door to work out and here I am making excuse after excuse, even though they were legit.
You’re probably losing your mind, too, after going through so much up to that point. You’re dying for this opportunity. But you’re prioritizing your marriage, your life.
Warner: You’re not going to postpone a wedding or not go on your honeymoon. But having to tell them “yes,” and call them back, I honestly thought this was my last shot. Because I’m 27 years old at the time. Calls weren’t coming in. And I finally got one. The ironic part of the story is, the year before, Al Luginbill was coaching over in NFL Europe. So in 1996, he called me and said he wanted me to come play for him. I told him, “If you get a team to sign me so I can come to their training camp, I’ll come play for you.” He called a whole bunch of different teams and nobody was interested. Everyone was like, “No, we’re not going to sign him.” That happened the year before. I knew he had called a number of teams and nobody was interested in me. So when the Bears tryout comes around, you’re like, “This is it!”
Ironically, what I heard was another coach in the AFL wanted me out of the league because I was really good. So it was another coach who called somebody they knew in the NFL and that’s where the Bears tryout was coming from. So you get that call and you’re like, “Here’s my shot. I’m 27. How much longer can I go? Before someone says, “He’s just too old to be a rookie quarterback in the NFL?”
So, that happened. And coinciding with that, Al Luginbill called me again — the next year, in ’97 — and asked if I’d come play for him again. And I told him “I’m not interested unless,” again, “you can get me a tryout with an NFL team. He called 12 teams. Every one of them said they’re not interested. And the 13th team he called was the Rams. So on the heels of this not working out with the Bears, I got a call from Al saying, “I got you a workout with the Rams. They want to try you out.” They sign me. I play for Al in Europe. The rest is history.
When you look back at your career with the Rams — we see the MVPs, we see all the touchdowns — but is there anything you treasure personally from that part in your life that we don’t talk about enough?
Warner: I relish the journey now more than I ever did. You play the game to win Super Bowls and hopefully people know your name and people wear your jersey. You never think about the impact. You never think about connecting with the fans and the fan bases and the people along the way. That really came into play for me when I was with the Rams, when we won a championship and the community and the way they supported us. The way they gravitated toward the story.
You start to realize it’s all bigger than football. You feel like you understand that — but you don’t really understand it until you understand it. I was really in a unique position because of my journey to really talk to people and connect with people and inspire people at a deeper level beyond, “He throws the football really well. I want to be just like him.” It was, “I want to have that kind of resolve. I want to have that kind of perseverance.” And if “he can do it” — and we all like to think of ourselves as this great, amazing athlete that’s rare and unique — and I never felt like that. I felt like I was good at what I did. But I never felt like I had this unique skillset that other people didn’t have.
The everyday person can connect with that part of it, too. I didn’t come onto the scene as Lamar Jackson or Michael Vick or somebody with a cannon arm who throws the ball 70 yards where people are in awe of the physicality. That’s what connected people: This guy came from nowhere. He’s not necessarily special in any way. And people could see the skills within the skills if that made any sense. We got to see who he was, and it was about the man, about the character, about dealing with adversity and having that “it” factor when everybody else would not be able to see that. You would not be able to look at me and know that.
That’s where so many of us lie. Being able to recognize our unique, hidden skills and talents that don’t just resonate with everybody but we all have ‘em. When you get on the scene and you realize that and you see how it connects with people and you’re able to share it with people and they connect with you — when it’s deeper than “He’s really good and he’s on the team” — that, to me, is what’s always resonated. That’s what legacy is all about.
I really feel like people saw me as the everyman — “Hey, he’s just like me. He’s going through the stuff I’m going through. There’s nothing about him that stands out.” We can’t all walk into a lineup and be the best-looking one or most talented one but that doesn’t mean there’s not something special inside of you that allows you to be great. That’s how my story — after all these years — continues to resonate with people. That is the part I never really dreamed about.
What is that “it” factor? And are you born with it or do you work at it?
Warner: I don’t know if there’s an answer to either one of those things. The “it” factor can look a lot of different ways. It’s whatever’s inside of someone that allows them to live in the moment and excel in the moment. That can be a character trait. That can be charisma. You walk in and people just want to follow you. That can be — when the chips are down and other people can’t handle it as well — you rise up and you play better in that moment.
Is it shaped or is it innate? I don’t really know the answer to that. That’s probably why it’s so elusive. People who don’t have it probably say, “It’s more innate.” People who haven’t gone through the struggles might say, “It’s more innate.” I think everything we do, we can get better at and we can learn different things but I don’t know the combination of that. I could look at my journey and say, “Oh, my gosh. So many of these things shaped me and made me the guy who can stand up under pressure and perform.”
It’s the chicken or the egg. I think about Arena Football when people say, “That had to help you have a better quick release and making quick decisions.” And I always say, “Yeah, it seems like that would be the case.” Were all of those things inside of me and I just needed a place to showcase them? And the Arena League was perfect to showcase them? Or was it, I didn’t have those skills and the Arena League taught me those skills that would ultimately become the skills that’d shape the player I was and the success that I had at the NFL level?
But there’s something special inside of you, unique to you, that led to Canton, that led to a movie being made, that led to this unprecedented story, right?
Warner: My point is, I think that’s inside of all of us. We all have special things inside of all of us. Mine directed me to the football field. But I believe we’re all special and unique and it may not look the same as other people. The journey may not look the same but that’s our goal — to find our place, find our uniqueness. We all have the ability to impact and be special at something.
I could’ve easily given up on this dream and worked at a factory. That would’ve never meant I never had these traits and skills but I might’ve missed my opportunity to showcase them. That’s what I want with this journey, this story: Don’t give up on you. Don’t give up on what makes you unique. And what you believe you were born to do. Because if you do, you’ll never live your full purpose. You’ll never be your best. I don’t mean “win championships” and “throw for a lot of yards.” I just mean being your best of who we are and what’s inside of us and living in a way that we feel like we bring something unique to the table. That’s what I always want to inspire other people to do — to chase that.
One more here. You have seven kids. We’re having our second baby. How do you do it? Any advice for the parents out there?
Warner: Man, they all have their challenges. All I tell people is to let them know that you love them every day. If you live in that world, you’ll be a great Dad. Even though you won’t be perfect, none of us are. They won’t be perfect. It’s every day — amongst my challenges and your challenges — “I love ya. I’m here for ya.”
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