“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Nelson Mandela
222 players were chosen in the 1994 NFL draft--and Kurt Warner was not one of them. To most observers, he was just one of many quarterbacks who were eager to play in the NFL, but longshots to ever land a spot on any NFL roster. Nobody would have suspected at the time that Kurt was in the middle of a long battle that would eventually take him to the top of the football world, five years after going virtually unnoticed in 1994.
Kurt Warner was never regarded a top football prospect during his amateur career. After putting together a solid senior season of high school football in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and earning MVP honors in that year's Iowa Shrine Bowl all-star game, not one top college football programs came knocking at Kurt's door. Though he showed football aptitude, scouts were unimpressed by his size, speed, and overall statistics, and only one school actively recruited Kurt: a small local Division I-AA college called Northern Iowa.
Kurt felt that as a consolation, a less prestigious school like Northern Iowa would give him plenty of playing time, and opportunities to learn his craft and eventually show that he was an elite quarterback. The playing time, however, did not come as quickly as he had anticipated. In fact, in he spent one year redshirting and three years as a backup, before finally becoming the team's starting quarterback in his fifth and final season in 1993. And he began that season at a disastrous pace, tossing three interceptions in game one, separating his throwing arm's shoulder in game two, and struggling with his shoulder in a dismal game three performance.
A determined Kurt, however, remained unfazed through those setbacks. He got on a roll and never looked back, finishing the season with 2747 passing yards and Gateway Conference Player of the Year honors, leaving him resolved to take the next step and play in the NFL. Four NFL teams invited Kurt to pre draft workout sessions--but on draft day, not a single one of the NFL's 29 teams were willing to spen a pick on the division I-AA standout. Kurt did, however, receive post-draft interest from several teams, and he ultimately signed with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent rookie.
Kurt received a $5,000 signing bonus, and came into the Packer's training camp looking to establish himself as an NFL-caliber prospect with plenty of upside. But coming from Division I-AA football with little time to learn the NFL system and few opportunities to exhibit his skills, Kurt was cut from the Packers before the start of the regular season.
To most observers, it appeared as if Kurt Warner's road to the NFL had come to an end. But Kurt's short-lived NFL experience left him convinced that he could play quarterback in the league. He volunteered as an assistant football coach for Northern Iowa, and continued working out and sharpening his football skills at the Northern Iowa facilities.
At the time, Kurt grew increasingly closer to his girlfriend Brenda, whom he first met in his final year at Northern Iowa College. Although Brenda was notably older than Kurt and a divorced single mother of two young children, their relationship flourished, and Kurt even took over much of the father role of Brenda's children.
Shortly after being cut from the Packers, Kurt was low on funds and moved in with Brenda and her parents. He also worked a night job stocking shelves, sweeping floors, and bagging and transporting groceries at a local 24-hour supermarket—a job that made his $5,000 NFL signing bonus seem like a fortune, and made him uncomfortable as he went from local football hero to local grocery boy in a matter of months.
An NFL return seemed like a long shot, but Kurt refused to quit. With little time for sleep, he went through a rigorous regimen of watching Brenda's children in the daytime while Brenda worked, then coaching and training at Northern Iowa, and then working nights at the supermarket.
In March of 1995, the local and newly formed Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League (AFL) expressed interest in signing Kurt to play quarterback. This was not exactly the upper eschelon of pro football, as the AFL was not particularly popular, t paid low salaries, and it didn't use conventional football rules. But Kurt joined the Barnstormers, glad to receive a $1,000 per game salary, and have an opportunity to enhance his skills and possibly attract the attention of NFL teams.
Kurt started for the Barnstormers, and in a first season that began anemically as he learned the nuances of the faster paced AFL game, he quickly learned, adapted, and improved.
Then in April 1996, while Kurt was preparing for his sophomore year in the AFL, he and Brenda received some devastating news: Brenda's parents, who were living in Arkansas, had both been killed by a tornado. The sudden death of Larry and Jenny Carney was difficult for Brenda and Kurt to cope with, and caused the couple to become much more spiritual and religious.
Following that trying ordeal, Kurt began his 1996 season with the Barnstormers, which proved to be a huge success: he earned All League honors and led his team to a 12-2 regular season record, and just one yard from winning the Arena Bowl Championship in a nail-biting 42-38 loss.
Kurt was given a new contract of over $60,000 a year, and the next season he and the Barnstormers repeated a similar season, once again reaching the Arena Bowl but falling short, this time 55-33.
Despite not winning a championship, Kurt had cemented his status as one of the AFL's elite players. In September of 1997, while Kurt and Brenda prepared to get married, the Chicago Bears of the NFL invited Kurt to work out for the team's scouts. However, Kurt had to postpone the workout twice in order to make time for his wedding and honeymoon. And while honeymooning in Jamaica, Kurt suffered a mysterious insect bite that irritated his shoulder and made him unable to throw a football. He tried but failed to reschedule his session with the Bears, and it seemed as if Kurt had encountered a major detour on mission to reach the NFL.
Luckily, the St. Louis Rams, offered Kurt a similar opportunity later that year, and invited him to participate in a workout in front of team scouts. Kur's impressive performance there prompted the Rams to make him a memebr of their minor league affiliate--the Amsterdam Admirals. Kurt packed his bags and went off to Amsterdam, leaving his family behind in Des Moines.
Like numerous occasions throughout his career, Kurt was again forced to prove himself. He did. That season, Kurt led the NFL Europe league in yards, completions, and touchdowns. His strong performance prompted the Rams to invite him to training camp, finally putting him back in the position to compete for a spot on an NFL roster, like he did for the Packers four years ago.
This time, Kurt made it made it as a third string quarterback, and was finally in the NFL. But the best was yet to come.
In the 1998 NFL season, Kurt primarily led the scout team offense during practice. (A scout offense practices against and helps prepare the starting defense for their games.) As a third string quarterback, his only game experience amounted to a four for eleven 39-yard performance during “garbage time” against the 49ers.
Then during the 1999 preseason, new Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz began to take an interest Kurt. Though this usually amounted to Martz yelling at and criticizing the 28-year-old third-string quarterback, Martz actually saw promise in Kurt, and was testing and preparing him as he moved him up to the backup spot.
In a preseason game that year, the Ram's starting quarterback Trent Green went down with a season ending knee injury. And just like that, Kurt Warner was suddenly thrust into the starting quarterback position, with a football destiny that now lay in his own hands.
He performed well in his first preseason start, and looked to make the most of the opportunity that had evaded him for so long. That being said, few football observers had high expectations for him or the Rams that year. The team was coming off of a dismal 3-13 season, and its offense featured an unknown quarterback who hadn't even made the NFL until his late 20s. Rams fans were preparing themselves for a season that would be mediocre at best.
But Kurt Warner was unfazed by all the detractors and the odds he faced. As soon as the regular season started, he put up numbers and the Rams put up wins that left the football world stunned. In his first three games, Kurt threw for 896 yards and 9 touchdowns, and led his team to a perfect 3-0 start. Though critics were quick to point out that the Rams had faced fairly easy opposition up to that point, Kurt threw five touchdown passes the following week in a 42-20 torching of a strong 49ers team, and suddenly it seemed as if the Kurt-Warner-led Rams might be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
A mystique also started to grow around the previously unheard of Kurt Warner. Several weeks into the season, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated cover, accompanied by the headline “Who Is This Guy?”—a question that every NFL fan was asking. People grew increasingly fascinated by his rise to NFL stardom, and wondered how long his success could last.
Kurt and the Rams never cooled off that season.
In his first year as an NFL starter, five years after being passed up in the 1994 NFL Draft, Kurt Warner put together one of the greatest single season performances in league history. He compiled 4,353 passing yards, 41 touchdown passes, just 13 interceptions, a 65.1% completion percentage, and a whopping 109.2 quarterback rating, as he led the Rams to a 13-3 record. Kurt was named the NFL's regular season MVP, and all eyes were on him and the Rams as they made their way into the playoffs.
In the team's first playoff game, the Rams beat the Minnesota Vikings in a 49-37 shootout, led by Kurt's five touchdown passes. In their next outing, the Rams took on a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that featured a tough defense led by four Pro Bowlers. Kurt was put to the test when the Buccaneers led 6-5 late in the fourth quarter. He responded by completing a 30-yard touchdown pass in the game's closing minutes. The Rams held on to their lead and advanced to the Super Bowl.
On January 30, 2000, the stage was set, and the Rams were pitted up against a tough Tennessee Titans team in Atlanta, Georgia for Super Bowl XXXIV. Kurt Warner waited in anticipation, ready to square off in the biggest game of his career, the culmination of an amazing season that saw him go from completel nobody to one of the world's best known athletes.
In the game, Kurt and the Rams started off hot and built a 16-0 lead, only to watch the Titans battle back and even the score 16-16 late in the fourth quarter. Then, in one of the most exhilarating plays in Super Bowl history, Kurt let it rip and rifled a 73-yard completion to Isaac Bruce for the touchdown and the lead.
The Titans attempted to respond on their ensuing possession, but were stopped just one yard short of scoring as time ran out.
The Rams won, and Kurt's Super Bowl record 414 passing yards earned him the game's MVP award. It was a storybook ending to an unforgettable season for Kurt Warner.
Kurt then showed that he was not a one-season-wonder the next year, and finished with an impressive 98.3 passer rating. He followed with an even better 2001, capturing his second regular season MVP award, and once again led the Rams to the Super Bowl. But alas, that game saw the Rams being stopped just short of becoming an NFL dynasty, as the New England Patriots prevailed in a dramatic last second finish.
Kurt struggled in 2002 and 2003 as he battled injuries, and in 2004 he left the Rams and joined the New York Giants, where he passed for over 2000 yards, despite having to split time with that season's number one overall pick, quarterback Eli Manning. The next year, Kurt switched teams again and joined the Arizona Cardinals. Many did not think he would be the team's starter--but not only did he earn the number one position, he also reestablished himself as one of the league's elite quarterbacks. In 2009, he made it to the Super Bowl for the third time, and threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kurt retired from pro football in 2010 at the age of 38, and is now considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Even though Kurt has been an NFL superstar ever since his meteoric rise in 1999, he has also remained an active family man. In 1997 he adopted Brenda's two children, and in 1999 he and Brenda had a son named Cade. Kurt spends much of his free time with his children and wife. He also contributes to many charities.
Kurt Warner's unwillingness to give up his dream took him on astounding journey to the top of the sports world. Overlooked and passed on for years, Kurt refused to take the rejections as a sign to lie down and quit, as he made his own way from an NFL longshot to an NFL legend.