The MMQB is on the road to Super Bowl 50, telling stories of the game’s history and the Panthers-Broncos matchup, meeting notable Super Bowl figures and exploring what the game means to America, from coast to coast. Follow the journey on Twitter and Instagram (#SB50RoadTrip), as well as at The MMQB’s Facebook page, and check out our stories and video on our Road to Super Bowl 50 hub. And if you see us on the road, give a wave.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — In the retelling of Kurt Warner’s glum-to-glory career, the year 1994 serves as a montage: successive scenes of sacrifice and rejection, a dream withering each morning at dawn as he slipped into the back door of his girlfriend’s parents’ home, snagging four hours of sleep on a cot in the basement.
Warner, an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa, had been cut by the Packers in training camp. NFL Europe shunned him, as did the Canadian Football League, despite his numerous calls to CFL teams. Truth was, there just wasn’t much of a market for a one-year starter from a Division I-AA school. Warner spent afternoons babysitting his girlfriend’s two children (Brenda, a divorced single mom, was in nursing school) and three hours each evening lifting weights and throwing passes at UNI’s campus. At 10 p.m. he reported to work at the local Hy-Vee. Warner was paid $5.50 an hour to stock shelves, sweep floors, bag groceries and tell anyone who would listen that someday he’d be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
“You can imagine what most people’s reaction was,” Warner says. “I believed in myself, but after some time it took a toll. I would think to myself, ‘What am I really doing? Is this a means to an end, or am I prolonging the inevitable?’ ”
The images meld in melancholy. The bags under Warner’s eyes darkening as the night shifts pile up. His hands—too small, football scouts say—dropping a can of beans, splattering on the cold cement floor. Warner pulling over to the side of the road on a winter’s night, a mile from home, and his car out of gas; he doesn’t have the money for a fill-up.
The scene cuts to March 1995. Seven months in football purgatory have lapsed, and the Arena Football League announces an expansion franchise in Des Moines. As local legend goes, Warner is polite enough to give his Hy-Vee manager two week’s notice before tryouts.
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“That sounds like Kurt,” says Cathy Davis, 64, who’s browsing tomato sauces in Aisle 14 at the Hy-Vee on a Saturday afternoon. “Oh no, I don’t know him. But we all know him here.”
“We’re proud to call this Kurt Warner’s Hy-Vee,” says Travis Morfitt, the assistant general manager. “The Kurt Warner Hy-Vee.”
The store, sitting across Route 58 from UNI’s campus, bristles with Panther pride. There’s a seven-shelf display of UNI T-shirts and hats at the entrance; on Fridays employees are encouraged to wear purple. Two decades have passed, and of the store’s 550 employees today, it’s likely none worked with Warner. “Maybe one of the morning produce guys,” Morfitt suggests, though he doubts it.
It’s two days before the Iowa caucuses and three days before the region is expecting to be blanketed by blizzard, and the aisles are crowded. A new army of Hy-Vee men in black dress pants and white collared shirts greet customers with the Midwestern warmth encouraged by the regional franchise. There’s Zech Walker, 21, who bags groceries between classes at UNI. He’s nine credits shy of a criminology degree. In the dairy section, 17-year-old Isaiah Sigler stacks five-for-$5 yogurts. The junior gets out of high school at 2:55 p.m. and puts in seven-hour shifts, three days a week. When he’s not stocking shelves for $7.40 an hour, Sigler spends his time studying biology. He dreams of attending the University of Iowa, then medical school; then he’ll become the state’s top neurologist. “I’m not a huge football fan, to be honest,” says Sigler. “But yeah, I’ve heard of Kurt Warner.”
“That’s why my story resonates with so many people,” Warner says. “Because that’s what real life is.”
This week the football world shifts its attention to Santa Clara, where the dominant storyline will be the matchup between two No. 1 draft picks. But the Hy-Vee in Cedar Falls stands as a reminder that for every seemingly charmed career, long-shot journeys like Warner’s are also an essential part of Super Bowl lore.
“What I’ve found,” Warner says, “is that 99 percent of people went through something like I went though. Moments where people say there is no chance and you only can believe yourself. It happens in football, but outside of football too. That’s why my story resonates with so many people—because that’s what real life is.”
Here’s a secret about the Kurt Warner Hy-Vee: This isn’t actually it. In 2006 the old store was bulldozed and a new one was built down the street, in a 80,000-square foot former Wal-Mart superstore space. In a complex with a Kohl’s and Applebee’s, the new Hy-Vee is as shiny as it is spacious. It includes a sit-down restaurant serving store-baked bread and wine and showing UNI games on 17 flat-screen TVs. There’s a Starbucks counter and an employee lounge. On Saturday afternoon I texted Warner a picture of the store. He responded seconds later: “Def didn’t look like that…. We have all moved up in the world!”
Life on the Super Bowl 50 Road Trip
Compiled by Emily Kaplan
A chance encounter with a President, a moment of suspense, a missed connection with a Presidential hopeful and a boy-band style photo shoot—Leg 2 of The MMQB’s Super Bowl 50 road trip set off in style this weekend. About two hours west of Chicago, we couldn’t help but marvel at a quaint village on a hill. “Hey, wait,” California-based editor and men’s lifestyle maven Dom Bonvissuto asked. “Does that sign say we’re in Ulysses S. Grant’s hometown?” Sure enough, this was Galena, Ill., where Grant—in true Kurt Warner fashion—bided his time as a store clerk while waiting for history to summon him. We peeled off the road to walk the quaint estate of our 18th president and the commander of the victorious Union army in the Civil War. (What’s the football connection, you may ask? It turns out Gen. Grant was a huge Jacksonville Jaguars fan).
Moving on, we were beset by anxiety as our youngest driver—the fearless Kalyn Kahler—hauled us to our next location, Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Grant visit put us a bit behind schedule, and Kahler compensated as only a 20-something former Northwestern cheerleader knew how: by driving 85 miles an hour. Problem is, the speed limit on this stretch of Route 20 in Manchester, Iowa, was 65. As soon as she zoomed past the cop, Kahler knew what was coming next. Officer Chris must have been persuaded by her earnest apology, as he issued only a warning. He was less amused when Kahler subsequently asked him for his Super Bowl pick. He chose the Panthers. Why? “Because they are good,” he explained, curtly.
At dinner in Iowa City later that night, Team MMQB realized that our visit coincided with a Bernie Sanders rally two miles down the road. We’re still waiting to hear back from a Sanders staffer on our request to speak to the candidate about his Super Bowl prediction. Then again, maybe emailing her during the rally wasn’t the best strategy.
We enjoyed our time at Lincoln University, home of the 10-time NCAA women’s track champions, and the Blue Tigers football team, coached by one Mike Jones (of “The Tackle” fame). With unseasonably warm weather—60 degrees, though a bit windy—we decided to blow off some steam before we hit the road again. We ran a few routes on the Tigers field, kicked a few field goals—and missed a lot more—then posed for a photo, which will inevitably serve as our first album cover. As we left campus, Robert Klemko texted the photo to Coach Jones, to show him how much we savored our time on campus.
About an hour later, Jones responded: “Nice.”