'Surreal' the Best Way to Describe Kurt Warner's Career
Editor's Note: This story by Howard Balzer appeared in the Pro Football Hall of Fame yearbook in 2017
Surreal: "Marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream; unreal; fantastic."
There might be no better word than surreal to describe the astounding journey of Kurt Warner to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Consider: Starting for only one season at Northern Iowa. Cut by the Green Bay Packers after being signed as an undrafted free agent. Becoming a standout for the Iowa Barnstormers in the Arena Football League.
A tryout that never happened with the Chicago Bears because of a spider bite on his throwing arm suffered during his honeymoon. A tryout with the St. Louis Rams in 1997 that wasn't attended by the team's offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome. Playing for the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe while under contract to the Rams, and heading to training camp wondering if he could beat out Will Furrer for the No. 3 quarterback job.
Earning a roster spot in 1998, but being left unprotected in the 1999 expansion draft for the Cleveland Browns, who selected quarterback Scott Milanovich. Feeling beat down by Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but then becoming the starter when Trent Green tore his ACL in a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers.
Somehow, taking the NFL by storm and leading "The Greatest Show on Turf" to a Super Bowl XXXIV win over the Tennessee Titans and being named MVP for the regular season and the Super Bowl.
Moving on from the Rams in 2004, and signing with the N.Y. Giants, who made a trade during the draft that year to acquire first-round pick Eli Manning. Heading to the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, who then selected quarterback Matt Leinart in the first round of the 2006 draft.
Deciding to wear a glove near the end of the 2006 season, and wearing it for the rest of his career while guiding the Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance after a 9-7 regular season in 2008.
Surreal? Warner can't disagree, as he reflected this spring, two months after being elected to the Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility.
"As a competitor, you think of high goals like the Hall of Fame when things are happening as they did in St. Louis," Warner said. "But then, for things to go sideways as it did, that type of dream kind of disappears as you chase just another opportunity. But as you look back, you're amazed at how many things seemed to go against you, yet every time you get that one opportunity to make it right again.
"I was fortunate to be in some great situations. That’s what I've reflected on more than anything; the path. The defining moments that pop into my head at different times. 'Man if it wasn't for that or it wasn't for this, I wouldn't be in the position that I'm in today.'"
There is probably no better example of that than the circuitous route he took to wind up with the Rams. A tryout was arranged because Admirals head coach Al Luginbill wanted a quarterback for his team that would be allocated by an NFL club. Rams general manager Charley Armey agreed to set up the tryout, but according to Warner, it wasn't one of his better days.
"It was awful," Warner insists. "I had broken my thumb the year before in Arena (Football) and I didn't feel it was right. I had one of my worst tryouts. I couldn't control the ball the way I wanted to. I left the workout and called my wife (Brenda) and said, 'I just blew it. There's no way they're signing me.'
"There's no way they were convinced at my tryout that I was good enough; they were just doing a favor to Al Luginbill."
Warner played well in Europe, but he was also absent from offseason workouts in St. Louis. That didn't make for a confident player, but he got a lift when Armey visited and then stayed in contact.
"That was the first sign," Warner said, "that maybe there will be a chance that someone will believe in me. Charley seemed very much in my corner and he said I have a chance to make (the Rams') roster and play at this level."
Then came camp and more frustration. Warner played in the first preseason game, completing all four of his passes for 25 yards, but never saw the field again.
He said, "I thought I had done enough to warrant a look, but I'm not getting a shot here. It was frustrating because I thought I had done some decent things.”
He had no idea if it would be enough to win a roster spot, but head coach Dick Vermeil made the ultimate decision to keep Warner and release Furrer, who had Rhome in his corner.
Warner will never forget seeing Vermeil while walking in the Rams Park hallway on cutdown day, not knowing his fate. Before saying "congratulations," Vermeil told me, "I just feel there is something special about you. I don’t know what it is. It's early and we haven't seen a whole lot, but there's something about you that's different. I couldn't let you go without exploring to see what that was.
"Ultimately, it was his decision and it was nice to know the guy making the decision truly believes in you. After that, I finally felt I would get the chance and now it's up to me to prove him right."
Little did he know it would be the next year after Green's injury, despite a rough patch in his first experience with Martz, who was hired by Vermeil to replace Rhome in the '99 offseason.
Warner says simply of Martz, "He was hard on me. I remember coming back to my dorm room after practices telling my wife, 'I don't know if I can play.' I think I'm doing some good things, but all I'm doing is getting yelled at and getting told that I don't know what I'm doing, that I'm not any good. I couldn't correlate it because in my mind I didn't think I was doing that bad."
He vividly remembers one day Green being told "good job" and then "the very next day I did the exact same thing and I get screamed and yelled at. I'm trying to do what Trent did and he got complimented for it and I'm getting yelled at in front of everybody. I really felt like this guy has got it out for me, he does not want me to be here."
Once again, it was Vermeil to the rescue when Warner confided in the head coach.
"Dick talked me off the ledge," Warner said. "He said it was Mike doing his thing putting pressure on me and seeing how I handled it. He was coaching Trent through me. Dick said I was doing a good job. That was two different messages that I really didn't understand until after the fact of what Mike was trying to do to see if I was worthy of being the No. 2.
"Once Trent got injured, he called me in and said, 'OK, that stuff's over. It was part of my process to see where you were.' It was completely different in one day. I thought, 'Now that's what that was all about.' In the midst of it, I had no idea."
What followed were the legendary words Vermeil said to the media the day after Green's diagnosis was confirmed: "We will rally around Kurt Warner and we will play good football."
Boy, did they ever.
Warner recalls, "I was really surprised by that comment. I joke around to this day that he was crying when he said that."
Sadly, it didn't last. There was another Super Bowl appearance, a loss to the New England Patriots two seasons later, but after more injuries and Warner playing just one game in 2003, he departed St. Louis for the Giants.
Once Manning took the reins during the 2004 season, Warner was on the move again to Arizona in '05. Leinart arrived the following season, and while on the bench that season, he began experimenting with different gloves. Fumbles had become an issue.
When Leinart was injured late in the '06 season, Warner played well in the final two games of the season and made the commitment to wear them going forward. Surely, without how he performed after that, Canton would probably not be his final football destination.
Warner can't put a finger on how much the glove helped. "It's one of those things I don't have any idea," he said. "I look back now and it could have had a huge difference or might not have made much of a difference. I don’t have anything that I can point to that this is how it helped me. But I won’t say it didn't. I can't definitively say it did. As long as I can be successful with them more power to the situation."
He feels similarly about the notion that playing indoor football on the 50-yard field helped him in the NFL.
He said, "It's the old argument: what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did it help me hone those skills if I had them already? But there's nothing that says it didn't help me develop those skills either. Quick decisions, accuracy with the football. Being able to throw in different manners and be accurate. Those are things that became my strength.
"It was a perfect training ground as a quarterback because I didn't play a lot of football in college. In Arena, you're expected to score every time you get the ball. It taught me things that made me who I was as a player. In reality, getting cut by Green Bay was probably the best thing that happened because it gave me the opportunity to play a lot before my next shot."
While Warner has made the Phoenix area his home, he still does charity events in St. Louis and wistfully wonders what might have been in what Martz often described as a "magical" time and "a special place in time. Nobody will ever be here again."
Warner is being enshrined one year after Rams left tackle Orlando Pace. Running back Marshall Faulk entered the Hall in 2011. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was a finalist this year, while wide receiver Torry Holt has been a semifinalist three times. (Note: Bruce was elected this year and Holt was a finalist for the first time.)
Warner said, "My big regret not staying in St. Louis was to see how good we could have been. Could we have been a dynasty? Could we have written the record book in an even more crazy way? We didn't get a chance as a team to see what we could really do together. There's always that 'What if?'
"To see it fall apart the way it did is probably the most disappointing part. Still, it's an honor to be part of that group because I still believe we've never seen an offense put together like we had with the Rams."
Now, with Canton beckoning, Warner's appreciation is bountiful.
"Looking back," he says, "I'm grateful my career took the path that it did. The great thing is now I know the end of the story and I'm so grateful that it did play out this way."
With a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.