Holy Smokes Rams quarterback Kurt Warner is lighting up the NFL, thanks largely to an unwavering faith that has been tested time and again

October 17, 1999

The music blared, the crowd went wild, and St. Louis Rams
quarterback Kurt Warner stood in the middle of it all, a heavy
dose of rapture rushing through his veins. Then Warner, the
hottest player in pro football, raised his hands and pointed
triumphantly to the heavens. Virtually no one noticed. Though
Warner is St. Louis's biggest football sensation since Jim Hart,
he and the 300 other worshipers at the St. Louis Family Church
last Friday night were preoccupied with praising a truly supreme
being. "I love you, Jesus!" a college-aged woman across the
aisle from Warner yelled as a five-piece band kicked its upbeat
groove to a cacophonous climax. Onstage six singers belted out
the chorus as Warner and the rest of the congregation joined in:
"All things are possible! All things are possible!"

It was a mantra that might have borne repeating 40 hours later
by a much larger but no less fervent gathering at the Trans
World Dome. With 65,872 fans screeching their approval, Warner
and the Rams continued to defy conventional football wisdom,
this time with a 42-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers that
reverberated throughout the NFL. Not only did the 4-0 Rams end a
17-game losing streak to the Niners, their longtime NFC West
tormenters, but St. Louis--St. Louis!--also ended the day as the
league's lone unbeaten team. Warner, the 28-year-old Arena
Football League emigrant, continued to embarrass scouts
everywhere by setting new standards for a first-year starter,
among them a heretofore unheard of 14 touchdown passes in his
first four games, two more than the Rams threw all last year.

On Sunday, Warner threw for 177 yards and three touchdowns--in
the first quarter. His final stats were surreal: 20 completions
in 23 attempts for 323 yards and five scores, boosting his
league-leading quarterback rating to an astronomical 136.0. Yet
there's no way to quantify Warner's commanding pocket presence,
his ability to release the ball just before the rush arrives or
the amazing array of passes he can throw with chilling accuracy.
Somehow Warner, a player so lightly regarded that the Rams
exposed him in last February's expansion draft, is playing like
a natural-born thriller. "He's in a zone, and I've never been
around anybody who's this hot," Dick Vermeil, the Rams'
62-year-old coach, said after the game. "[Rams owner] Georgia
Frontiere believes in astrology; maybe that's the only way to
explain it."

To Warner it's far less mysterious. "I've been doing all these
interviews lately, and people are looking for the secret to my
success," he says. "I tell them it's my faith in Jesus Christ,
and they don't want to hear that. So they ask me the same
question, again and again, even though they've already gotten
the answer. The Lord has something special in mind for this
team, and I'm really excited to be a part of it."

Such proclamations serve as a red flag for even the mildest of
cynics, but once you meet Warner and hear his story, it's
awfully tough to question his faith. He is as grounded and solid
as a redwood, and it's certainly no accident that he has emerged
as the anti-Ryan Leaf, a quiet leader who exudes maturity, was
handed nothing and is grateful to be earning a '99 salary of
$250,000, the league minimum for a second-year player. By
overcoming doubt and adversity at every turn, he has also earned
the right to have his faith taken at face value.

Faith has guided Warner along his unlikely path to football
prominence, from his lone year (1993) as a starter at Division
I-AA Northern Iowa to his three years with the Iowa Barnstormers
of the Arena Football League to a 1998 stint for NFL Europe's
franchise in Amsterdam, where he walked each night through the
city's red-light district on his way to church. He clung to his
dream of playing in the NFL, even when it seemed he didn't have a
prayer. After being cut by the Green Bay Packers in the summer of
'94, Warner returned to Cedar Falls, Iowa, and got a job at a
24-hour supermarket. He worked out at his old college practice
field by day and stocked shelves by night, without much sleep in
between. "That was obviously a very humbling experience," Warner
says. "I was making $5.50 an hour--and I was darn happy to get it.
I'd tell the other guys at the store, 'I'll be playing football
again someday,' and they'd look at me like I was some guy who
just couldn't let go."

If that had been the low point for Warner, his story would be
compelling enough. But the word "struggle" is a relative term in
the Warner household. Kurt's 10-year-old adopted son, Zachary,
suffered brain damage and has been blind since his biological
father dropped him accidentally during his infancy. In April 1996
Zachary's mother, Brenda, whom Kurt was dating at the time, lost
both her parents when their house in Mountain View, Ark., was
leveled by a tornado. You want a low point? Imagine Brenda and
her two young children (daughter Jesse is three years Zach's
junior) sitting in the stands of a Barnstormers game that spring
while a typically rowdy Arena League crowd ragged on Kurt for
serving up interceptions. "There was a lot of drinking in those
crowds, and Kurt was struggling," Brenda recalls. "No one knew he
had been dealing with a tragedy. I'd say, 'Could you please try
to watch the profanity? I have kids here.' Sometimes they'd
listen; sometimes they wouldn't. We heard every word in the
book."

At that point Kurt, who was raised Catholic, got deeper and
deeper into fundamentalist Christianity. He and Brenda married
in 1997--his elaborate proposal included a house strewn with
rose petals and an electric WILL YOU MARRY ME? sign across the
backyard fence--and he adopted Zachary and Jesse soon
thereafter. Warner starred for the Barnstormers in '97, yet his
quest for better opportunities seemed snakebit, or at least
spider-bit: While honeymooning with Brenda in Jamaica, Kurt
awoke one morning to find that the elbow of his throwing arm had
swelled to the size of a baseball, thanks to a voracious
arachnid. As a result the Chicago Bears canceled a tryout upon
his return. Warner then completed what he considered a
"horrible" workout for the Rams, but he had fans in the
organization, chiefly personnel director Charley Armey and
assistant coach Mike White, who persuaded the team to sign him.
St. Louis then sent him to play for the Amsterdam Admirals.
After leading NFL Europe in passing yardage and touchdowns in
the spring of '98, Warner earned a job as the third-string
quarterback for the 4-12 Rams last season. He appeared in one
game, completing four passes in 11 attempts for 39 yards.

He moved into the backup role this summer, and when starter
Trent Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in an Aug. 28
exhibition game, the Rams put their season in Warner's hands. "I
thought he could be a solid backup, a guy we could get by with,"
Vermeil says. "When Trent went down, I told our team we could
win with Kurt. I didn't expect him to play well enough that we'd
win because of him."

Outsiders were aghast. Warner was worse than a no-name--he was
often confused with Curt Warner, a standout running back for
Penn State and the Seattle Seahawks whose pro career ended with
the Los Angeles Rams in 1990. Last year Kurt got a call from the
office of his own agent, Mark Bartelstein, asking if he could
appear on a radio talk show to discuss the 1983 Sugar Bowl.
Hello? Warner called Bartelstein and cracked, "Sure, I'd love
to. I was 12 at the time, and I remember watching it on TV."

Six weeks after Green's injury everyone is getting hip to
Warner's name, as well as his game. Highly drafted quarterbacks
typically don't shine until their third season, if ever, but
Warner, with all his minor league seasoning, burst onto the
scene like an old pro. His accuracy is uncanny, and he shows
poise, toughness and an aptitude for reading defenses in a
hurry. Playing Arena ball, with its condensed field and
wide-open style, helped Warner perfect the art of making quick,
decisive throws. "A lot of young quarterbacks struggle to adjust
to the speed of the game," says Vermeil. "That's something you
can't glean from watching them practice. This kid slows the game
down a little bit, and part of that's because of what he went
through in the Arena League."

Warner's size (6'2", 220 pounds) and speed are unexceptional,
but his arm strength is impressive, and the touch on his passes
is as soft as fleece. He can make all the throws, as he proved
with his touchdown passes against the Niners: a hard, 13-yard
slant to wideout Isaac Bruce after freezing the safeties with a
pump fake; a willowy, five-yard fade to Bruce in the back left
corner of the end zone; a crisp underneath pass to Bruce that
the brilliant receiver caught in stride and turned into a
45-yard score; an airtight, 22-yard strike to well-covered tight
end Jeff Robinson in the middle of the end zone; and a
picturesque, 42-yard toss to Bruce along the right sideline.

San Francisco threw a variety of blitzes at Warner, but he never
flinched--which wasn't surprising to his teammates. The Rams
witnessed Warner's calm under fire each day during training
camp, as offensive coordinator Mike Martz made a point of
chewing him out as loudly as possible. "When Trent was healthy,
Kurt was the whipping boy," Bruce says. "[Martz] would
communicate with Trent through Kurt. Now [third-stringer] Joe
Germaine is the whipping boy." Says Martz, "We made a conscious
effort to put pressure on Kurt. I would just wear him out, but
none of it fazed him."

Warner's unflappable demeanor is aided by the perspective he
gets at home. Zachary, after all, is a walking miracle: Doctors
initially told Brenda, who was working as an intelligence
officer in the Marines at the time of his accident, that her son
would probably not survive, and if he did, would be lucky to
ever sit up. Brenda got divorced shortly after Jesse was born,
enrolled in nursing school and met Kurt at a country-music dance
club in Cedar Falls. At the end of the night she told him she
had two children and added, "I understand if you never want to
see me again."

Now flash forward to last Friday evening, as the Warner family,
which now includes Kurt and Brenda's one-year-old son, Kade,
dined at a pizzeria near their church. Zachary, who attends
elementary school and can see some objects from extremely close
range, held up a crayon the color of artificial turf and joked,
"Look, Dad, it's a Trent Green crayon." As Jesse, now seven,
patiently served her older brother cheese sticks and french
fries, a waiter brought a complimentary sampler plate for Kurt,
the city's sudden celebrity.

The Warners are refreshingly rattled by the hoopla: Their phone
number was listed until they changed it last week. If
endorsements are in Kurt's future, you can exclude headwear ("I
look terrible in caps," he says), tools ("He's the world's worst
handyman," says Brenda) and razors. Warner, who has what backup
quarterback Paul Justin calls "an 11 o'clock shadow," refuses to
shave, relying instead on a beard trimmer to reduce his
perpetual scruff. "People ask me all the time, 'When is your son
going to shave?'" says Kurt's mother, Sue. "The answer, I'm
afraid, is never."

The more you watch Warner interact with his family--and reaffirm
his faith--the less stunning his phenomenal ascent seems. He
appears to be sincere, unabashed and unspoiled. "Kurt's the most
grounded person you'll ever meet," says Rams cornerback Todd
Lyght. "Even though he's off the Richter scale right now,
there's no way he'll let this go to his head."

Though the Rams and Bartelstein are talking about adjusting
Warner's contract, he says any raise he receives for 1999 will
be donated to Camp Barnabus, a Christian retreat in Purdy, Mo.,
for special-needs children and their siblings. Last week, during
an interview with ESPN, Warner broke into tears three times. "On
the football field I keep my emotions tied up inside," he says,
"but when I'm with my family, I let them out. Zach has been such
a blessing to me. He falls down, really hard, about 10 times a
day, but he gets up and just exudes pure joy. He couldn't care
less about football, but he touches my life so much."

At church last Friday pastor Jeff Perry gave a sermon that
touched Warner to his core. "Mordecai said to Queen Esther when
she had to save the Jews, 'You have been brought into the
kingdom for a time such as this,'" Perry told the rapt
congregation. "That could apply to everyone here." When the
sermon ended, Perry called Warner to the front of the stage and
uttered a special blessing for Sunday's game: "Lord, give him
sharpness and clarity. Let him be bold and perform beyond the
realm of his skills."

Warner buried his prickly face into his hands, then closed his
eyes and smiled. Perry was preaching to the choir.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO COVER Who Is This Guy? From out of nowhere the Rams' Kurt Warner takes the NFL by storm COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Scores galore With 14 touchdown passes in four games, Warner has thrown two more than the Rams did all last year. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Burned Bruce beat the 49ers for four scores, the first on this 13-yard slant in which Warner froze the safeties with a pump fake. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (4) Biggest fan Brenda, who heard plenty of boos during Kurt's early Arena League days, has heard nothing but cheers in St. Louis. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (4) On top of the world Warner had plenty of reasons to celebrate after the Rams beat the Niners for the first time in 18 meetings.

"I told our team we could win with Kurt," says Vermeil. "I
didn't expect that he'd play well enough that we'd win because
of him."

"Even though he's off the Richter scale right now," Lyght says
of Warner, "there's no way he'll let this go to his head."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)