Fairy tale start, unhappy ending
By Lori Shontz
Of the Post-Dispatch
He slipped into town so quietly, so unobtrusively, that barely anyone noticed. Kurt Warner's arrival was heralded, if that's the word, in the Post-Dispatch on Christmas Day 1997, his name buried in a list of seven other free agents the Rams signed after their season ended.
Nothing hinted at Warner's improbable rise that would captivate the city - and, for that matter, much of the country - or at his fall, nearly as swift and sudden, that would trigger such strong emotions as well.
So insignificant was Warner that he warranted only one sentence, and that sentence wasn't even correct. He was identified as a college quarterback at Northern (ital) Arizona (end ital), half a country away from his true alma mater, Northern Iowa.
Nothing indicated that he would lead his team - which had finished 4-12 the season before he took over - to victory in the Super Bowl. That he would win the league MVP twice in his first three seasons as a starter. That his wife would stir up controversy by calling a sports-talk radio show to criticize his coach. Or that he would eventually tell an audience at a religious convention that his strong faith - not his lack of production - was the reason he lost his starting job.
Nothing could have predicted all that came to pass. Who would have believed it?
Warner's sojourn in St. Louis had enough highs and lows, enough twists and turns, to fill an opera. And like many heroes, the characteristics that made him a star were essentially the same ones that led to his fall.
This is an athlete who never once lost confidence that he had the skills to play in the NFL, not even while stocking grocery shelves at Hy-Vee for $5.50 an hour or toiling for three seasons with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. So with that kind of faith in himself - and a strong religious faith as well - how could he be expected to characterize his struggles in 2002 and 2003 as anything other than an aberration?
In his first lengthy interview with the Post-Dispatch, in December 1998, Warner gave this answer when asked the biggest myth about the NFL: "Because I've played in so many different leagues and have had so many people tell me that I didn't belong here, that I wasn't good enough to play here, to me the biggest myth has been that I can't compete at this level or that the NFL athletes are so much greater than all of the other professional athletes out there."
In January 2003, after a season in which Warner went 0-6 as a starter, missed much of the season with broken finger problems and weathered a controversy sparked by his wife's outspokenness, he had the same attitude. "Did I play at a 'way' lower level than I did in the past three years?" he asked. "I don't believe I did. There were just different things that transpired that went against us that I would love to change.
"I'm not saying I played great, or that I'm perfect. I know I still have a lot of work to do. But I just felt it wasn't as bad as the stats dictated, as far as decision-making and throwing the football."
So it seems that while the circumstances have changed, perhaps Warner never did. He's still a scrappy athlete, looking for a chance to prove himself ... again.
He might never have gotten his first chance to do so had starting quarterback Trent Green not blown out his knee on Aug. 28, 1999, leaving backup Warner the only quarterback on the roster with an understanding of the team's offense. Warner took advantage of the opportunity and became a sensation so quickly that fans couldn't even find jerseys with his number in the stores, although his picture was readily available on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
By mid-October, Rams coach Dick Vermeil was saying, "I've never been around a guy that's doing what he's doing now."
Vermeil mentioned that he had spoken recently with Ron Jaworski, who was the league MVP in 1980, the year Vermeil coached the Eagles to the Super Bowl and told him, "Geez, Ron, I loved you as a quarterback. But this guy, my gosh!"
And it seemed, at times, that Warner was maybe too good to be true. Although he was always confident in his skills - he spoke the words, "I knew I was going to be successful, whether it be here or somewhere else," repeatedly during his career - Warner always gave credit to his teammates. He signed autographs after every day of training camp. At the Pro Bowl, he signed for fans until he realized he was holding up his NFC teammates, when he apologized and returned to the bus. Discovering that everyone else had left and this bus was waiting for him, he returned to the remaining fans and continued to sign.
He never complained in 1999 that he was woefully underpaid at $254,000 (the minimum salary for a player of his experience, plus a bonus for participating in offseason conditioning). The next season, in fact, he reported to training camp against the advice of his agent, who was continuing to negotiate a multi-year contract with perks and salary befitting a player of his stature.
"My love for the game and my responsibility to this team and my teammates and coaches outweigh everything else," Warner said then. "I definitely want to take care of my family and do those types of things, but I realize why I'm here, and it's something I felt I had to do."
When he finally signed the contract, he pledged 10 percent of it to his church. He gave, too, of his time. He and Brenda have been prominent figures in the community, spending time at hospitals and church camps and other charity events.
"He sincerely wants to get involved with the people he helps," Carol Clarkson, program director for Sunshine Ministries, told the Post-Dispatch in 2002.
After losing to New England in a huge upset in Super Bowl XXXVI, Warner's charmed athletic existence began to crumble. It wasn't as dramatic as, say, when Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes. But as injuries piled up, Warner's quick release and decision-making ability, the two characteristics that led him to the top, deteriorated.
On Sept. 29, 2002, Dallas safety Roy Williams tackled Warner, who broke the little finger on his throwing hand, the same bone that was broken two seasons before, that time on a snap from center Steve Everitt. After surgery and rehab, Warner returned to the lineup on Nov. 24, but wasn't quite able to rally the Rams to a victory over the Redskins.
He continued to try to play, however, until X-rays showed another crack in Warner's finger on Dec. 2. That led directly to "Brendagate," when Brenda Warner, hearing two talk-show hosts discuss the injury the next morning, called to say that coach Mike Martz had not, as he said, urged Warner to have X-rays taken. The resulting publicity storm appeared to expose rifts in Warner's relationship with Martz. It prompted speculation on whether Warner was hurt worse than he had let on, a proposed reason for why one season removed from the Super Bowl, he was 0-5 as a starter.
Warner's season ended Dec. 12 when he was placed on injured reserve. He never recovered. In the first game of the 2003 season against the New York Giants, Warner fumbled six times and suffered a concussion. The next week, Martz named Marc Bulger as the starter, telling the assembled reporters at Rams Park before he told Warner himself.
Warner never regained his starting job, and many speculated that he was working to be traded, a viewpoint that attracted more people after a speech in early February in Houston.
"I actually had coaches say I was reading the Bible too much and it was taking away from my play," Warner said, according to www.baptistpress.com. "It was OK when we were winning, but now I was (messing) this thing up? People were saying I had lost my job because of my faith."
"That's so far off the wall, it's incomprehensible," he said then. "I can't imagine Kurt saying that. Nothing could be further from the truth. If he said that, that's a bald-faced lie. I'm just tired of dealing with this type of behavior."
If Brendagate was the beginning of the end, the banquet incident was certainly the final straw.
And so it came to pass that as soon as they could do so, considering salary cap restrictions, the Rams officially released Warner on Wednesday. And now he embarks on another chapter in a career already punctuated by twists and turns.
"He's ready to have an MVP-caliber season like he's had in the past," said Warner's agent, Mark Bartelstein. "Once it became clear that probably wasn't going to happen with the Rams, at least as a starter, then I think, yeah, there is sort of a relief and a release off his shoulders, to say, 'OK, now I can go somewhere and get a fresh start and get back to having fun playing football."