American Football: Warner the reject turns into fantasy man

t AMERICAN FOOTBALL In just three months an unknown quarterback has turned the St Louis Rams into Super Bowl contenders
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THE PRE-SEASON portents were far from encouraging for the St Louis Rams. A team which had achieved the unhappy distinction of losing more games than anyone else during the 1990s also lost the services of their leading quarterback through injury before a ball had been thrown in anger.

The Rams were forced to begin the National Football League campaign with a quarterback few had heard of, and who had thrown a mere 11 passes in a brief career. Now, less than three months later, St Louis are on course for a place in the Super Bowl, having won eight of their first 10 matches, while their quarterback, anonymous in September, is a strong candidate to be named as the league's most valuable player.

Kurt Warner's rise from obscurity to stardom is the stuff of pure fantasy. A marketing graduate from the University of Northern Iowa, Warner was given a trial by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, but failed to make an impression.

Spurned by the NFL, he joined the Marines, while also playing for his local Arena League team, the Iowa Barnstormers. The Arena League is a high-scoring indoor version of the game, popular among fans but a vastly inferior game technically. Few have graduated from the boards to the big league but, even in a league where high scores are the norm, Warner's 183 touchdown passes in 45 contests led to a free agent trial with the Rams.

Such contracts generally count for little: NFL teams dispense them liberally in the hope that they might unearth the occasional diamond amid the hopefuls. The Rams sent their prospect to the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe in 1998, where he led the league in yardage, attempts, completions and touchdowns.

The Rams were sufficiently impressed to make him their third stringer on his return from Europe, but he only saw limited action in the final game of last season, a heavy loss against the San Francisco 49ers.

This summer, St Louis signed the quarterback Trent Green from Washington on a $16m (pounds 10m), four-year deal. But when he damaged knee ligaments in a pre-season game, the Rams had to accept that their fate lay in the hands of an unproven, untested commodity.

"I just stepped in and tried to get focused, tried to take control of the team," he said. "I never saw any doubt in the eyes of the other players, they had all the confidence in me."

That confidence proved founded as Warner enjoyed a splendid debut, throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns in the 27-10 triumph over the Baltimore Ravens. When he destroyed the San Francisco 49ers with a five-touchdown effort three weeks later, Kurt Who had been supplanted, in American media eyes, by Kurt Wow.

"I'm very proud of him," said his head coach, Dick Vermeil. "It's so exciting to see a guy come up from just nowhere."

Vermeil admits that he got lucky, and that no one within the organisation had realised just how effective he could be. There had simply been nothing to judge him by.

Warner is a man of strong religious beliefs. It is this faith that has sustained him on his odyssey around some outlandish American football outposts. Talk to him about his three months in Amsterdam, for example, and he will tell you that it was God's will for him to be there. He also acknowledges that the European league enabled him to demonstrate his skills.

"It was my way of opening some eyes here at the Rams," he said. "It gave me the chance to reinvent myself, and the confidence that I could come into the NFL and succeed. There are a lot of guys who never get an opportunity to play, but you don't know what someone is capable of unless you give them a chance."

Fame and success are unlikely to spoil him. He lives quietly with his wife Brenda and three children, one of whom is blind. Both spend much of their spare time fund-raising for a variety of children's causes. On the field he is a fiery competitor whose determination to succeed has made him the team's unquestioned leader.

His poise under fire and accuracy when throwing are his greatest assets, although there is room for improvement, and a tendency to fumble needs addressing. "He still isn't completely in a groove with everything," said Vermeil. "He makes mistakes fundamentally, but when you put the whole package together, what he's doing is amazing."

His market value has risen steeply with every touchdown, but, as a back- up, Warner earns a league-minimum $254,000 (pounds 157,000) per season. The team would doubtless review his contract without a murmur, but there have been no demands for more money. The player intends to honour the deal he has signed, adding that any bonus cash will go to a camp in Missouri for children with special needs.

"I don't even think about it," he said. "I am not worried about making a lot of money. I am worried about going out and winning football games, that is my main priority."

Winning football games is what this remarkable 28-year-old from Johnston, Iowa, is proving good at. The Rams are not only on course for the play- offs, they look a good bet to reach the Super Bowl, too. The one-time no-hopers, led by the quarterback from nowhere, are the story of the season.