This week sees one of sport's most compelling events, the NFL Draft, take place. 32 teams, 253 picks, hundreds of possibilities and countless stories, all unfolding in front of an audience of millions across the globe. For some it will be the first step on their road into the professional game and beyond, for others, regrettably, it may well be the start of something else. But for every prospect waiting to hear their name called in Philadelphia this weekend the draft represents the beginning of the next stage of their journey, the next chapter of their lives. Yet for the NFL's greatest-ever story, draft night didn't actually start anything at all.
"The biggest thing is after dreaming about it for so long is you just want to hear your name called," Kurt Warner tells The Independent. "That’s what the whole process comes down to. You just want someone to say ‘we want you’". But for the then 23-year-old no one did. "I was in my old house that I grew up in and I watched every pick of the draft knowing that I wouldn’t be a high draft pick, but you never know so you sit there and watch every pick hoping that you will hear your name and I was one of those guys who never did."
A short spell in Green Bay didn't end in a spot on the roster but in a theme that would grow to tell his story, Warner, a one-year starter at Northern Iowa, wasn't about to let that stand in his way. A move to the wonderful and often weird world of arena football beckoned. The small field, eight-a-side, you score, we score version of the game isn't for everyone but for Warner, just eager to get out show everyone what he could do, it was the perfect stage.
"It was a shock to the system," he recalls. "It was a faster game, you had to be more accurate, you had to be able to anticipate. But the biggest thing for me rather than the game being a little bit different was the fact that I actually got to play. I had only started one year in college so I didn’t have a lot of experience actually playing football so that was the beautiful thing about arena football. You would score 50, 60, 70 points per game so, as a quarterback, you were expected to score every time you touched the football. That to me was a great learning experience because there was pressure every time you stepped out there – you had to perform, the quarterback had to be the best guy out there." And Warner was. He excelled being named to the AFL's First-team All-Arena in both 1996 and 1997. He's now in the AFL Hall of Fame. There was even a video game, Kurt Warner's Arena Football Unleashed, named in his honour.
"You had to throw it to win games so it was a great training ground for me, not just because of the nature of arena football but because I got to experience a lot of different situations. That’s why I say that getting cut by Green Bay may well have been the greatest blessing of my career because even though I went to play arena football instead of in the NFL I probably played more games than any backup quarterback, got more snaps and more opportunities than any backup quarterback over that three, three-and-a-half year period until I got my second chance."
That positivity resonates throughout Warner's journey. A move to Europe and the Amsterdam Admirals wouldn't have been most wannabe NFL quarterback's number one choice but it was one Warner grabbed with both hands and an experience he now remembers fondly. "As a quarterback you’re always looking for a training ground to show people you can play and the only way you can do that is to play. You can’t do it in shorts, you can’t do it against air, it has to be in an environment where you can compete and play."
You can't tell the Kurt Warner story without 1999. Having being signed the previous year by the St Louis Rams and farmed out to Amsterdam Warner returned as the back-up to Trent Green, a high-priced free agent acquisition from the Washington Redskins. Green would go on to tear his ACL in pre-season landing Warner, at the age of 28, finally where he had so long dreamed of being - a starting quarterback in the NFL.
"There was part of me that was just excited at the situation I was in, that I was moving up the ranks," he says. "I was still in the NFL, I’d made it. I was on that path that I would continue to work my way up to being a starter and then there’s obviously always the other side, the competitor, that wants to play right now and wants to compete now. Then unfortunately with the injury to Trent I had an opportunity and it was great because I had played so much football, had so much confidence in my ability, the situation in St Louis, the offense that we ran and the players that were around me, it was almost like a perfect storm that I got thrown into a perfect situation for me to succeed because of what we did and what my skillset was so I kind of hit the ground running."
Hit the ground running is an understatement for the ages. Warner ripped up the history books as the leader of the 'Greatest Show on Turf' throwing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns as the Rams, on the strength of their quarterback's rocket right arm, put up over 500 points on their way to a first playoff berth in a decade and a first division title since 1985. Warner was named league MVP before guiding his team right through the postseason to win the Super Bowl, beating the Tennessee Titans, as Warner threw for a then record 414 yards and two scores to claim the MVP award.
Two decades on it is still remembered as one of the great quarterback seasons, something Warner himself would scarcely have ever believed achieving more in one year than others do in a lifetime. "If you’d told me when I was 15-years-old that when you’re 28 you’ll be in the NFL, you’ll have won an MVP, you’ll have won a Super Bowl, won Super Bowl MVP would you take it? Without question you’re like ‘of course, are you kidding me?’ The weird thing is that that all happened in one year."
A second league MVP followed in 2001 but there would no second Lombardi to go with it as the Tom Brady-inspired New England Patriots earned an upset win in Super Bowl XXXVI. As with much of Warner's career the ups came with downs and in 2004, after two so-so seasons, he was released with three years still remaining on his contract. But Warner being Warner he wasn't going to let that be the final chapter of his story. After a year with the Giants in New York the Arizona Cardinals gave him another chance.
"The theme of my career is that every time everybody counts you out, you get an opportunity and you excel. It happened to me in college where I sat on the bench for four years, then played one year and had a great deal of success. Then it happens with the Rams and then again with the Cardinals, it just sort of seemed to be the Kurt Warner theme. This is how it’s going to work – we’re going to count you out, then you’re going to get an opportunity so what are you going to do with that opportunity? It was really just the life that I lived. There are lots of times when you get that opportunity and it’s taken away and then you think ‘am I ever going to get that opportunity again?’ I’m so fortunate that the Cardinals were that one team that said ‘we’re going to give you another shot’."
Four years and another fairytale run to the Super Bowl followed. Alas for Warner and his Cardinals there was to be no storybook ending this time around with Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers prevailing in one of the great games. Incredibly in the three seasons Warner started every regular and postseason game he reached the Super Bowl. And he did so for two of, historically, the worst teams the league has seen. But for Warner, the ultimate underdog, he wouldn't have it any other way. "When I got to the Rams we were playing against Cincinnati in the third game of the year and they were telling us whoever lost that game would be the losingest team of the nineties. This team hadn’t had much success but I went on to be part of them going to two Super Bowls. Then you have the Cardinals, maybe the losingest team in the last 50 years, and then I was part of them going to a Super Bowl, something they’d never done before. They were really special moments I’m really, really proud of. It just became who I was and the theme of my career. It was pretty incredible to have the opportunity to help those two teams to that level in two different times in my career."
Now, after finally calling it a day in 2010, Warner is a Hall of Famer, one of just 310 esteemed names to earn such an honour, a fitting end to a story for the ages in not just the NFL but all of sport. "I don’t even know how to put it into words, it’s extremely special. To be recognised and have people say that your contribution to anything belongs in the annals of history in that way makes me feel tremendously honoured and humbled. I think it puts a nice cherry on top of my story to be able to encourage and inspire other people to chase that as well.
"I’ve got a story that no one else will ever have, I’ve got a unique journey that is always going to set me apart. When you’re going through it you don’t necessarily want it to go that way but when it’s all said and done you look back and you wouldn’t want it any other way."
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