PHOENIX — The career of former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner isn’t just defined by his football achievements. It is shaped by faith, service, commitment and the person in Warner’s life who helped bring each of those together.
“Through this entire journey, all the ups and downs, all the good and bad, there’s been one person that’s been with me through it all,” Warner said on a conference call with reporters recently.
It is his wife of 20 years, Brenda.
On Aug. 5, she will present Warner for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. She will be one of two spouses to present, joining Gene Jones, the wife of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
The ceremony will recognize a standout 12-year NFL career that includes three Super Bowl appearances, two Most Valuable Player awards and one championship ring.
“Being up on that stage, there are so many people that helped me get there, but she’s the one that I believe deserves to share that moment with me,” he said. “Someone that sacrificed as much as I did and really allowed me within our circumstances to chase after my dream.”
The two met at a country music dance bar in 1993 during Warner’s final season at the University of Northern Iowa. From the beginning, it was a match that seemed improbable.
Warner was about to graduate from college and pursue a dream of playing in the NFL. A former member of the Marines, Brenda was a divorced mother of two, one with special needs.
That made no difference to Warner.
After meeting and dancing, he showed up at Brenda’s door the next day and quickly connected with her and her children. Through financial struggle and the uncertainty of Warner’s future in football, the two stuck together and married in 1997.
That Warner will soon be in Canton, Ohio, is surprising considered the hurdles he encountered on the way. After one season as the starting quarterback for Northern Iowa, he went undrafted in 1994 but received an invitation to Green Bay Packers training camp.
He was released after just five weeks, before the season even began.
Warner continued to pursue his dream. In a story well-chronicled during his NFL career, he worked the graveyard shift stocking shelves at a grocery store so that he could stay in football shape during the day. In 1995, Warner accepted an opportunity to play in the Arena Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers.
In three seasons with the Barnstormers, he led them to two Arena Bowl appearances. Warner set a number of passing records and it was there that he caught the attention of the St. Louis Rams.
The team sent him overseas to NFL Europe, where he lead the league in touchdowns and passing yards in 1998. Warner credits his four seasons spent in the Arena League and NFL Europe for helping take his career to the next level.
“There were so many things that I learned and that I developed during those four seasons that were vital to me being ready and prepared and able to grab the wheel and take off running when I got my opportunity with the Rams,” Warner said.
Warner was finally given that opportunity in 1998 when starting quarterback Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury in the third game of the preseason.
He stepped in for Green, who was perceived as the quarterback of the future for the Rams, and led the “Greatest Show on Turf” to a come-from-behind victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. He put together one of the more remarkable seasons in NFL history, resulting in a record-breaking 414 yards in the Super Bowl and MVP honors.
“To be able to step on the football field as I had dreamed about in my front yard a million times and to throw a touchdown pass late in the game to win a Super Bowl… it doesn’t get any better than that,” Warner said. “It’s what every kid who plays quarterback dreams about their entire life growing up.”
Warner led the Rams to the Super Bowl once again the following season, but came up short to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
He later made a third title appearance, leading the Arizona Cardinals on an improbable run to their first ever Super Bowl appearance in 2008. Warner threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald to give the Cardinals the lead with 2:37 remaining in the game. But the Steelers marched down the field and Santonio Holmes scored the go-ahead touchdown with 35 seconds left, sealing the victory.
Warner also spent a season with the New York Giants in 2004, backing up Eli Manning.
Now, eight years separated from the game and heading toward football immortalization, Warner continues to reflect on the true meaning of his career and how it’s best defined. Whether it was overcoming insurmountable odds or waiting for his opportunity, he finds value in the lessons he’s learned along the way.
“I think every opportunity that I was faced with throughout my career — good, bad, indifferent, starter, backup, mentoring role — they all helped shape me as a person,” Warner said. “I don’t look at any situation and say it didn’t benefit me in some way.
“Learning what it meant to be a great teammate or learning the rewarding part of being able to help a team be successful on Sunday afternoons, even when you don’t have the ball in your hands… it’s all rewarding.”
In Canton, Warner will have 12 to 13 minutes to deliver a speech that will best summarize his career. He views it as an opportunity to encourage and inspire people through his rags-to-riches story.
“It’ll be my chance to say, ‘Hey, I was there, I was in your boat. I found myself in the same place and here’s where I ended up,’ ” he said. “You can do that same thing. You’ve got the same opportunity that I have.'”
He also sees it as an opportunity to take hold of the feeling of becoming a Hall of Famer and understand the true meaning behind it. For now, he’s still trying to take it all in.
“I don’t even know if to this moment that I’ve fully grasped what it means and how I fit in,” Warner said. “Walking into a room with the guys that I admired and looked up to and tried to emulate for so many years and hear them speak and be a part of that process, I think that’s when it will really take shape on what it means to be connected to the people who’ve laid a mark on this great game.”