MIAMI – Late in the first half of a superfluous game featuring some of the NFL's best and brightest, one of the league's least-likely superstars of this or any era called to give me an update on life after pro football.
"There are times I've been walking around the last couple of days and I'll suddenly think, 'Did I really do that? Or was that a dream?' " Kurt Warner(notes) confessed Sunday night. "But no, there's been no second-guessing. Not at all."
Two days after announcing his retirement, two weeks after the playoff defeat to the New Orleans Saints that turned out to be his final NFL game, the 38-year-old ex-Arizona Cardinals quarterback sounded happy, hopeful and utterly untroubled as we spoke during a good chunk of a Pro Bowl he wasn't watching on television.
While sitting in a narrow hallway in the Sun Life Stadium press box, I listened as Warner explained in detail his decision to walk away from the second year of a $23 million contract, and I learned some things I didn't know. First, as early as last summer's training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was hinting that the quarterback could enjoy some special privileges if that's what it would take to keep him engaged and extend his career.
"Basically, Coach Whisenhunt told me that if there's anything you need to make this work, let me know," Warner said. "He said, 'I'm willing to adjust anything within reason to have you stay. If you need to take some time off, the whole offseason off, some of training camp, we'll figure it out.' A lot of times he would say it in passing, just sort of having some fun with me, but there was some truth in it."
Ultimately, Warner concluded that he was unwilling, in his words, "to lower the standard I'd set" and give anything less than maximum effort toward his job. And make no mistake: Football, one of the great loves of Warner's life, had started to feel more and more like work, one of the many reasons he seriously began contemplating retirement midway through the 2008 campaign.
When, at this time last year, playoff magic ensued – Warner led the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl and came within 35 seconds of pulling out a dramatic victory over the Steelers – the enjoyment level increased to the point where he decided to keep playing.
Yet Warner, an unrestricted free agent, spent the first month after the Super Bowl in limbo as negotiations on a new deal with the Cardinals stalled. Only after he took a free-agent visit to the NFC West-rival San Francisco 49ers did Arizona come to the table with an offer he considered legitimate.
For the past 11 months I've believed that the mental and emotional stress of that process – and the sense that his employer made him sing and dance for his supper after all he'd done for the franchise – contributed to the fatigue that ultimately caused him to retire.
I asked Warner on Sunday whether he might have elected to finish out the second year of the deal had the Cards simply rewarded him with a generous raise at the start of free agency and he'd had some time to bask in the Super Bowl afterglow.
"I don't really think it had much to do with that," he insisted. "I was heavily contemplating [retirement] last year, just the wear and tear of the pressure and the stress. It was so hard, all week long, the sense that there was so much on my shoulders from a team standpoint.
"Two seasons ago [in '08], I really felt like if I didn't play well, we lost. Maybe it was undue pressure, but that was my mindset. It started to wear me down. I lost 20-something pounds during the season. Everything just seemed to wear on me physically and emotionally."
Yet Warner, having spent several years as an afterthought following his remarkable run (two Super Bowls, a Super Bowl MVP, two league MVPs) with the St. Louis Rams, knew he had a uniquely favorable situation in Arizona, and shortly after the Super Bowl he felt recharged enough to give it another go.
"I got away for a couple of days after the season, and it changed," he said. "I signed that two-year contract with the full intention of playing it out. Then, in the middle of this year, I started to feel the same way I had before. I was having trouble sleeping. I felt like it was taking years off me. I felt I was getting old quick.
"I wanted to carry out the season to see if it changed again, to make sure it wasn't a two-week thing. But this year, I never got over that plateau. I didn't look as forward to my job as I used to. That, to me, was a tell-tale sign."
There were other, decidedly less subtle, signs: The concussion he suffered in a Nov. 22 victory over the Rams in St. Louis; the massive hit to the chest he took from the Saints' Bobby McCray(notes) in a 45-14 playoff defeat on Jan. 16.
Most of all, Warner said, he felt incapable of devoting the same amount of time and energy to his job for another season – and he wasn't willing to consider a less-consuming approach.
In training camp, after lightheartedly complaining to Whisenhunt about having to take part in the team's "running test," Warner was given a partial exemption. At that point the coach began broaching the possibility of pulling back on his demands if it would help convince Warner to stick around for the duration of his two-year deal and beyond.
On the flight home following the playoff defeat in New Orleans, Warner told Whisenhunt he was leaning strongly toward retirement, and the coach reiterated his willingness to try to make Warner's day-to-day reality less strenuous.
"Maybe I could've pulled back from watching film on my days off, designing our no-huddle package and things like that," Warner said. "But it had become so much a part of the way we prepared, and I don't think I could've lowered the standard I'd set. And if I'd pulled back and we weren't successful, it would've killed me.
"I just wasn't willing to do it. Realistically, I wasn't willing to take the chance that I'd have to go back and do it the old way again. I asked myself, if it comes down to it, am I willing to meet that standard again? And I didn't want to."
So Warner went to Cabo San Lucas with his family last week, confirmed his feelings in conversations with his wife, Brenda, and came back to announce that his career was complete.
After our conversation Sunday, I have no doubt that he did the right thing. The man has always had an uncanny knack for resisting temptations, and in this case the potential allure of less work for the same pay wasn't enough to weaken his resolve.
STORY OF MY LIFE
After rolling in to South Florida Saturday afternoon, I am officially the leader in the clubhouse in the Audi Efficiency Challenge, especially since the other three participants in the race to see who can drive from D.C. to South Florida with the highest average miles-per-gallon reading – Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne(notes), Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora(notes) and ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons – have yet to begin their respective journeys. My partner, Dr. Ponzio, and I had a memorable drive, and I've been touched and humbled by the terrific support I've received in my quest to raise money and awareness for a pair of charities associated with Type I diabetes. The immediate email responses I received from people like 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo and Lia Edwards (wife of former Jets and Chiefs coach Herm), the long phone conversation I had with Lions coach Jim Schwartz (whose son, Christian, has Type I) while driving through North Florida Friday night and the well-wishes from friends, colleagues and total strangers have truly touched me, and I hope that the momentum continues through Super Sunday and beyond. Thanks to so many of you for helping to make this the most special Super Bowl of the XVII I've covered, no matter what happens next Friday at the reception in Miami Beach to announce the winner.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) didn't fulfill my prediction that he would earn Pro Bowl MVP honors – Texans QB Matt Schaub(notes) won it after helping the AFC to victory – but it wasn't for lack of excellence. Rodgers, the NFC's starter, completed 15 of 19 passes for 197 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, delighting his boss, Green Bay CEO Mark Murphy, who took in the action from the press box. "I'm really happy for him, that he received the honor of being in the Pro Bowl and starting the game," Murphy said. "He has a chance to be really special. His situation is almost unprecedented, in terms of the scrutiny he was under from the start. We've learned a lot about him." After Rodgers' stirring performance in the Pack's 51-45 playoff defeat to the Cardinals, even the staunchest of Favre loyalists can no longer argue with any credibility that the Packers made a poor decision by sticking with Rodgers as the franchise's quarterback of the present and future. Meanwhile, after Sunday's game, Rodgers was thinking about the past. Gesturing toward Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson(notes), who was a Cal freshman in 2005 – the year after Rodgers turned pro – the quarterback said, "Can you imagine if I'd stayed at Cal my senior year, and played with that guy? We'd have been sick."
• Just as Susan Lucci finally won her Emmy, Redskins middle linebacker London Fletcher(notes) got to play in the Pro Bowl Sunday night for the first time in his 12-year career. As he came off the field following the game, Fletcher was all smiles, saying, "I don't know what anybody else thinks of this game, but I'll keep playing in the Pro Bowl!" And whereas many of his peers seemed to be playing at less than full speed, Fletcher took his maiden appearance seriously, making five tackles and flying to the ball on every play. "I only know one way to play," he said. "So I went hard. I figured I could always adjust and slow down as the game went on." So did he? "Nah, I kept playing hard," he said. Fletcher, who played in a pair of Super Bowls for the Rams, is truly one of the league's good guys. He's one of three finalists for this year's Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
• Speaking of good guys, it's hard not to be impressed with Titans quarterback Vince Young(notes), who has kept a promise to his onetime mentor, ex-Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair(notes), to take care of the late player's two youngest sons. A few days ago Young (with an assist from teammate Chris Johnson) flew Tyler McNair, 11, and younger brother Trenton, 6, to Miami to be his guests for Pro Bowl weekend, bringing them to practice, building sand castles on the beach and waging hotel-room pillow fights. Young also flew McNair's widow, Mechelle, and her mother to Miami, a gesture perhaps influenced by the memory of Steve McNair's selfless act three years ago. Then with the Baltimore Ravens, McNair withdrew from the Pro Bowl because he knew that Young, coming off a successful rookie season with the Titans, would get the nod to replace him. Mechelle McNair, in a handwritten note to The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt, wrote that Young "has really been there for us, and has really helped fill that void that my boys have with their father not being here. It keeps some sort of normalcy in their lives. He's their 'big brother' and they love and look up to him."
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Unlike the Colts' other selections, Dwight Freeney(notes) didn't show up to glad-hand at the Pro Bowl, having been excused by the NFL. For Freeney, that was the good news. The bad news was the reason he was excused – to continue treatment on a right ankle injury that a source close to the star defensive end described as "really bad" and, according to a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter, is technically a ligament tear. The source felt Freeney would "try to give it a go" in the Super Bowl, but even if that happens, it seems highly unlikely that the team's top pass-rushing threat will be at his best. That could make life much, much easier on Super Sunday for the Saints (who could then double-team the Colts' other Pro Bowl pass-rushing threat, Robert Mathis) and quarterback Drew Brees.
• Here's my new solution for what to do about the Pro Bowl in the future: Move it to Tahiti, and play it two weeks after the Super Bowl. In other words, anything that can be done to shine less of a spotlight on what is so obviously a go-through-the-motions exhibition should be. Understand that I'm not questioning the pro-wrestling feel of the game: I accept that it's a meaningless spectacle featuring participants who strongly prefer not to risk injury, and I don't think there's a whole lot that can be done to change that. I just feel sorry for the fans who buy into the myth that it's actually professional football, then see things like Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel biting on an Andre Johnson double move and stopping and watching as the Texans receiver catches the game's first touchdown pass 10 yards past him. Or who watch alleged pass rushers go through what amounted to staged dance moves with the men assigned to block them. Actually, I can think of one thing that would have made this game more interesting: Instead of adding Bears return man Johnny Knox as an injury replacement, the NFL should have invited Johnny Knoxville to field punts and kickoffs. Now that would have been fun to watch.
• Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie(notes) is getting a ton of grief for getting kicked off the NFC's Pro Bowl roster after blowing off two days of practice, reportedly after he was out clubbing. I can see how this would generate a negative reaction, but it seems to me that it's causing more of an uproar than his arrest nearly two years ago outside a Miami club, after which a police report claimed the massive lineman spit in the face of a bouncer, slammed a phone into his face and slammed a heavy pole over his head. McKinnie, who pleaded not guilty, later received a four-game NFL suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. (He avoided prosecution by entering a pre-trial diversion program.) Priorities, people. Priorities.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That Playboy has its own channel on Sirius/XM satellite radio. Look, I know the magazine is iconic, and its TV channel makes sense. But radio? Realistically, the only time someone would choose Playboy radio (ahead of TV, Internet or the glossy mag) is in the car – most likely, while alone in the car. So, basically, Playboy is encouraging people to become aroused while behind the wheel. And we think cell phones are distracting?
2. Why Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network continuously email me and my peers press releases trumpeting their ratings for game telecasts … as if the fact that those games were aired on a specific network had anything to do with the sizeable audience. Like, when the Vikings and Saints were playing that overtime thriller in the NFC championship game last week, people were having conversations like, "Gee, Mildred – I was thinking of watching some football this weekend. Since Minnesota-New Orleans is on Fox, what do you say we tune in?" I mean, if that game had been on CBS or NBC, I wonder what the rating would have been. Wait, I know the answer: It would have been exactly the same.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I can't really be mad at Rex Ryan for flipping off a Dolphins fan who heckled him incessantly at the MMA Strikeforce event in South Florida Saturday night. We're all human, and Ryan's lack of polish is part of a package that includes candor I find refreshing. Also, the Jets coach apologized Sunday, calling his behavior "stupid and inappropriate."
However, I am peeved at Ryan for proclaiming, at the same event, "I just want to tell everyone in Miami that we're coming to beat you twice next year" in an interview with Showtime that was aired over the public-address system. Here are my issues: First of all, if Ryan's team follows through, that'll be two more victories than the Jets had over the Dolphins this past season. Isn't there a rule that if you go 0-2 against a team in the regular season, you aren't allowed to taunt that team (or its fans) in the absence of a championship? Secondly, while Ryan understandably has a right to be proud of his team's unlikely playoff run that ended with an AFC championship game defeat to the Colts, puffing out your chest for finishing in the final four is the precise mentality that, in my opinion, has doomed the franchise to second-class status for most of its existence. Win a Super Bowl, then talk smack. Until then, realize that, for now, the Dolphins own you – and put your head down and keep working.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Hey, since I will be the Silver family home support staff (that staff consisting of 1 person), I wanted to throw out some suggestions to the drivers of this D.C. to Miami journey. First of all, you have to channel every shred of competitive energy you have and put it into this drive. It is common knowledge that it takes the most gas to start a car, so you will have to minimize stops and starts. That means you have to have a cooler of food and some mechanism to pee without stopping (plastic cups, a funnel and larger plastic container?) You can't make a lot of food and bathroom stops. You also have to be vigilant about checking weather patterns to maximize the best times to drive. If you do those things while maintaining a constant speed and drafting off of larger vehicles you should win. Go for it! Victory tastes great!!"
– Email Tuesday from my wife to me and Dr. Ponzio, regarding the Audi Efficiency Challenge
"Thanks bro. These scores do nothing for what I've spent a lifetime building, but you can only coach one of the teams in the contest."
– Email Saturday night from Cal rugby coach Jack Clark, refusing to gloat after a 99-0 victory over Stanford in the Big Scrum