Note: "Kurt Warner: A Football Life" premiered Thursday night on the NFL Network but has multiple airings through the next week. The latest in NFL Films' groundbreaking series on the more personal stories throughout the league, the Warner documentary is a study in pride and perseverance.
St. Louis Rams receiver Torry Holt was a rookie when starting quarterback Trent Green fell to the turf with the knee injury that would keep him out for the 1999 season — and change franchise history forever. The sixth-overall pick in 1999 remembered where he was on the field and how he felt when Green suffered a torn ACL in the preseason. Most likely, Holt's thoughts of uncertainty mirrored everyone else's.
"I was on the back side, running something deep and coming back. I saw [receiver] Isaac [Bruce] really upset, so I knew somebody was down, but I didn't know who it was at first. When I saw that it was Trent, I thought, 'My gosh — what are we gonna do?' I hoped it was nothing too bad, but he didn't come back. OK, here comes Kurt Warner. Here's Kurt in the huddle. What is Kurt thinking? Can he really play?"
That injury, as we all now know, led to the unlikely ascent of Kurt Warner, the former Green Bay Packers washout and Arena League standout. Few knew who Warner was, but Holt said that he wasn't a complete surprise to his teammates at the time.
"It didn't come out of nowhere, but it was a small buzz."
"I was trying to get myself on the field and acclimated to my new team and new town," Holt said. "So, I didn't have a lot of contact with Kurt early on. No knock on Kurt. But, I did have some teammates tell me, 'Hey — this guy can throw the football.' Serving on the scout team — the receivers who were there the year before told me that this guy could throw. The thing that was so impressive about Kurt was that when he had a chance to step in, we didn't seem to skip a beat. So, you have to credit Kurt, and credit coach [offensive coordinator Mike] Martz for pushing Kurt. The guys around him helped him feel comfortable — he raised our level, and we raised his.
"He was a guy ready for the moment, and I think everybody has their moment, whether it's early or late."
An undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa, Warner got lost in the Packers' Murderer's Row of quarterbacks in the early 1990s, and went to the Arena League and NFL Europe to ply his trade. There was the legendary stint bagging groceries at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Iowa while he waited for his chance … but when he finally got it, he made more of it than anyone expected. The 1999 Rams won the Super Bowl, Warner had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, and the Greatest Show on Turf was born.
That rags-to-riches story would have been worth a documentary in and of itself, but it was how Warner came back from being cast aside by the Rams after the 2003 season, failing with the New York Giants as Eli Manning's understudy in 2004, and catching on as an initially unspectacular roster piece for the Arizona Cardinals in 2005. The Cards went 8-18 through Warner's first three years in the games he started, so who would have expected what happened next? In 2008, Warner took that same Cardinals franchise to within a touchdown of a Super Bowl championship, and closed out his career one year later with one of his best statistical seasons.
More than the performances, or the Super Bowl appearances, or the awards, Kurt Warner's story is one of extreme determination and self-confidence in the face of unspeakable odds. All through his life, Warner was the one who accomplished when he "shouldn't have" — and that's what makes his story so very compelling.
As Warner admitted this week, it would make some kind of movie. "It's not just about a guy that made good playing the game of football, it was about the ability and the opportunities to overcome a lot of setbacks in life," he said. "And, again, ultimately at the end of the day I want my legacy to be so much bigger than the game of football. I want to be able to encourage people with my life and the way I live my life and the things I was able to not only accomplish, but the things I was able to overcome."
Being cut by the Rams just two years after his second NFL Most Valuable Player award was certainly something to overcome, especially when the experience with the Giants that was to follow was so shockingly sub-par. I asked Warner just what went into that career dip, and he talked about how perception meets reality in the NFL.
"When you look at a guy that has two MVPs, led the team to two Super Bowls and then two years later after the second Super Bowl you're cutting him, you know, there's an automatic red flag that goes up like, 'OK, what's wrong with this guy? What's the problem?' You know, you don't just release the two‑time MVP. You don't just cut the guy who has taken your team to two Super Bowls. You don't just do that. There must be something wrong with him. And I think that was the first aspect of things.
"And then the second part of it ‑‑ and actually Tiki Barber makes a great statement in the show where he says: I really felt Kurt could have been great in New York if we'd have changed our system. And that was really, to me, the biggest thing about the New York Giants situation, was that it was a system that was completely different than the way I had played the game and the way that I felt comfortable playing the game. I was a guy that wanted the ball in my hands. I wanted to attack people down the field. I wanted to throw the ball first and run second.
"And when I went to New York, it was completely the opposite. We were going to run first and going to run second, and then when we needed to play the passing game, that was when we were going to pass.
"And it is funny, because everybody expected me at that point in time to throw for 4,000 yards and to throw 30‑plus touchdowns and all of those things. And I had to adjust my game. I think that year I threw six touchdown passes. You know, but at the same time, in the nine games I only threw four interceptions. And I didn't make bad decisions. That team had won four games the year before. At one point that season we were ‑‑ I think we were 4‑1, you know, 5‑2 at one point in time. So we accomplished more in the first seven games than they had accomplished all the year before.
"So I know a lot of people look at it and say, Well, that wasn't a successful year for you. And I think it was a huge success for me because it showed that I could still lead and I could still help my team win and I could do it in a different way than I had ever done it before."
Arizona proved to be the reclamation, but again, few expected what ultimately happened. Warner originally saw the Cardinals situation as more of a challenge than anything else, which again speaks to his nature — he wasn't sitting around, waiting for an ideal situation. He wanted to see if he could create one.
"What led me to Arizona ultimately is I wanted to play," he told me. "And they were really the only team out there that was giving me the opportunity to come in as the starter and to be the guy from day one. And that was Part A. [Part] B was what greater opportunity to go to a place like Arizona and not only resurrect my career personally but have a chance to have an impact on an organization in a positive way with the history of that organization.
"And, yeah, there was no question in my mind that I would play. There was no question in my mind throughout my entire career, even when things didn't look the way people expected them to look, that I could still play this game, that I could still make all the throws, that I was still doing a lot of good things on the football field.
"But I just wanted an opportunity to start and to hopefully play the game the way I played the game. And talking to coach [Dennis] Green and the organization there and everything that was transpiring with some of the pieces they had, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to resurrect my career. And that was the reason that I chose that organization, and I am thankful for it."
Warner was also thankful to be part of the "A Football Life" series. "The thing that jumped out to me about the story is that I've always said that football was a part of my life, but at the end of the day I wanted my legacy to be bigger than the game of football. I wanted it to be more based on character than it was on play. And I think that's really the essence of this story.
"And to me what makes it special is that they captured what I wanted to accomplish and I believe who I was as a person as much as they did me as the player."
Holt agreed that when it comes to Kurt Warner, the dual focus is a necessity if you want to get the true nature of the man.
"I loved everything Kurt did as a ballplayer," Holt said. "Myself and all the other guys — I'm sure we feel the same in terms of being able to experience that with him. And then, how he conducted himself was even more … I mean, you have to think about all things that go on in the NFL. He was able to keep his composure and stand on his faith and what he believes in. For him to come in there every day and manage all those personalities we had, our coaching staff, and get himself in a position to be able to hold everyone else accountable so that we would all be good.
"He exemplified leadership excellence every single day, and he challenged guys to raise the bar."