There were so many times when Kurt Warner wondered why he never took what he called “the straight path.” Why he didn’t go from starring in college to being drafted in the first round to locking down a starting job in the NFL, just like so many others.
He sees it a little differently these days.
“I wouldn’t want to change anything now because it is a route that will never look like anyone else’s,” Warner said earlier this week. “It will always be different.”
Warner was officially enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday night, sporting the signature gold jacket alongside running back LaDainian Tomlinson, running back Terrell Davis, defensive end Jason Taylor, kicker Morten Andersen, safety Kenny Easley and owner Jerry Jones. Warner was introduced by his wife, Brenda, who called his path “the best NFL story of all time because so many people can relate to him.” Warner then took the stage and echoed something similar.
“People say Hollywood couldn’t have written it any better,” Warner said shortly after taking his place behind the podium. “After this, they don’t have a chance.”
Warner somehow became a four-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first-team All-Pro, a two-time regular-season MVP, a Super Bowl MVP and one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to lead two franchises to football’s grandest stage.
His path began at Northern Iowa, where Warner sat on the bench for “four long years,” as he put it in his speech. He went undrafted in 1994 and failed to make a loaded Packers team out of training camp. He stocked shelves at a Cedar Falls, Iowa, grocery store, spent three years playing in the Arena Football League, canceled a tryout with the Bears because of a spider bite and played a stint in NFL Europe. He did not start his first NFL game until he was 28 years old, then threw for 12,612 yards, 98 touchdowns and a 67.2-percent completion rate in his first 43 regular-season games.
During his half-hour speech Saturday, Warner recalled a moment that got him going when he thought his life was going nowhere, while stocking shelves at the grocery store late at night and stumbling upon a Wheaties box featuring Dan Marino.
“Once on the shelves, it seemed that Dan The Man’s eyes followed me like one of those creepy paintings in a horror movie as I walked back and forth throughout the night,” Warner said. “Every time I looked at the box, Dan seemed to be asking, ‘Are you going to spend your life stocking someone else’s cereal boxes? Or are you going to step out and make sure someone’s stocking yours?’ “
Warner took over in 1999 for a Rams team coming off a 4-12 season, starting only because Trent Green tore his ACL in a preseason game. Warner suddenly put together one of the greatest seasons ever, throwing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns with a 65.1 percent completion rate for an offense that also featured Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Orlando Pace.
It was the first of a record three consecutive 500-point seasons for the Rams. And it ended with a close victory over the Titans, during which Warner threw for 414 yards and was named the game’s MVP.
“I couldn’t have predicted it, but I had a great feel,” then-Rams coach Dick Vermeil said earlier this year. “I had a hunch that there was something special about this guy. And I remember telling him one day. I said to him, ‘Kurt, there’s something special about you, and I can’t wait to find out what it is.’ That’s the honest-to-God truth.”
Injuries plagued Warner after that historic three-year run with the Rams, and over time he was passed over in favor of younger quarterbacks, from Marc Bulger to Eli Manning to Matt Leinart.
But Warner kept pushing. In 2008, he beat out Leinart to become the Cardinals’ starting quarterback. Warner was 37 then, yet still threw for 4,583 yards and 30 touchdowns with a 67.1 percent completion rate. He led the Cardinals to their first postseason home win in 61 years and then to their first Super Bowl, a close loss to Pittsburgh. In that game, Warner threw for 377 yards with a 112.3 passer rating.
Up until this year, when Tom Brady threw for 466 yards in an overtime, comeback victory over the Falcons, the top three passing-yard games in Super Bowl history belonged to Warner.
“I would say he has been the most impactful person that this organization has had since it came to the desert,” Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald told ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss. “He transformed the way, I think, the Cardinals are viewed nationally and respected around the league. I think he had the biggest impact on that.”
Warner was the final honoree of the night. He recalled being a kid, slapping a strip of masking tape on the back of an old jersey, writing the name of one of the great quarterbacks from his era and pretending to be that player in his backyard. He thanked his dad for “all the times you said ‘yes,'” and how that kept him going “when everyone else was saying ‘no.'” He talked about his wife sticking by his side, about the three values — hard work, responsibility and belief — that his mother instilled in him. And he called out Vermeil, saying, “In a business dominated by head decisions, thanks for following your heart.”
At one point, Warner asked all of his former teammates to stand up and singled out Green. He turned to him and said, “You could easily be the one standing up here tonight. But the class that you showed while dealing with the toughest of situations is etched in my mind. Your willingness to share your football secrets so I could succeed was incredibly valuable. But the character you displayed, and the way you modeled the definition of teammate, was priceless.”
They all played a part in one of the greatest coming-of-age stories in football history.
“I wanted that straight path for so long, and now I’ve got this really winding, curvy path and I look back and say, ‘Man, I am so glad that it went that route,’ ” Warner said on a conference call earlier this week. “I am so glad that I had those experiences to be able to hopefully help encourage and inspire other people, too.”