Perhaps best-known as the man with the Cinderella story who catapulted the St. Louis Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner is also noted for wearing his faith on his jersey sleeve. But it’s not the kind of display we often see, like players pointing to the heavens or kneeling in prayer in the end zone after winning a game. These rituals have become so much a part of the show in professional sports that at times the gestures seem like odd forms of spiritual showboating.
Warner’s Christian faith manifests itself in a different way on the field. Since winning the Super Bowl and being a two-time league MVP very early on in his career, Warner has struggled since 2003 to get playing time with both the New York Giants and the Arizona Cardinals. Throughout it all he’s handled both the extreme highs and lows with extraordinary class and grace. Off the field, his charity, First Things First, is involved in projects ranging from Special Olympics to helping single mothers.
Warner recently sat down with BustedHalo to discuss football, faith and what the future holds.
BustedHalo: As someone in the public eye who is so openly religious, how do you deal with the pressure and temptation of being a professional athlete and the lifestyle that comes with it?
Kurt Warner: One of the fortunate things about my career—although most people see it as a detriment—is that it took me so long to get to the NFL. I didn’t start my first game until I was 28 years old. The blessing is that God prepared me for that. God had placed me in a lot of different situations, He had set up my priorities, so when I did get here, I knew why I was here. I knew God placed me here for a purpose. When I went before the Billy Graham crusade in 1999, it was an opportunity to put me out there, but it also kept me accountable. People say, you know it’s a lot of pressure when you step out there and say you’re a Christian, but at the same time, when you do that in front of millions of people, you know everybody’s going to be watching. So, every time there’s a temptation, every time I’m put in a situation that could be difficult, it holds me accountable to what I represent, to what my priorities are, and to the kind of person I want to be.
BH: Do you feel your persona, as a man of faith, is met with skepticism by the public and the media?
KW: I think people want to see the real deal, they want to see someone who not only talks it, but walks it, someone who’s faced with a lot of situations and continues to hold strong to their faith. And hopefully, through the mountaintops and valleys, I’ve stayed consistent with what I speak and what I believe. Because of that, I think people have nothing to attack. They were probably skeptical at the beginning, when [the Rams] were having so much success, it’s easy for all of us to say, “Thank You, Jesus,” and then when things don’t go so well, you never hear it again. But I think through the course of things, I’ve been consistent enough and unwavering in my faith—no matter the circumstances—and that’s why people have accepted me for who I am.
BH: Do you believe success is related to the strength of one’s faith?
KW: Unfortunately, a lot of times, faith and success go hand-in-hand. When somebody is successful, their faith level seems higher. There are some people out there who preach the message, that a strong faith equals worldly success but I don’t buy into any of that. I was just reading a book that said something like, “You don’t know that God is all you need, until you’re in a position where He’s all you’ve got.” To find out what somebody’s truly about, where their faith really is, is when they struggle.
Warner’s struggles have been well-documented; and his seemingly-meteoric rise to NFL greatness could not have been scripted any better. At the University of Northern Iowa, he waited four years before starting at quarterback. His first shot at the NFL came and went in 1994, when he trained with the Green Bay Packers but missed the cut.
In the midst of chasing his dream, Warner met, fell in love, and married Brenda, a divorced mother of two. And to support his wife and kids, he worked for minimum wage stocking grocery store shelves at the Hy-Vee in Cedar Falls. A break came in 1995, when he was signed by the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. He had some success with the Barnstormers, leading them to two Arena Bowl appearances before moving on to play in the NFL-Europe League. There, he took the Amsterdam Admirals to the Championship game.
One year later, he found his way back to the NFL and was signed by the St. Louis Rams. In 1999, he was the Rams’ backup quarterback when starter Trent Green was injured in the preseason. And the rest, they say, is the stuff of legend.
Warner, then 28, went on to complete one of the top seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, leading his team to a Super Bowl win and earning both the Super Bowl MVP and League MVP titles in the same year. Two years later, Warner would once again take the Rams to the Super Bowl, but his team fell to the Patriots when New England scored the winning field goal. Warner was again named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. To this day holds the record for being the most accurate quarterback in league history and is, statistically speaking, the second highest-rated quarterback ever. But it’s been a disappointing past couple of years for Warner. Instead of playing time, he’s been on the sidelines, mentoring rookie Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart, a role he also handled with his former team, the New York Giants, with then-rookie Eli Manning.
BH: Since leaving the Rams in 2003, it’s been a difficult ride for you. What’s it like to descend from such a high?
KW: It’s always difficult. Any time you’re considered the best at what you do for a period of time, it’s hard to settle for anything less, it’s hard to be in a situation where you’re not having that same type of success and you’re not given the opportunity to do so. It’s frustrating. But I always fall back on my faith and I realize that the reason I came was not to win championships—that was only part of the process—but it set me up to have impact and to be put in a position to do great things, to represent Jesus in a lot of different ways. So when things didn’t go my way, bouncing around from team to team, I had a perspective that God wanted to do something with me in every one of those situations. I never want to come to a realization that maybe what I accomplished in the NFL is all I’m supposed to accomplish. From here on out, maybe God’s preparing me and getting me ready, and I find hope and faith in that.
BH: After having lived on both sides, how has your perspective changed about American celebrity and the public’s obsession with it?
KW: You have to be careful. With success comes great opportunities and also great temptation. The greater the platform, the more people are watching, the greater chance you have to impact, but also the greater chance you have to impact people negatively. That’s one thing I’ve learned, when you grow up dreaming about playing football, you never think of what’s outside the lines. All you think about is playing, being on TV, and you have to come to realize the responsibility that comes with it, and that’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned about fame.
BH: There’s been talk about you leaving the NFL at the end of the season, any truth to that?
KW: When you go through circumstances you can’t control, sometimes you feel that the game is taken out of your hands. It makes you question whether you’re in the right place, or whether you’re holding on to the game too long. I know for the last couple of years, God has been preparing me
for what He has in store for me. I know [leaving the NFL] is getting closer and He’s calling me to do something else. The difficult part is making sure I’m in tune with when that is. There’s truth to the rumor that I’m always considering it, but as of right now, I’m leaning more towards coming back. Of course, it can change tomorrow, or next week, or when the season’s over, but you try to listen to the voice of God, and right now, He’s telling me to come back for a while longer; how long that is, I don’t know.
Raised Catholic, faith was always a part of Warner’s life, but as a youngster, religion remained in the background. In his 20s, pressure from his then-girlfriend, Brenda, and some teammates involved in a Bible study group convinced him there was something missing. It was then that Warner started seeking in the Bible to discover what it really had to say.
BH: Would you advise young adults to seek God in the same way?
KW: Yes, if you’re searching and seeking, and you’re looking in the right places, you’ll find Him. I think God meets us all in different places and different times but I think the goal is to keep seeking Him. He’s not elusive, He’s not trying to miss us, He’s there for us. That’s what I would encourage anybody, no matter how young or old, if you’re trying to find a relationship with God, look for Him in each and every circumstance because He’s there and He wants to be found.
If Warner does retire at the end of the season, he’s looking forward to the next challenge. Not that he’ll completely walk away-he’s considering making a move into TV broadcasting and writing another book, among other things. Another plan is to do more of the preaching that he’s been doing in the off-season. He also hopes to step up efforts through “First Things First,” the Warners’ faith and family-based charitable foundation, which has outreach programs in Phoenix, St. Louis, and Iowa.
Truth is, Warner doesn’t know what next year will bring. But he doesn’t seem to mind. “I know God has the best things in store for me and my family. And if it doesn’t line up with what I want all the time, I’m not going to worry about that, because I know he’s taken care of me in the past, and he’ll take care of me in the future.”