CANTON, Ohio — When he first picked up a football in the front yard of his childhood home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, dreams of an NFL career fueled the mind of Kurt Warner. Although those dreams were plentiful, Warner never envisioned the mark he would leave on the game he’s held onto so dearly.
On Saturday, the former Cardinals quarterback was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, another highlight of an unconventional journey.
“The road to our dreams often has detours,” Warner said during his induction speech. “So sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do while you’re waiting to do what you were born to do.”
He did a lot on the field but his popularity extends beyond his football accomplishments.
Fans respect, too, his altruism and humility.
An example of the latter came during his speech, when he recognized how integral a part Trent Green played in his career. Not just by allowing Warner his first real NFL opportunity after Green suffered a season-long injury with the St. Louis Rams in 1999, but for the courage Green displayed and the friendship he offered to Warner as he began his career.
“I acknowledge that you could easily be the one standing here tonight,” Warner said to Green, who was in the crowd. “But the class that you showed while dealing with the most difficult 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. Those lessons followed me the rest of my career.”
For Warner, the path to Canton and the impact he’s had on people are most important.
“It’s important to me that at the end of the day, my legacy has nothing to do with the gold jacket,” Warner said. “It has to do with my character as a man and what I’ve tried to do to help other people throughout my journey.”
That journey began at the University of Northern Iowa where Warner was third on the Panthers depth chart until his senior season. Once he earned the starting quarterback job, he played his way to the Gateway Conference’s Player of the Year.
From there, Warner received an invitation to Green Bay Packers training camp in 1994, but was released just before the start of the regular season.
With no teams willing to give Warner a chance and his NFL dream seemingly slipping away, he took an unlikely position: stocking shelves at a grocery store during the midnight shift so that he could make ends meet and stay in football shape during the day.
Warner then accepted an opportunity to play for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. It was there where he first made a name for himself, leading the Barnstormers to two Arena Bowl appearances and three memorable seasons that landed him in the Arena Football Hall of Fame.
That honor crowns Warner as the only player to be inducted into both the AFL and NFL Hall of Fame’s.
His journey then took him to NFL Europe where he starred in one of the NFL’s former developmental leagues.
“Those leagues were so instrumental for me,” Warner said. “I went from being a guy who only really played one year in college, to taking so many reps in both of those leagues.”
After making the Rams roster in 1998 and following Green’s injury, Warner’s career took off.
He went on to savor every bit of his opportunity. He led the Rams to the first of two Super Bowl appearances and a victory at the age of 28. He would then make a third Super Bowl appearance in 2008 in his fourth season with the Arizona Cardinals, following a short stint with the New York Giants.
He’s currently one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to make Super Bowl starts with two different franchises (Craig Morton, Peyton Manning & Warner).
But his story and the legacy he hopes to leave on the game represents much more than the things he achieved on the field. It’s a legacy that Warner has always tried to represent to the utmost ability.
“It puts a lot of pressure on you,” Warner said. “Living up to another person’s expectation or living up to a model of what people think you are, even if it’s better than who you really think you are, that to me is the greatest responsibility you can have.”
Warner’s story is something out of a movie and one that has gained traction over the years among film writers. And while it’s a story that reads more like a fairytale, it’s a story that he holds with high importance.
“When people look at me and say, ‘I want to be like him. I aspire to be the kind of player he was or even be the man that he is’ — I don’t take that lightly,” Warner said.
And he shouldn’t.
Warner has never been the type of person to take for granted the opportunities life has granted him. He’s held close to his relationship with God, his philanthropic work both in St. Louis and in the Phoenix area, and he’s done all of that with his wife Brenda and his family by his side.
That made all the more sense when he selected Brenda to present him into the Hall of Fame.
“Many have shared in the victories, the great accomplishments, and the breakthroughs,” Warner said. “But there’s only one who’s logged as many miles and made as many sacrifices.”
Warner’s former teammate with the Rams and one of the few returning Hall of Famers who helped chorus him through the week’s festivities can attest to their relationship better than anyone.
“(Kurt’s) mark on the game isn’t left without Brenda,” said former Cardinals defensive back Aeneas Williams. “I emphasize both of them because they’ve always been a team.”
A team that has worked tirelessly throughout Warner’s career to leave an impact not just on the game, but on those that can be directly affected.
“I love sharing my message and impacting the live of others,” Warner said.
Williams, his former teammate and close friend, knows just how effective Warner’s message has been and will continue to be. A message that can be heard for generations.
“By just knowing his story…” Williams said. “Every endeavor that any kid attempts to do, it’s a message to them that ‘Not only can I do it but I can do it very well.’”
But now, as he’s reached the pinnacle of football prestige, Warner will be required to figure out life’s next ventures. Whether that’s just simply being there for his children and raising them or spreading his heartfelt message, he’s left with the question of:
“For 40 years, I had a pretty good plan of what was next,” Warner said. “Right now I just don’t know.”
But for now, the legacy that Warner hopes to leave for those who come behind him is clear cut and simple.
“I just know that I’m not done yet and there’s a lot more out there that I want to accomplish.
“There’s a lot more people that I want to impact.”