The caption on the cover of Sports Illustrated on October 18, 1999 said it all: “Who Is This Guy?” That simple question has come to define Kurt Warner’s overnight rise from obscurity to NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion. His life epitomizes what it means to wait for your opportunity and seize it when it comes.
His journey started when he graduated from high school and found that none of the big college programs were interested in him. He attended University of Northern Iowa - a school with a third-tier football program - and struggled. He was benched for his first three seasons. He thought about quitting, but stuck it out for one more year, which turned out to be a good decision. He took over as starting quarterback and led the team to the playoffs, winning Offensive Player of the Year honors in the process.
Warner had proved to himself that he could do it, but it wasn’t enough to convince the NFL. He went undrafted in 1994, largely because no one thought that the quarterback of such an unimpressive football program could be any good. As he explains it, “It’s one of the things a lot of people face when they haven’t played a lot of football and they played at a smaller school, not on the big stage. They are constantly in an uphill battle to try and convince someone that they really deserve a legitimate opportunity. I think that was the biggest battle I faced coming out of college.”
The Green Bay Packers invited him to try out, but cut him five weeks later. His dreams were rapidly fading from view, but he continued to believe. He took a job stocking supermarket shelves for $5.50 an hour and trained during the day at his alma mater. He joined the Iowa Barnstormers, a team in the Arena Football League (AFL) - a small indoor league that was unfamiliar to most Americans.
It gave Warner a stage to showcase his talent and he did just that, setting a range of league passing records and leading his team to consecutive ArenaBowl appearances. He tried to parlay his success into a role in the NFL by securing a tryout with the Chicago Bears in 1996, but a spider bite to his throwing arm prevented him from attending.
And still, he persevered.
His stellar play the following year attracted the attention of the St. Louis Rams, a struggling NFL franchise. They signed him and sent him to NFL Europe in the spring of 1998, where he played for the Amsterdam Admirals. Again, when given the opportunity, Warner delivered. He led the league in passing yards and touchdowns, doing enough to land the backup quarterback position with the Rams.
His life changed in August 1998, when the starting quarterback of the Rams went down with a season-ending injury in preseason. Warner replaced him in the team. It was his moment. He went on to have one the best seasons recorded by a quarterback in NFL history. He led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV, earning both the NFL and Super Bowl MVP awards in the same year.
While the whole world marveled at his performances, Warner was less surprised. He knew he had it him all along. In his mind, he had showcased his talent throughout his career, but his potential had been overshadowed by circumstance.
“When people look at my career, they look and see what you see: They see that I sat on the bench for four years in college and they see that I got cut by the Packers and they see that I worked at a grocery store and played arena football. What I see is that I played one year in college and I was the player of the year in our conference. I played three years in arena football, we played in the championship game twice and I was voted the best quarterback in the league for three years. I played one year in Europe, and I was statistically the best quarterback in Europe during that season.”
In other words, Warner was a success waiting to happen, not someone waiting to be successful. All he had ever needed was one opportunity on the big stage.
Here are some things you may not have known about Kurt Warner:
- His wife refers to him as “Pollyanna” and teammates’ wives called him “Jesus”
- He lived with his wife in her parents’ basement before he joined the AFL
- He was voted best role model on and off the field in a poll of NFL players
- He was a surprise guest on the final episode of The Jay Leno Show
- He is one of three quarterbacks to make Super Bowl starts with two teams
And three lessons from his life:
Kurt Warner was given every reason not to believe he would make it as an NFL quarterback. The signs were everywhere. None of the major college programs showed interest in him. He even warmed the bench for almost four years at the University of Northern Iowa. Then, he went undrafted in the NFL and the only team that gave him a shot cut him after five weeks. He would have been forgiven for giving up at this point.
But, he didn’t. He continued to train. Deep in his heart, he knew he was born to play football. As he puts it, “Every time I picked up a football and got a chance to play, I felt alive, I felt like it was what I was supposed to do. I felt like that is what I was born to do.” His opportunity came in Arena Football and he seized it, parlaying it into a deal with the St. Louis Rams and a starting gig in NFL Europe. That led to him becoming the starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, where he made history.
Warner continued to have his doubters even later in his career. Despite winning two NFL MVP awards and a Super Bowl, and being one of the highest rated quarterbacks to ever play the game, he was benched three times in his career for younger quarterbacks. He signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, where he traded starting duties with Matt Leinart for three years.
He finally made the starting position his own in the fall of 2008 at the age of 37. He went on to shock the league by leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. As he did ten years earlier, he shined when no one expected it, except for him. He proved that it wasn’t a fluke a year later when he set a single-game record for completion percentage and became only the second quarterback to throw 100 touchdowns for two teams.
Kurt Warner’s NFL career is a testament to the power of self-belief. The man was discouraged from pursuing his dream at every step in his life, but he held strong. He proved that the only opinion that matters in your quest for success is your own.
“What I’ve found is that 99 percent of people went through something like I went though. Moments where people say there is no chance and you only can believe yourself. It happens in football, but outside of football too. That’s why my story resonates with so many people—because that’s what real life is.”
The road to the top can be lonely. You will have your doubters. You will be given reasons to quit. As long as you believe in yourself, nothing can stop you. Kurt Warner had plenty of reasons to give up, but he didn’t. He knew he was going to succeed and he did, against all odds.
Self-belief fosters preparation. If you believe in your heart that you are going to be successful and that you will get an opportunity, you are more likely to be ready for it when it comes.
This was the case with Warner. He continued to train even when he wasn’t playing football. And he worked as a graduate assistant coach with the University of Northern Iowa’s football team to stay connected to the game. So, when the Iowa Barnstormers came calling, he was ready.
A few years later, when St. Louis Rams quarterback Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury in the 1999 preseason, Warner was thrown into a starting role. He was confident but nervous, because he recognized the significance of the moment. As he explains, “I knew, unlike other guys, I wasn’t getting another chance. This was it. This was my one chance.”
Kurt Warner personified poise. He showed what is possible when you prepare yourself for success. He always visualized himself as a starting quarterback and built his self-confidence by taking advantage of every opportunity he was given, no matter how small. He knew he had the talent and he worked hard to reinforce this belief in his mind. He was mentally and physically ready at every step in his journey.
“Everybody looks at it as such an incredible story because of all these bumps in the road, and I see that, because the journey was different. But the football part of it, football was football. You put a ball in my hands and you have to read a defense and make a throw, I could always do that. And so I didn’t see that as the challenge. For me, the challenge was staying ready and prepared and taking advantage of that opportunity if and when I finally got it. That’s what was avoiding me, not ‘I couldn’t figure out how to play this game.’ It was, ‘Would somebody finally give me an opportunity to actually do what I believe I do well?’”
You never know when an opportunity might present itself. Sometimes it’s impossible to know, so the best you can do is be prepared. Preparation is your best friend in pursuit of your dreams. This was the key to Kurt Warner’s success story. He was always ready to succeed.
There’s a reason that Kurt Warner was nicknamed “Jesus” by his teammates’ wives and his fellow NFL players voted him best role model in the league. He is a good man. A kind and compassionate soul that goes out of his way to help others.
It starts with his family. When he met his wife, Brenda Meonio, she was a 25 year old single mother of two children, including a son who had a brain injury. Most men would have balked at the prospect of that much responsibility, but not Warner. He quickly struck up a close relationship with Brenda and her kids, and married her in 1997. He legally adopted her children and has gone on to have five more kids with her.
Kurt and his wife are kindred spirits. They set up the “First Things First Foundation” in 2001, which helps provide opportunities to underprivileged children, like paying for dozens of kids to visit Walt Disney World every year. Their generosity even extends to dinners out. The Warners’ children choose a family at the restaurant and Kurt picks up their check without disclosing who did it.
After games, he would regularly visit with children from foster homes, making sure he gave back to the community anytime he could. Throughout his NFL career, Warner wanted the work that he did off the field to define him.
As he explained, “It’s so hard for people to grasp and understand that it’s not about going to the Pro Bowl or winning an MVP. It’s about trying to do something that impacts the people around you. And that's what I try to do every single day is have an impact on everyone around me. So if and when I’m done and you ask someone about Kurt Warner and the first thing they mention is the kind of person I was, that's when I'll be happy.”
Success is personal. You define what it means to you. For Warner, success was also having an impact on people that needed it. He gave back to his community throughout his career. This became a part of his legacy. He was a hero off the field, as much as on it.