Warner lauded at end of storybook NFL career
His announced retirement from the game has been met with widespread recognition of a potential Hall of Famer who found success the hard way — first early with the St. Louis Rams, then at the end with the Arizona Cardinals.
The 38-year-old quarterback left thanking God, his family and the teams and coaches that gave him a chance in a 12-year career that saw him benched at least four times only to finish as a prolific winner.
Those who had been a part of his remarkable journey through the league praised him as much for his conduct off the field as his considerable accomplishments on it.
"I have had the privilege to watch and compete against Kurt for the last 12 years, beginning in 1998 in NFL Europe," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I have always admired Kurt for his athletic talents, but more so for what he stood for. His faith in Christ and his character as a man are tremendous examples to all of us."
Fellow players spoke their admiration for the quarterback who had to work his way from stocking grocery shelves to the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before getting an opportunity in St. Louis only because Trent Green was injured.
"A great player and a great person," Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "... The way he handled himself and carried himself and what he does off the field is as much a part of who he is as a football player. That's the highest complement you can give Kurt — he's as good or better as a person than he is as a player, and he's a heck of a player."
A man of deep faith who carried a Bible to each postgame news conference, Warned walked away with a year left on a two-year, $23 million contract, knowing he still had the skills to play at the highest level.
"It's been an amazing ride," Warner said. "I don't think I could have dreamt it would have played out like it has, but I've been humbled every day that I woke up the last 12 years and amazed that God would choose to use me to do what he's given me the opportunity to do."
Warner had one of the greatest postseason performances ever in Arizona's 51-45 overtime wild card victory over Green Bay on Jan. 10, with more touchdown passes (five) than he had incompletions (four) but sustained a brutal hit in the Cardinals' 45-14 divisional round loss at New Orleans six days later.
The Cardinals signed Warner to a one-year contract in 2005 largely because no other team would give him a chance to be a starter. His opportunities over the next two years were scattered and even when coach Ken Whisenhunt took over in 2007, Warner was the backup to Matt Leinart.
But when Leinart went down with an injury five games into the season, Warner got his chance. He started 48 of the remaining 49 games of his career.
Blessed with an uncanny throwing accuracy and a knack for reading defenses, Warner leaves the game with three Super Bowl appearances, two league MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP nod. He has the three best Super Bowl performances in terms of yards passing.
In a comparison with the 14 quarterbacks to make the Hall of Fame in the last 25 years, Warner has a better career completion percentage, yards per pass attempt and yards per game. Only Dan Marino, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning have more career 300-yard passing games.
In 124 regular-season games, Warner completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 32,344 yards and 208 touchdowns. He and Fran Tarkenton are the only NFL quarterbacks to throw for 100 touchdowns and 14,000 yards for two teams.
But there is much more to Warner, as accommodating a player to the media as the NFL has known.
Warner and his wife operate the First Things First Christian charitable foundation. Last year, he was named the NFL's Man of the Year for his off-field and on-field accomplishments.
Cardinals general manager Rod Graves called it an emotional day "because I realize once again how extraordinary he was."
"I've only had the privilege of being around one other person that I can say was close to him and that was Walter Payton," Graves said. "I think when you have an extraordinary player and one who is just as extraordinary off the field, then you realize you were in the presence of someone special."
Whisenhunt said Warner ranked "at the top" of players he had coached.
"He's one of the best quarterbacks in this league," he said, "and I think it's well noted that he's one of the best people I've been around."
Warner brought his wife, Brenda, and their seven children to the podium, hugging each one of them. He choked up as he thanked them.
He was 28 when he finally got his big chance with the Rams in 1999.
What followed was a masterful and wholly unexpected season, when he led the Rams to a 13-3 regular-season record, then a Super Bowl triumph over Tennessee. He was the league and Super Bowl MVP.
Warner had the Rams back in the big game in 2001, where "The Greatest Show on Turf" lost a squeaker to New England. That season he earned his second MVP.
But after an injury-plagued 2002 season, he was sacked six times and suffered a concussion in a 2003 season-opening loss to the New York Giants. He never started for St. Louis again.
He signed a free agent contract with the Giants for 2004, but was replaced by rookie Eli Manning after nine games. Warner came to the Cardinals in 2005 and was an off-and-on starter before replacing the injured Leinart part way through the 2007 season.
Now, he said, he plans to spend time watching his children grow up, do some preaching and perhaps get into football broadcasting.
Warner knows what he wants his legacy to be.
"It's not the way I threw the football, it's not particular games that I won, but that they remember that here's a guy that believed, that worked hard," he said. "Although things didn't always go in his favor, he continued to press through, and with his faith in himself and his faith in God, he was able to accomplish great things."