Kurt Warner was his usual stellar self as the Rams hung on to beat the Titans in the best Super Bowl ever
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:06PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:24PM
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 7, 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated.
He is a family man and a man of God, an out-of-nowhere sensation whose story has been called too schmaltzy even for Hollywood. But on the football field Kurt Warner is the quintessential quarterback, a cocksure leader who wants the ball in his hands when everything is hanging in the balance. With Super Bowl XXXIV slipping out of the grasp of the St. Louis Rams, Warner took over in a way that must have impressed even the game's legendary signal-callers. Two minutes and five seconds remained in a tie game with the tireless Tennessee Titans when Warner, already enduring the pain of strained cartilage in his ribs, jogged onto the field, inhaled gingerly and thought, It's time for me to win this game. As cool and slick as an icy roadway, Warner dropped five steps in the pocket and, an instant before absorbing a hellacious hit from defensive end Jevon Kearse, launched the 73-yard touchdown pass to wideout Isaac Bruce that gave the Rams a 23-16 victory in the greatest Super Bowl ever. All across the land spines straightened and eyes moistened, and anyone who has ever been doubted felt a surge of satisfaction.
When the game's wild ending played out a few minutes later, with St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones stopping Tennessee wideout Kevin Dyson at the Rams' one, confetti flew and fireworks exploded in the Georgia Dome, and the coronation of Kurt Warner, American Sports Hero, was complete. By now we know the 28-year-old's triumphant tale by heart--the family tragedy, the job stocking groceries for minimum wage at an all-night supermarket, the minor league football struggles--and it seems almost cliched, or somehow beyond belief. Yet the one person who appears unfazed by the improbability of it all is the guy doing the heavy lifting. You may have considered Warner a nobody before the 1999 season began, but the quarterback inside him never saw it that way.
"How can you be in awe of something that you expect yourself to do?" Warner asked late Sunday as he rode a team bus from the Georgia Dome to the Rams' hotel. "People think this season is the first time I touched a football; they don't realize I've been doing this for years--just not on this level, because I never got the chance. Sure, I had my tough times, but you don't sit there and say, 'Wow, I was stocking groceries five years ago, and look at me now.' You don't think about it, and when you do achieve something, you know luck has nothing to do with it."
No, Warner and the Rams weren't lucky, nor was it merely good fortune that electrifying quarterback Steve McNair and his Titans were down only 16-0 midway through the third quarter before they mounted a furious comeback. The lucky ones were the 72,625 fans in the stadium--and the tens of millions watching on television--who saw two proud and courageous teams wage one of the most stirring battles the NFL has known. While Warner, who eclipsed Joe Montana's 11-year-old Super Bowl record by throwing for 414 yards, was the game's MVP, the true measure of his performance and of this epic event transcended statistics. "This Super Bowl really was a representation of all that is good in the NFL," said St. Louis tight end Ernie Conwell, whose only catch, a 16-yard reception that helped set up the game's first touchdown, was marred by a frightening neck injury to Tennessee strong safety and defensive leader Blaine Bishop. "You had two class organizations that have fought their way up to this level, with two high-character coaches and two solid groups of guys. Today we showed the nation, and the world, why football is such a great game."
The game provided a passionate climax to an emotional eight days for pro football, a span that began with the horrific car accident that left Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas paralyzed from the chest down (and killed Thomas's friend Mike Tellis); included an overblown winter-storm watch that rivaled the hysteria over Y2K; and finished with Titans coach Jeff Fisher whispering consoling words into McNair's ears as the Rams celebrated a few yards away. In the center of it all, as usual, was Warner, who in 4 1/2 months had gone from anonymous replacement for injured starter Trent Green to ubiquitous symbol of sudden, stunning athletic success. On the Wednesday night before the title game, when Conwell considered asking Warner to join him and other teammates for an evening out, one St. Louis player wondered whether they wanted to deal with all the hoopla the quarterback's presence would generate. They decided to leave number 13 alone; he spent the night holed up in his room. "I'm a mess," Warner said the next day as he sat fidgeting at a team reception for arriving family members. "Today my only break was a 10-minute lunch. I just want to crawl in a hole and hide."