Six weeks after Green's injury everyone is getting hip to Warner's name, as well as his game. Highly drafted quarterbacks typically don't shine until their third season, if ever, but Warner, with all his minor league seasoning, burst onto the scene like an old pro. His accuracy is uncanny, and he shows poise, toughness and an aptitude for reading defenses in a hurry. Playing Arena ball, with its condensed field and wide-open style, helped Warner perfect the art of making quick, decisive throws. "A lot of young quarterbacks struggle to adjust to the speed of the game," says Vermeil. "That's something you can't glean from watching them practice. This kid slows the game down a little bit, and part of that's because of what he went through in the Arena League."
Warner's size (6'2", 220 pounds) and speed are unexceptional, but his arm strength is impressive, and the touch on his passes is as soft as fleece. He can make all the throws, as he proved with his touchdown passes against the Niners: a hard, 13-yard slant to wideout Isaac Bruce after freezing the safeties with a pump fake; a willowy, five-yard fade to Bruce in the back left corner of the end zone; a crisp underneath pass to Bruce that the brilliant receiver caught in stride and turned into a 45-yard score; an airtight, 22-yard strike to well-covered tight end Jeff Robinson in the middle of the end zone; and a picturesque, 42-yard toss to Bruce along the right sideline.
San Francisco threw a variety of blitzes at Warner, but he never flinched—which wasn't surprising to his teammates. The Rams witnessed Warner's calm under fire each day during training camp, as offensive coordinator Mike Martz made a point of chewing him out as loudly as possible. "When Trent was healthy, Kurt was the whipping boy," Bruce says. "[Martz] would communicate with Trent through Kurt. Now [third-stringer] Joe Germaine is the whipping boy." Says Martz, "We made a conscious effort to put pressure on Kurt. I would just wear him out, but none of it fazed him."
Warner's unflappable demeanor is aided by the perspective he gets at home. Zachary, after all, is a walking miracle: Doctors initially told Brenda, who was working as an intelligence officer in the Marines at the time of his accident, that her son would probably not survive, and if he did, would be lucky to ever sit up. Brenda got divorced shortly after Jesse was born, enrolled in nursing school and met Kurt at a country-music dance club in Cedar Falls. At the end of the night she told him she had two children and added, "I understand if you never want to see me again."
Now flash forward to last Friday evening, as the Warner family, which now includes Kurt and Brenda's one-year-old son, Kade, dined at a pizzeria near their church. Zachary, who attends elementary school and can see some objects from extremely close range, held up a crayon the color of artificial turf and joked, "Look, Dad, it's a Trent Green crayon." As Jesse, now seven, patiently served her older brother cheese sticks and french fries, a waiter brought a complimentary sampler plate for Kurt, the city's sudden celebrity.
The Warners are refreshingly rattled by the hoopla: Their phone number was listed until they changed it last week. If endorsements are in Kurt's future, you can exclude headwear ("I look terrible in caps," he says), tools ("He's the world's worst handyman," says Brenda) and razors. Warner, who has what backup quarterback Paul Justin calls "an 11 o'clock shadow," refuses to shave, relying instead on a beard trimmer to reduce his perpetual scruff. "People ask me all the time, 'When is your son going to shave?' " says Kurt's mother, Sue. "The answer, Fm afraid, is never."
The more you watch Warner interact with his family—and reaffirm his faith—the less stunning his phenomenal ascent seems. He appears to be sincere, unabashed and unspoiled. "Kurt's the most grounded person you'll ever meet," says Rams cornerback Todd Lyght. "Even though he's off the Richter scale right now, there's no way he'll let this go to his head."
Though the Rams and Bartelstein are talking about adjusting Warner's contract, he says any raise he receives for 1999 will be donated to Camp Barnabus, a Christian retreat in Purdy, Mo., for special-needs children and their siblings. Last week, during an interview with ESPN, Warner broke into tears three times. "On the football field I keep my emotions tied up inside," he says, "but when Fm with my family, I let them out. Zach has been such a blessing to me. He falls down, really hard, about 10 times a day, but he gets up and just exudes pure joy. He couldn't care less about football, but he touches my life so much."
At church last Friday pastor Jeff Perry gave a sermon that touched Warner to his core. "Mordecai said to Queen Esther when she had to save the Jews, 'You have been brought into the kingdom for a time such as this,' " Perry told the rapt congregation. "That could apply to everyone here." When the sermon ended, Perry called Warner to the front of the stage and uttered a special blessing for Sunday's game: "Lord, give him sharpness and clarity. Let him be bold and perform beyond the realm of his skills."
Warner buried his prickly face into his hands, then closed his eyes and smiled. Perry was preaching to the choir.