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Holy Smokes
Michael Silver
October 18, 1999
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner is lighting up the NFL, thanks largely to an unwavering faith that has been tested time and again
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October 18, 1999

Holy Smokes

Rams quarterback Kurt Warner is lighting up the NFL, thanks largely to an unwavering faith that has been tested time and again

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The music blared, the crowd went wild, and St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner stood in the middle of it all, a heavy dose of rapture rushing through his veins. Then Warner, the hottest player in pro football, raised his hands and pointed triumphantly to the heavens. Virtually no one noticed. Though Warner is St. Louis's biggest football sensation since Jim Hart, he and the 300 other worshipers at the St. Louis Family Church last Friday night were preoccupied with praising a truly supreme being. "I love you. Jesus!" a college-aged woman across the aisle from Warner yelled as a five-piece band kicked its upbeat groove to a cacophonous climax. Onstage six singers belted out the chorus as Warner and the rest of the congregation joined in: "All things are possible! All things are possible!"

It was a mantra that might have borne repeating 40 hours later by a much larger but no less fervent gathering at the Trans World Dome. With 65,872 fans screeching their approval, Warner and the Rams continued to defy conventional football wisdom, this time with a 42-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers that reverberated throughout the NFL. Not only did the 4-0 Rams end a 17-game losing streak to the Niners, their longtime NFC West tormenters, but St. Louis—St. Louis!—also ended the day as the league's lone unbeaten team. Warner, the 28-year-old Arena Football League emigrant, continued to embarrass scouts everywhere by setting new standards for a first-year starter, among them a heretofore unheard of 14 touchdown passes in his first four games, two more than the Rams threw all last year.

On Sunday, Warner threw for 177 yards and three touchdowns—in the first quarter. His final stats were surreal: 20 completions in 23 attempts for 323 yards and five scores, boosting his league-leading quarterback rating to an astronomical 136.0. Yet there's no way to quantify Warner's commanding pocket presence, his ability to release the ball just before the rush arrives or the amazing array of passes he can throw with chilling accuracy. Somehow Warner, a player so lightly regarded that the Rams exposed him in last February's expansion draft, is playing like a natural-born thriller. "He's in a zone, and I've never been around anybody who's this hot," Dick Vermeil, the Rams' 62-year-old coach, said after the game. "[Rams owner] Georgia Frontiere believes in astrology; maybe that's the only way to explain it."

To Warner it's far less mysterious. "I've been doing all these interviews lately, and people are looking for the secret to my success," he says. "I tell them it's my faith in Jesus Christ, and they don't want to hear that. So they ask me the same question, again and again, even though they've already gotten the answer. The Lord has something special in mind for this team, and I'm really excited to be a part of it."

Such proclamations serve as a red flag for even the mildest of cynics, but once you meet Warner and hear his story, it's awfully tough to question his faith. He is as grounded and solid as a redwood, and it's certainly no accident that he has emerged as the anti-Ryan Leaf, a quiet leader who exudes maturity, was handed nothing and is grateful to be earning a '99 salary of $250,000, the league minimum for a second-year player. By overcoming doubt and adversity at every turn, he has also earned the right to have his faith taken at face value.

Faith has guided Warner along his unlikely path to football prominence, from his lone year (1993) as a starter at Division I-AA Northern Iowa to his three years with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League to a 1998 stint for NFL Europe's franchise in Amsterdam, where he walked each night through the city's red-light district on his way to church. He clung to his dream of playing in the NFL, even when it seemed he didn't have a prayer. After being cut by the Green Bay Packers in the summer of '94, Warner returned to Cedar Falls, Iowa, and got a job at a 24-hour supermarket. He worked out at his old college practice field by day and stocked shelves by night, without much sleep in between. "That was obviously a very humbling experience," Warner says. "I was making $5.50 an hour—and I was darn happy to get it. I'd tell the other guys at the store, 'I'll be playing football again someday,' and they'd look at me like I was some guy who just couldn't let go."

If that had been the low point for Warner, his story would be compelling enough. But the word "struggle" is a relative term in the Warner household. Kurt's 10-year-old adopted son, Zachary, suffered brain damage and has been blind since his biological father dropped him accidentally during his infancy. In April 1996 Zachary's mother, Brenda, whom Kurt was dating at the time, lost both her parents when their house in Mountain View, Ark., was leveled by a tornado. You want a low point? Imagine Brenda and her two young children (daughter Jesse is three years Zach's junior) sitting in the stands of a Barnstormers game that spring while a typically rowdy Arena League crowd ragged on Kurt for serving up interceptions. "There was a lot of drinking in those crowds, and Kurt was struggling," Brenda recalls. "No one knew he had been dealing with a tragedy. I'd say, 'Could you please try to watch the profanity? I have kids here.' Sometimes they'd listen; sometimes they wouldn't. We heard every word in the book."

At that point Kurt, who was raised Catholic, got deeper and deeper into fundamentalist Christianity. He and Brenda married in 1997—his elaborate proposal included a house strewn with rose petals and an electric WILL YOU MARRY ME? sign across the backyard fence—and he adopted Zachary and Jesse soon thereafter. Warner starred for the Barnstormers in '97, yet his quest for better opportunities seemed snakebit, or at least spider-bit: While honeymooning with Brenda in Jamaica, Kurt awoke one morning to find that the elbow of his throwing arm had swelled to the size of a baseball, thanks to a voracious arachnid. As a result the Chicago Bears canceled a tryout upon his return. Warner then completed what he considered a "horrible" workout for the Rams, but he had fans in the organization, chiefly personnel director Charley Armey and assistant coach Mike White, who persuaded the team to sign him. St. Louis then sent him to play for the Amsterdam Admirals. After leading NFL Europe in passing yardage and touchdowns in the spring of '98, Warner earned a job as the third-string quarterback for the 4-12 Rams last season. He appeared in one game, completing four passes in 11 attempts for 39 yards.

He moved into the backup role this summer, and when starter Trent Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in an Aug. 28 exhibition game, the Rams put their season in Warner's hands. "I thought he could be a solid backup, a guy we could get by with," Vermeil says. "When Trent went down, I told our team we could win with Kurt. I didn't expect him to play well enough that we'd win because of him."

Outsiders were aghast. Warner was worse than a no-name—he was often confused with Curt Warner, a standout running back for Penn State and the Seattle Seahawks whose pro career ended with the Los Angeles Rams in 1990. Last year Kurt got a call from the office of his own agent, Mark Bartelstein, asking if he could appear on a radio talk show to discuss the 1983 Sugar Bowl. Hello? Warner called Bartelstein and cracked, "Sure, I'd love to. I was 12 at the time, and I remember watching it on TV."

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