Kurt Warner Won’t Give In

TAMPA – He’s still here. But why would we expect any less? Kurt Warner long ago conquered the improbable. The man is equal parts myth and persistence, a fantasy often told but forever fascinating.

Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl. Again. When by all rights he shouldn’t have been there a first time.

Overcoming odds. Defying underestimations.

Making us understand that, as Jim Mora said of any misplaced thoughts about pro football, we think we know, we don’t know and we never will know.

What actually we do know is Kurt Warner, 37, has led the Arizona Cardinals into Super Bowl XLIII Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Where they’ll play the Pittsburgh Steelers, led by Ben Roethlisberger.

Which makes this the first NFL championship game in 25 years, since one here in Tampa between the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins, matching two quarterbacks who each had won a Super Bowl.

On the Cardinals, Warner was a backup, a consultant, a teacher as he had been a couple of years back with the New York Giants when Eli Manning was a rookie.

“I was just keeping the seat warm,’’ recalled Warner, “until Eli was ready.’’

Then Warner was out in the cold. Until the Cardinals picked him up to be a backup, a consultant, a teacher to Matt Leinart. Except Leinart became the backup, because Warner outplayed him.

Given a chance, Warner inevitably takes advantage of it.

The difficulty has been in getting the chance.

You know the stories. How Kurt Warner went undrafted. How he stocked shelves at a supermarket in Iowa. How he played for the Arena League Iowa Barnstormers and for the NFL Europe Amsterdam Admirals. How he ended up with the St. Louis Rams as a fill-in but became a starter in 1999 because Trent Green was injured. How Warner that season became both the NFL and Super Bowl MVPs.

He’s a religious man, Kurt Warner, flaunting his faith, perhaps too much so for the skeptical, but it works for Warner. His belief has been an anchor, a rock.

Stacking cans of beans at Hy-Vee and then stacking up NFL awards? There has to be a reason for it all.

The Rams dispatched him after 2003. He was old. He was injured. He was, well, not finished, although the pro football types thought he was. The Giants picked him up for ’04, as he said, to be Manning’s babysitter. He sat. He played. He departed.

“I think the perception around the league was I couldn’t play anymore,’’ Manning said this week. “They (the Cards) brought in a guy like Emmitt Smith, and they bring in (Warner) because of his name, but it’s probably going to be just like everything else. The Cardinals won’t win; Kurt Warner can’t really play.’’

Oh, but Kurt Warner can play. “We believed in Kurt,’’ said Michael Bidwell, the Cardinals president. “We knew he still had arm strength. We felt if we could protect him and give him a little bit of time to get rid of the ball earlier, we had a hell of a chance to see Kurt Warner back at the top of his career . . . and that’s exactly what he has done.’’

Because Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, agonizingly, made what even now he refers to as “the difficult decision,’’ to play Warner ahead of the the hotshot, Leinart, Arizona’s first pick in the 2006 draft, the guy who was supposed to be the Cardinals’ future.

“It came down,’’ explained Whisenhunt, “to who I thought gave us the best chance to start fast.’’

And as we learned, all Kurt Warner ever needed was a chance of any kind, best or worst.

“I feels great to be back,’’ said Warner. He was the champion in Super Bowl XXXIV when the Rams beat Tennessee. He was the loser in Super Bowl XXXVI when the Rams were beaten by the New England Patriots on Adam Vinatieri’s field goal.

“I think about the game we lost more than any game I’ve played in.’’ Warner said. “That’s a little unfortunate because I probably should be hanging on to the game we won. It’s just that we were favored, expected to win and didn’t.’’

They’re not favored in this one, the game in these depressing economic days some are calling Recession Bowl I. On Friday, the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell not surprisingly pointed at the game as an “extremely invaluable escape from the issues in our country and around the globe.’’

Recession Bowl I. Super Bowls XXXIV and XXXVI. Kurt Warner keeps hanging in and hanging on. Unexpectedly, unpredictably, he’s still here.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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