As I take a break from preparations for Monday’s celestial show featuring our sun, I think about a star of another kind that I saw a couple of weeks ago -- former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.
The occasion was Warner’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and after several days of interviews, dinners and other activities that allowed for direct observations if not interactions, I left with a measure of admiration that went beyond his achievements on the football field.
Warner’s story reminds me of why I enjoy following football, baseball and other athletic endeavors. I do relish the competition, but -- for me -- the truly splendid part is experiencing excellence, of seeing individual and group achievement, of witnessing the best in their field. It’s both an intellectual and emotional encounter. It's on the same scale as listening to Itzhak Perlman play the violin at a concert, and sitting wide-eyed as Neil Armstrong explained his thrilling and sometimes harrowing journey to the moon.
Related to this display of excellence is the path that those people have followed to get there, a path that often includes a variety of bumps, wrong turns and even crashes. Armstrong withstood the death of his 3-year-old daughter and his own near-death on his way to becoming the first human to walk on another celestial body. Warner didn’t experience such tragedy, but his path to the Hall of Fame was about as unlikely as can be imagined, one that seems more a Hollywood tale than a real-life narrative.
His story is one of inspiration, and it shows the value of perseverance.
With this train of thought, what impresses me most about Warner is not the championship and trophies he won, but his fighting spirit and dedication to following his dream while maintaining his principles.
Like most people, I was a newcomer to Warner’s story back when he led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory in 2000. And why not? Most players in that position are typically well known by that point in their careers, from success at the college and/or professional levels. But Warner, then 29 years old, sat on the bench for four years at Northern Iowa University — hardly a headline-making football powerhouse — before finally starting his senior year. He then went undrafted and failed a tryout with the Green Bay Packers before playing for several years in the dubious Arena Football League.
And that doesn’t count his time bagging groceries just to make ends meet.
He finally got to the NFL in 1998, a third-string quarterback and very old — by NFL standards — rookie at the age of 28. The following year he moved up to the No. 2 quarterback spot on the Rams and, after being thrust into the starting role when the guy ahead of him went down with an injury, led the team to the championship. That’s when I, along with so many other sports fans, began learning about this man who wouldn’t take "no" for an answer.
We heard stories like the one Warner recounted in his induction speech. It seems that during those lowly times of bagging groceries Warner had a “conversation” that inspired him to keep pushing with his dream of playing professional football.
He was restocking the cereal aisle when he opened a case of Wheaties, whose boxes featured pictures of Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. Warner said, “Once on the shelves, it seemed that Dan ‘The Man’s’ eyes followed me like one of those creepy paintings in a horror movie as I walked back and forth throughout the night. Every time I looked at the box, Dan seemed to be asking, ‘Are you going to spend your life stocking someone else’s cereal boxes, or are you going to step out and make sure someone else is stocking yours?’”
Warner did step out, and redirected his path that led to the NFL.
When I began learning about Warner back in 1998, I was impressed with the athlete, but even more so with the person. When the Cardinals signed him to play for them in 2005, I was thrilled because they were bringing in not only a proven winner, but a man of character.
Now, nearly a decade after leading the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl appearance, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession with his induction to the Hall of Fame. During the ceremonies, he reflected several times, in his typical humble manner, his unique path and what drove him to repeatedly overcome the obstacles in his way. In an interview on the morning of induction, he said, “I learned (in high school) to welcome the challenges of life, because it’s where our best is often revealed. It taught me that through discipline and dedication … your greatest weaknesses can become your greatest strengths.” He added that his high school basketball coach told him that “excellence is a mindset to be practiced every minute of every day in everything I did.”
Warner listened to Marino, his coaches and others, and his perseverance should be a lesson to us all about pursuing our passions, striving for excellence and doing it all while maintaining our principles.