Tracing Iowan Kurt Warner's unlikely journey to Pro Football Hall of Fame
Of all the players on Jim Padlock’s ninth-grade football team, Kurt Warner most resembled a quarterback.
Warner was already 6 feet tall, towering over the 5-2 boy who wanted the job. And Warner had the arm, showing off so much distance and accuracy while tossing the football before practice that Padlock knew he had to build his offense around him.
The trouble was, Warner wanted no part of football’s most glamorous position. He wanted to play defensive end, where he could use his height to bat down passes. On offense, he had his heart set on being a receiver, some sort of tight end/H-back hybrid that would allow him to score touchdowns.
Padlock, coaching the freshman team at Cedar Rapids Regis, had to resort to bargaining with his best athlete.
“The deal we made was, if I let him stay on and play defensive end, he would also play quarterback,” Padlock recalled 32 years later. “He did that all season, and we went undefeated. We threw a lot. We would come up with the most crazy stuff. We did everything different just to freak out teams. We would use 25 formations during a game. We probably ran half of our plays with motion. Once you realized (Warner) was that smart, our assistant coach and I looked at each other and said, ‘OK, let’s have fun.’
“We weren’t tough. We weren’t mean. We were innovative. And Kurt made that possible. It was one of the most memorable seasons in my 30 years of coaching.”
Many decisions a coach makes go unnoticed. Some alter the course of the sport’s history. That’s what Padlock unwittingly did late in the summer of 1985. And it’s why he'll make the drive from his Virginia home to Canton, Ohio, this weekend: to watch a man he hasn’t seen in years become immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He’s that person you want your kid to hear talk. I know that he’s genuine and he’s humble,” Padlock said of Warner. “I know that this is mind-boggling to him.”
There are five words in the middle of Warner’s official capsule on the Hall of Fame website that sum up his whole football life: “Not drafted in the NFL.”
Warner was never coveted by those making football decisions. After Padlock talked him into playing quarterback, it was three years before Warner became a varsity starter at Regis, making the all-state team as a senior while drawing no college interest.
“I remember Kurt was a very average high school quarterback with potential,” said Greg Purnell, who coached against Warner while at Linn-Mar. “He was a really good competitor, but he developed so late in his life.”
Warner, who was born in Burlington, headed north to play for Terry Allen at Northern Iowa. Only he never played.
For three years, he sat while Jay Johnson starred for the Panthers.
"I always tell people, ‘He’s worth millions; I’m a trivia question,’ ” Johnson said last year when he was introduced as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Warner stuck around for a fifth season in Cedar Falls so he could finally get on the field. Despite a separated shoulder suffered in the second game of the season (while trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception), Warner threw for 2,747 yards and 17 touchdowns and was named Gateway Conference player of the year.
“What you see about Kurt, it’s not made up,” said Allen, who also plans to attend Warner’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday evening. “He was just the nicest guy, one of those real pleasures to coach. He waited in the wings. He didn’t panic. He stayed with it. And when he got his chance, he showed he had those special qualities that you need in a quarterback.”
Dedric Ward noticed those qualities, too. He was a freshman wide receiver at Northern Iowa when Warner was a senior, two Cedar Rapids kids tearing up the old Gateway Conference.
Ward, a 5-9 speedster, was the deep threat, scoring nine touchdowns on his 28 receptions, including a breathtaking 90-yarder against Eastern Illinois. Senior Tim Mosley was Warner’s possession receiver, grabbing 47 passes.
“I felt like a kid in the candy store. It was the first time I had someone who could get me the ball out in space where I could do some things,” Ward said of his one season with Warner.
“We bonded. Coming from the same town, you kind of get with those people that you can talk about home. He was always a positive influence. I was kind of inconsistent at times and would drop a ball here and there, run a bad route. He was not a guy that would come and yell at you. He’d say, ‘Let’s clean it up. I expected you to be here.’ He was able to coach me up on the fly.”
Winding road to the NFL
The NFL was unimpressed. Warner signed on with the Packers, but was the odd man out among a rotation of quarterbacks that included Brett Favre, Mark Brunell and Ty Detmer.
He returned to Iowa and latched on with the Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. In Des Moines, Warner honed the skills that he first developed as a Regis freshman and that would take him all the way to Canton.
“We had a drill called ‘Kill Kurt,’ which was terrible, but the kids named it,” Padlock said of Warner’s freshman indoctrination to quarterbacking. “It taught him to stay in the pocket and throw the ball, and then the kids would hit him afterwards. I told him, ‘It hurts less when you complete the pass and you get hit.’”
Warner’s three years with the Barnstormers were a study in rapid progression. He became an expert at calling audibles at the line of scrimmage and finding receivers in tight spaces while maintaining his poise in a chaotic pocket. He threw for 43 touchdowns in 1995, 61 in ’96 and an amazing 79 in ’97. Even by arena football standards, those numbers were eye-opening.
The St. Louis Rams made tentative overtures, but only if Warner proved himself in NFL Europe. Off to Amsterdam he went, leading the Admirals to the league championship. Finally, that was good enough to get Warner a training camp invitation, where he won a job as a third-stringer.
His old friend Ward was already in the NFL by then, playing for the New York Jets. They ran into each other on the field before a game. Ward introduced Warner to one of the Jets’ coaches.
“I said, ‘Hey, this kid is a talent. I don’t know if he’ll get on the field, but if he does, he’s going to shine,’ ” Ward recalled saying.
Ward was prophetic. In 1999, Rams quarterback Trent Green went down with a knee injury in the preseason. Warner was given the keys to an offense that included Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. He knew just what to do. They called it “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
Warner was NFL MVP that year, leading the Rams to their only Super Bowl victory, 23-16 over Tennessee. He threw for a record 414 yards in that game. Two years later, Warner was MVP again, and the Rams were back in the Super Bowl. They lost on a last-second field goal to New England.
New home in the desert
The Rams decided Warner was washed up in 2003 after an injury appeared to sap him of his arm strength. He proved people wrong again, resurfacing with the New York Giants and then the Arizona Cardinals.
Todd Haley was the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator. He was also the Jets assistant that Ward had introduced Warner to all those years ago. The pairing was perfect. Warner led Arizona to its only Super Bowl appearance in 2009, a gut-wrenching loss to Pittsburgh.
Warner is the first quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in three Super Bowls. His NFL career consisted of a mere 124 games spread across 12 seasons. But his time at Regis, at UNI, with the Barnstormers and in Europe had prepared him to make those games count. A trip to Canton is his well-justified reward.
“I hope it’s for all these people who helped me get there and understand their role in it,” Warner said Monday in a speech in Tennessee. “And for all those people to hopefully encourage them that no matter what circumstances look like, or how many people tell you you can’t, that you can still find yourself where you want to be at the end of the day — if you continue to believe.”
That’s the attitude Ward has grown to expect from Warner. Ward is back in Cedar Rapids now after an eight-year NFL career, coaching football. Warner lives in Arizona, splitting his time as a TV analyst and philanthropist. They speak on occasion.
“There’s not enough good words you can say about a guy of high character and a family man like that,” Ward said of Warner.
“I played with Tom Brady. To me, they’re very similar. Tom is probably a little more vocal where Kurt is more of a laid-back, quiet guy. They are very similar in terms of anticipation, what they expect and aren’t afraid to say, ‘Hey, here’s where I want to see you in this window.’
“And they’re both winners.”