For Cardinals’ Kurt Warner, sport is 3rd string in life’s game plan
Source: Arizona Republic
The first thing you notice about Kurt and Brenda Warner’s home is that nothing tells you that one of its residents is a professional football player.
Kids’ bikes and toddlers’ wagons, not fancy sports cars, are “parked” in the driveway. Nine garden stones leading to the front door are inscribed with the Warners’ names, another indicator that this household is not a shrine to athletics but a tribute to a family at work and play.
Inside, it’s the same non-football story. Children’s artwork and mismatched ceramic pieces get the spotlight. No sports trophies, NFL paraphernalia or photos in sight. Instead, there’s a large image of the Warner brood, which includes Zachary, 18; Jesse, 15; Kade, 9; Jada, 6; Elijah, 4; and twins Sienna and Sierra, 2.
The only sign that No. 13, the 36-year-old starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, lives here is Kurt himself, who is moving gingerly because of some tough hits he took the day before in a crushing overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Never mind the “unintentional” Cardinals-like red paint on the kitchen walls.
“After it was painted, Kurt said to me, ‘Are you sure you want that color?’ ” Brenda, 40, said.
They may have different decorating tastes, but the Warners agree that football takes a backseat to what matters most: their family and their Christian faith.
“Football is what I do, it is not who I am,” Kurt said.
Up, down, all around
The story behind how Kurt came to be an NFL star – as well as how he and Brenda met – is the stuff of make-believe.
His football career resembles a table-tennis match: from relative obscurity to starting quarterback to the sidelines and back – at times, all within one season.
At the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, he didn’t start until his senior year, and though he signed with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent in 1994, he was released soon after. To make ends meet, he stocked shelves in an Iowa grocery store for the minimum wage.
In 1995, he joined the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers, then played in NFL Europe, which eventually led to a deal with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams in 1998. Warner’s time with the Rams proved highly successful: He won two most valuable player awards and was MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV.
In 2004, he signed with the New York Giants, and the next year agreed to a one-year contract with the Cardinals, followed by a three-year deal with Arizona in 2006. This past season, Warner found himself in familiar territory, stepping in to start in place of an injured player, Matt Leinart.
The Warners’ love story evolved more quickly than Kurt’s game. The couple met in a country bar in Cedar Falls while Kurt was playing at the University of Northern Iowa. Brenda was a divorced mother of two, including a 3-year-old son with health challenges. Kurt asked her to dance, and she laid it on the line, telling him her situation.
“I remember him walking into the bar, and he had this presence. People were surrounding him, and I didn’t know anything about football or who he was, but I knew he was special,” Brenda said.
Kurt remembers being “dragged” to the bar but says Brenda, a former Marine and nurse, was somehow different from other women he had met. Brenda fully expected Kurt to fade into oblivion, but he returned to her home the next day to meet her children. They dated for five years and married in October 1997.
Separating family, career
The Warners decided early on that establishing a line between career and family was essential to surviving the fishbowl of professional sports, particularly as Kurt’s profile rose.
“I never knew what people wanted. I was a mama bear wanting to protect my kids,” Brenda said. “It was difficult to find a balance between Kurt being the good guy and father of the year, but we made a family decision that he wouldn’t sign autographs when he was with our children.”
“It’s a Catch-22,” Kurt adds. “You don’t want to leave a bad impression, but my kids are Number 1 and my public image is Number 2. We embrace the whole situation to the degree of how it affects what we do. Football fame and being recognized loses its luster. Things that are important become apparent very quickly. What matters most is being consistent on a daily basis, as a father, husband, and my dedication to playing football.”
Kurt and Brenda – who say they enjoy watching movies, swimming and playing games with their children – admit they are not perfect in making decisions concerning family and career but rely on their beliefs to find a balance between the two. “We have a great foundation in our faith. Success or failure, it dictates what we do,” Kurt said.
First Things First
Since she was a child, Brenda has had a strong connection to her Christian faith, which she says has helped her through many hard times, including her oldest child’s head injury, her divorce and the 1996 deaths of her parents in an Arkansas tornado.
Kurt, who was raised in the church, began focusing on his faith at age 25, when he was playing Arena football.
The Warners attend a non-denominational church in north Scottsdale. As part of their ministry, they established First Things First (kurtwarner.org) in 2001. The public charity allows Kurt and Brenda to promote Christian values through family programs in the Valley, St. Louis and several Iowa communities.
The public charity offers a variety of outreach programs, including the First Things First Ticket Program, in which 20 home-game tickets are given to clients of faith-based social-service agencies. Each participant receives Nike merchandise and gets to meet Kurt after the game. Since the program was launched in 2001, 1,200 people have benefited from its outreach.
“The goal of First Things First is to get everyone to look at Jesus and understand how he can take you where you want to go,” Kurt said.
Projects such as the ticket program are particularly meaningful to Kurt, who says it provides an opportunity to attend a game for those who normally wouldn’t be able to go.
The Warners’ seven children are often part of the couple’s ministry work.
“It sets an example for them and shows them we are (giving back and) not just taking,” Brenda said.
Pigskin to preaching
Kurt doesn’t question his skill or how he ended up in the NFL, but on postgame days, he sometimes does wonder, “Why am I still here?”
The mental and physical strain of the sport, including a current elbow injury and bruised ribs, gets to Kurt, but he says it dissipates pretty quickly knowing that he is where he is supposed to be.
“I still love football. It’s hard to walk away and to know when it’s my time to go,” he said.
While sportswriters and analysts speculate on his NFL longevity, Kurt leaves his football future to a higher power. In the meantime, he and Brenda are working on a post-field purpose.
“We want to change the world,” said Kurt, whose plans include speaking, preaching and growing the public charity’s vision. “It’s a unique piece of our ministry that uses the football platform as a way to convey our message. Up to this point, it’s been based on personal experience, but in the future, we want to connect with other groups of people who have the same goals and do the best things in the community.”