Even after producing one of the most unlikely careers in the history of professional sports, Kurt Warner can’t quite believe that it has led here, to the birthplace of pro football and the building that houses only the very best the NFL has ever had.
He sat at the annual Gold Jacket Luncheon inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Friday breaking bread with the likes of childhood hero Roger Staubach and Lawrence Taylor and Jim Kelly and more than 100 other legendary NFL names. And he kept asking himself: “Do I really belong here?”
“This part is surreal, because I don’t get it yet, and I don’t really know what I did to get here, and I can’t concretely feel it like a football in my hands,” Warner said on the eve of Saturday’s enshrinement ceremonies.“And then seeing the guys that I’ve tried to emulate, and seeing guys that were my heroes growing up and seeing guys who I know what they meant to this game and the history of this game, and how they laid the path for me.”
Maybe it’s the sheer improbability of Warner’s own career that prevents him from feeling entirely worthy of being in the midst of the game’s all-time greats . . . Joe Namath and Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith . . . Paul Hornung and Bob Griese and Carl Eller . . . James Lofton and Deion Sanders and Marcus Allen.
Ignored altogether in the NFL Draft, with his only opportunity the nearly forgotten outposts of the Arena League and NFL Europe, Warner finally got his chance as a free agent with the St. Louis Rams in 1998.
After Trent Green got hurt in the 1999 preseason, Warner — in his first full NFL season — led what came to be called “The Greatest Show on Turf.’’ At 28, he won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV in the Rams’ only Super Bowl victory.
Warner produced another MVP season two years later in leading the Rams to a second Super Bowl, this time losing to a Patriots team that was on the ascent as the NFL’s longest-lasting dynasty. Nearly as quickly as he swept to the top of the world of pro football, however, injuries and ineffective play led to his release by the end of the 2003 season.
He came to the Giants in 2004 in hopes of re-establishing his career but wound up being replaced after nine games by rookie Eli Manning, who would go on to his own Hall of Fame-worthy career. But Warner got another chance the next year in Arizona, eventually became the Cardinals’ full-time starter and led the team to its only Super Bowl appearance after the 2008 season. Only a dramatic last-minute touchdown drive by the Steelers prevented him from winning another championship in Super Bowl XLIII.
Still, it’s hard to believe.
“It’s probably more surreal now, because when you’re in the midst of it and when I’ve got a football in my hands and I’m throwing touchdown passes, I get that. I understand that,” he said. “As surreal as it can be to go from where I was to winning a Super Bowl and all that stuff, I had some control of that.”
It was almost an out-of-body experience for him Friday when he gathered with many of the game’s legends.
“I find myself in that room, but I almost feel like I’m looking at it through a window from the outside,” said Warner, who finished with 32,344 passing yards, 208 touchdown passes and a career rating of 93.7. “I’m going, OK, I’m not sure I belong there yet. I’m not sure I fit in. But I’m hoping as I continue to understand the meaning of what Hall of Fame is all about, that I feel more comfortable and that I belong and I can live up to the bar that all of these guys have set. It goes way beyond the football field. It’s about the character of the men that are in that room.”
Warner need not doubt his place in the Hall of Fame. Based on the quality of his play and the quality of his character, there is no question he belongs. Even if he’s still not fully convinced.