Kurt Warner’s greatest years as an NFL quarterback took place in St. Louis, when he came from out of nowhere to win a Super Bowl in his first year as a starter, and then in Arizona, where he played in his third Super Bowl.
For running back LaDainian Tomlinson, it was his years in San Diego that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Defensive end Jason Taylor’s legendary career was spent almost exclusively with the Dolphins.
And kicker Morten Andersen spent 21 of his 25 NFL seasons with either the Saints or Falcons.
But all four Hall of Fame players honored in Saturday night’s enshrinement ceremonies spent time in New York, and each took away unforgettable memories from the experience. In different ways, it was a life-changing experience for all of them.
Warner, in fact, said he might never have gotten the chance to become a Hall of Famer had he not spent the 2004 season with the Giants.
They were in the midst of a major transition, moving on from Jim Fassel and hiring Tom Coughlin. They also acquired quarterback Eli Manning, the first overall pick, in a blockbuster draft-day trade with the Chargers. Warner knew he might not be in a position to be a long-term starter, but the Giants gave him a chance when most other teams thought his career essentially was over. His final years with the Rams had been marked by injuries and ineffectiveness, and St. Louis released him after the 2003 season.
“There was a perception that when I was released by St. Louis, I couldn’t play anymore,” Warner said. “I needed somebody to give me an opportunity to show that I could play, and that happened to be the New York Giants.”
With Coughlin hoping to bring Manning along gradually, Warner was the starter going into the season and got off to a promising start. He went 5-2, and although he wasn’t asked to oversee an offense similar to the wide-open “Greatest Show on Turf” unit in St. Louis, he was efficient.
But after the Giants lost his next two starts, Coughlin anointed Manning, who would begin his own Hall of Fame-caliber career.
“I was hoping it would be 16 games, and it turned into just nine games,” said Warner, who had six touchdown passes and four interceptions as the starter. “I was hoping we could play football like we did in St. Louis, but we decided to play three yards and a cloud of dust. It didn’t look like I wanted it to look or it didn’t look like maybe what played to my greatest strengths, but there was a lot gained in that year.
“First, it parlayed into an opportunity, thanks to the late [Cardinals coach] Denny Green,” he said. “But I think more importantly, it was a way for me to show people that you can be a great leader not only by throwing 40 touchdown passes in a season, that sometimes it’s just about managing, it’s about lifting the play, it’s about making plays at critical times. Everybody thinks about St. Louis and Arizona, but the year before I got to New York, they were 4-12. My first seven starts, we went 5-2, and so I took great pride in what I accomplished that year, even though it didn’t look like what I had accomplished in the years before that.”
The production wasn’t what he had hoped for, but he took something even more important with him.
“I left there with great confidence, saying, ‘OK, I can find ways to win at the quarterback position at this level even when I don’t get to throw 35 times a game, even when it’s not always in my hands,’ ” he said. “For me, that’s what great leadership is all about. It’s finding different guys and different ways to be successful. It’s not always, ‘Hey, I can only do it one way and if I don’t have this, I can’t be [successful].’
“I took a lot from that year in New York. I’m grateful to the Tisch family and the Mara family and the New York Giants organization and Coach Coughlin for giving me that chance, because without that chance, I have no idea what the perception would be.
“Even after that, probably 31 teams still had the same perception. But Denny Green was willing to go back and watch the film and look at it and go, ‘I think there’s something that’s still there,’ and it parlayed it into my opportunity with the Arizona Cardinals. Without those nine games, without that opportunity, even in a different system, who knows if I’m here today?”
Tomlinson rushed for 12,490 yards and 138 touchdowns in nine seasons for the Chargers, and that production alone likely would have qualified him for Hall of Fame induction. But he believes his two seasons with the Jets not only proved something to the skeptics but showed him there still was something left to give.
Tomlinson was considered a viable third-down back when he came to the Jets in 2010, especially after the team drafted tailback Shonn Greene the year before. But Tomlinson showed early on that he was capable of being the No. 1 runner.
“That was an important part of my career, because even then, I had to prove to himself that I was still good enough, and I’m sure I had to prove it to them,” said Tomlinson, who rushed for 914 yards and six touchdowns in 2010. “I think they quickly saw that this is a guy that can still play, and I became the starter. So just giving me that opportunity, even when they drafted a young running back and knew they needed to give him an opportunity, it was about winning, at the end of the day. That’s what I appreciated most.”
The Jets went to the AFC Championship Game his first season, upsetting the Colts and Patriots before losing to the Steelers. Tomlinson retired after the 2011 season.
TAYLOR MADE FOR NY
Taylor was Tomlinson’s teammate on the 2010 Jets, and he proved to be a valuable acquisition for his one and only season with the team. Coach Rex Ryan was delighted to get such a quality pass rusher, and Taylor finished with five sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He looks back on that season as one of the most memorable — and also crushingly disappointing — seasons of his 15-year career.
“Listen, I’ve gotten a number of personal accolades and awards and honors, and they’re great,” said Taylor, who returned to the Dolphins for one season in 2011 before retiring. “But there’s an emptiness in those sometimes, because you don’t have the team success you want in this league. We went to the AFC Championship Game but didn’t win it. I wanted to win a championship. I still want to win a championship. Can’t play anymore, but the closest I got was 2010. We were on our way.”
FOOTBALL AS HEALER
For Andersen, only the second pure placekicker selected for the Hall of Fame, his one season in the New York area in 2001 was hardly memorable from a statistical standpoint; he kicked 23 field goals for the Giants. But it remains one of the most significant experiences of his life for a reason completely unrelated to football.
“It was during the year of 9/11 and the terror attacks, and it showed how important the Giants and Jets were during that time,” Andersen said. “In the aftermath of the terror attacks, it showed how important it was for us to get back to football after having grieved for all those people that died in the [World Trade Center] towers, in the Pentagon and on those airplanes. It was important for us to visit Ground Zero as a team together. It was important for us to somehow get back to some sense of normalcy, not only in New York, but for the whole country. And I think football did that in some way for us in New York.”