CANTON, Ohio — Kurt Warner nervously paced the halls of Rams Park in St. Louis, awaiting word on the final cuts. This was 1998, and he didn’t know if his dream of playing in the NFL would continue or whether he’d ever get another chance.
Coach Dick Vermeil happened to see him and stopped to tell him he had made the team as the third-string quarterback. Warner was delighted, but what Vermeil told him next resonated even more.
Said Warner, “Coach Vermeil looked me in the eye and said, ‘The reason you made the team is because I feel there’s something special in you, something different, and I couldn’t let you go without seeing if it was true.’ ”
With the rest of Vermeil’s coaching staff split on whether to keep Warner, Vermeil went with his gut instinct. A year later, the coach’s hunch was confirmed in spectacular fashion.
A year after barely making the team, without having made a previous NFL start, Warner, 28, took over for the injured Trent Green before the start of the 1999 season and led the Rams to their first and only Super Bowl title. Warner was named regular-season MVP and Super Bowl MVP, becoming one of the most unlikely stories in the history of professional sports.
He went undrafted after playing at Northern Iowa, spent time stocking shelves at a local grocery store and played in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before finally getting his chance. He turned it into a Hall of Fame career.
“The road to our dreams often has detours,” Warner said Saturday night. “So sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do while you’re waiting to do what you were born to do. Thus, my infamous stint at the grocery store, working nights, stocking shelves, taking care of our kids during the day, working out in the afternoons to stay ready, sleeping when I could, then waking up and doing it all over again.”
Warner went to another Super Bowl with the Rams, and after playing the 2004 season with the Giants, he signed with the Cardinals in 2005 and led Arizona to its only Super Bowl appearance after the 2008 season.
Warner was one of seven inductees in this year’s Hall of Fame class. The others were Dolphins, Redskins and Jets defensive end Jason Taylor, Saints, Falcons, Giants, Chiefs and Vikings kicker Morten Andersen, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Broncos running back Terrell Davis and Seahawks safety Kenny Easley.
Jones, who purchased the Cowboys for $140 million in 1989, has been at the forefront of the league’s explosive growth in popularity and value. His team now is worth an estimated $4.2 billion.
He has ruffled some feathers along the way, even prompting the league to sue him for striking an independent deal with Nike. He eventually settled the litigation, and Nike now is a major corporate sponsor. Despite thorny issues that include increased concerns over player safety, he believes the NFL’s future is bright.
“We have [league owners and executives] that have a great, great vision for the future of this game,” he said. “We have challenges, and we’re facing them head on. This game is too great. This game will sustain and thrive for generations to come. God willing, I’m going to try to find a way to be in the middle of it all.”
Jones heaped praise on former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who won the first two of three Super Bowls during his ownership tenure. The two had a major falling-out in 1994 that led to a breakup and the eventual decline of the Cowboys. The team did win a Super Bowl after the 1995 season under coach Barry Switzer, but the Cowboys haven’t been back to the title game since.
At one point, Jones joked about his breakup with Johnson. “After Jimmy screwed up and we parted ways,” he quipped.
“Winning the Super Bowl will always be special,” said Jones, who won his first Super Bowl after the 1992 season. “Football changes lives like that. A year later, we did it again, and a dynasty was on.”
Tomlinson produced one of the most spectacular careers in NFL history, but it was the former Chargers running back’s message of inclusion that brought fans at the Hall of Fame ceremony to their feet.
He offered himself up as an example of what can happen when people, regardless of their background, are given a chance.
“My great-, great-, great-grandfather, George, was brought here in chains on a slave ship from West Africa,” Tomlinson said. “His last name, Tomlinson, was given by the slave owner. What extraordinary courage it must have taken to rebuild his life after it was stolen.’’
Tomlinson said his name “began with the name of the man who owned my great-, great-, great-grandfather, and now it’s proudly carried by me, my children, my extended family. The family legacy that began in such a cruel way has given birth to a generation of successful, caring Tomlinsons. I believe God chose me to bring two races together under one last name, Tomlinson. I’m a mixed race, and I represent America. My story is America’s story. Football is a microcosm of America, all races, all creeds competing, side by side.”
He concluded by saying: “On America’s team, let’s not choose to be against one another. Let’s choose to be for one another. My great-, great-, great-grandfather had no choice. We have one. I pray to be the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind, leading the way for all nations to follow.”
Davis recounted the story of how his life changed after he stared down the barrel of a gun.
He was 14 years old, growing up in a rough neighborhood in San Diego and leading a life that put him at risk of dying. The bullet never left the gun that night, but Davis understood the turning point of his life had come.
“I promised myself I would never find myself in that situation again,” he said Saturday night. “God had offered me a wake-up call. I had to answer that call. That night, I determined I would walk away from the irresponsible life I was living.”
Davis eventually found his salvation in football and worked his way to the very top of the sport, helping the Broncos win two Super Bowl championships with some of the most dynamic performances of any NFL running back. After an injury-shortened career that lasted seven seasons, he was rewarded for his accomplishments with football’s most cherished individual accomplishment.
Davis became emotional when paying tribute to his parents and acknowledged one of the biggest motivations in playing football was to gain the approval of his father, who died at the age of 41 because of complications from lupus.
“He never saw me play in the NFL, and to this day, I think about him and I wonder, did I gain his respect?” Davis said. “Dad, I hope you’re looking down, smiling and uttering the words, ‘Son, I’m proud of you.’ ”
Taylor, who made the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, thanked former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson for helping to build him into an All-Pro pass rusher. “Thank you for being a guide, a pioneer, a believer, a dream-maker,” Taylor said of Johnson.
Taylor said of his journey: “In 1992, I was at the University of Akron, just 20 miles north of here. Might as well have been a million.”
Andersen, who retired as the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, said he lived the American dream after growing up in Denmark, “the birthplace of famous Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. When I was young, I often imagined the faraway places he imagined.”
Easley, who was selected as the senior nomination, played in the 1980s for a Seahawks team that didn’t achieve much team success. But despite his injury-shortened career, he was considered one of the best at his position.