Warner's rise shouldn't surprise

Rams standout's strengths were evident in college, says ex-mate he backed up

January 23, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Back in the formative years of Kurt Warner's quarterbacking career, certain characteristics were evident that would serve him over the long haul.

The strong arm.

The quiet confidence.

The refusal to be brushed aside.

But no one at the University of Northern Iowa in the early 1990s knew that Warner was destined for one of the great seasons in NFL history, that he would become the MVP of the league for the St. Louis Rams, that he would have the Rams in the NFC championship game -- and perhaps the Super Bowl -- in his first season as starter.

Not even a clairvoyant would dare predict an NFL career for a quarterback who didn't start for his Division I-AA team until he was a fifth-year senior.

Yet, when former Northern Iowa teammate Jay Johnson looks back, he says he isn't surprised by Warner's success.

"I knew Kurt would be a successful person, no matter what he'd do," Johnson said. "It was timing, the [Rams'] system, his perseverance. It all came together. No, it doesn't surprise me."

Johnson is the quarterback who helped make Warner one of the greatest success stories in NFL history. He started ahead of Warner for three years at Northern Iowa, leading the Panthers to three consecutive I-AA playoffs.

He did not possess Warner's arm strength, but he was more mobile and a coach's son. And as long as Northern Iowa won, there was no reason to replace him.

"We were having a ton of success as a team," Johnson said. "We won a lot of games. We had a lot of good players on the team. We had something going."

With Johnson at quarterback, Northern Iowa went 31-8 from 1990 to 1992. Johnson completed 52.5 percent of his passes for 8,265 yards, 58 touchdowns and 34 interceptions those three seasons.

He was first team All-Gateway Conference one season and second team the other two.

Warner redshirted his first season at the Cedar Falls university, then sat for Johnson's three years. In 1993, as with the Rams this season, he was an immediate success.

Warner completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 2,747 yards, 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The Panthers went 8-4 but lost a first-round playoff game to Boston University, which later dropped football.

Terry Allen, head coach at Kansas now, was the Northern Iowa coach at the time.

"It was bad timing on Kurt's part," Allen said. "The only time there was legitimate competition between the two was when Jay went into his senior year and Kurt was a junior [1992].

"I knew Kurt had a big-time arm, but that year, we were the No. 1 [ranked] Division 1-AA team. We didn't lose many games."

And Johnson was the quarterback Allen wanted to run his spread offense.

"Jay did have a good grasp of the game as a coach's son," Allen said. "He didn't make any mistakes. He could avoid the [pass] rush a little more."

Johnson never pursued professional football -- "the biggest thing I lacked was probably the arm strength," he said. But he followed Warner's trail from Northern Iowa to the Arena League to NFL Europe to St. Louis.

"Those experiences in the minor leagues really helped him," said Johnson, who coaches quarterbacks for Allen's Jayhawks. "Kurt worked tremendously hard on his entire game. He's very confident in his abilities."

Allen produced several NFL players during his time in Cedar Falls, among them Bryce Paup of the Jacksonville Jaguars, former Raven James Jones of the Detroit Lions, Dedric Ward of the New York Jets and Kenny Shedd of the Oakland Raiders.

But none made the impact that Warner has.

"What you see is what you get with Kurt," Allen said. "He's going to keep after it until he gets an opportunity. He doesn't take rejection. He had the same type of drive in college."

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