Warner fashions perfect ending for his improbable journey

Super Bowl Xxxiv

January 31, 2000|By John Steadman

ATLANTA -- The most flamboyant and effective passing show that the Super Bowl has ever seen, as he all but chased the Tennessee Titans down Peachtree Street, brought Kurt Warner, a boy from a working-class Iowa family, a distinction for the ages.

It wasn't easy for Warner and the St. Louis Rams, because they couldn't dull the resilience and resolve of the Titans, who came within one yard, often the hardest, of possibly tying the game on the last play.

But the verdict was decided, as heartbreaking as it was for the Titans. And pass receiver Kevin Dyson was trying to stretch his way into the end zone after a saving tackle by Mike Jones, but to no avail.

While Warner was superb in carrying the offense, so were his chief battery mates, Isaac Bruce, with six catches for 162 yards, and rookie Torry Holt, with seven for 109.

But with all the attention and applause for Warner, let's not minimize the talents of his exciting counterpart, Steve McNair, the Titans' quarterback. He does with his feet and acrobatic ability what Warner contributes with his arm and is no less effective.

But McNair has only rarely in his pro career beaten a team by his passing. His running is what separates him from most other quarterbacks. This means that the man nicknamed "Air" McNair in college at Alcorn State now has to sprint and dodge and spin to keep an offense moving. His accuracy throwing, by itself, isn't too often going to beat a quality rival.

Warner paraded the Rams inside the 20-yard line, but in 12 straight times being there they had to settle for three field goals.

The illustrious performance given by Warner gathered 414 yards, which was 200 more than McNair, plus two touchdowns off 24 completions in 45 attempts. Warner didn't panic, not for a second, when the Titans drew even with them, and with matters tied at 16, he connected 73 yards with Bruce in just one large gulp. A touchdown and a 23-16 lead that pushed them back on top.

It was, no doubt, the best of Super Bowls, this the XXXIV in the series.

Now for a quick flashback on Warner. The setting was the opening game of the 1999 season, and as a reporter we tried to find the proper entry into the Trans World Dome, where the Rams were going to meet the Ravens. An attendant gave us directions, and, as he talked, a tall young man, carrying a shaving kit, walked past him.

"Hey, come back here," the attendant shouted. "Who are you?" Was this a pre-kickoff gate crasher?

"I'm Warner; I play for the Rams," he said. So that was the way Kurt Warner went to his first starting assignment in the NFL -- unrecognized by the man authorized to check in the arriving players. The then-nondescript Warner, after gaining the nod of admittance, walked down to the Rams locker room and, beginning that afternoon, into the spotlight and the American consciousness.

The name, face and physical frame are easily identifiable now. It all happened so suddenly, a dream lifted out of pulp fiction. Kurt Warner is the country's most beloved athlete. Why? Because he came from the other side of the tracks and wouldn't (and couldn't) be denied.

The saga of Warner is one of those only-in-America stories, the kind that plays on the heart strings.

He played in the Arena League, and pro football doesn't go much lower than that. The coaches in St. Louis say there is no way any of them could take credit for the development of Warner. He's a self-made football player, the kind that don't come around much any more -- not in these days of so-called sophisticated scouting.

His coach at Regis High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gaylord Hauschildt, was asked about this super standout in the Super Bowl.

"What I remember most about him is he had mental calmness. He didn't let the emotion of a game or anything else take away his focus," he said. "That is almost unheard of in teen-agers."

The Super Bowl was a notch or two above that, to put it lightly, but Warner was his same cool and calculating self in this heated, pressurized encounter inside the Georgia Dome before 72,625 witness and worldwide television audience in 185 countries.

Warner played this year for the minimum salary of $250,000.

He has paid the price to get where he is today, the most valuable player in the NFL who had a modest resume that showed three years in the indoor Arena League before going to NFL Europe in 1998.

Last season, as an NFL rookie, he played in only part of one game, and completed four of 11 passes for 39 yards. Now, only a season later, he created the most acclaimed performance in all of football, throwing for more than 4,000 yards, 41 scoring strikes and earning the MVP award.

If there was a pivotal individual in his football life, it was Al Luginbill, coach of the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe, which the NFL underwrites for development purposes. Luginbill asked the Rams to sign him because otherwise he wouldn't have been eligible to play there because of a prerequisite that all players have to be on an NFL roster.

So it wasn't any stroke of genius on the Rams' part. The product of Northern Iowa and the Gateway Conference virtually fell out of the sky and into their laps before he put them in the Super Bowl.

Put a new name on the marquee, in lights that of Kurt Warner, once an obscure kid from Mid-America willing to sacrifice. He's extraordinary. A gem of a quarterback with polish and precision.

May his star continue to glow in the football firmament.

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