This coming Saturday in Canton, Ohio, Kurt Warner takes the ultimate step for someone in his profession — induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In terms of individual honors, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Most football fans, particularly those in St. Louis and Arizona, are well aware of Warner’s accomplishments. He resurrected two woeful franchises to Super Bowl status, winning Super Bowl XXXIV with the Rams over Tennessee to cap the 1999 season.
By just about any statistical means available, he rates as one of the greatest postseason quarterbacks ever. He presided over the “Greatest Show on Turf,” the high-flying, death-defying team that didn’t just win, they won with style.
No less an NFL expert/historian than the great Gil Brandt recently declared the ’99 Rams offense as the best in NFL history.
But what if Dick Vermeil hadn’t named Warner his starter in ’99 after quarterback Trent Green went down with a season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game?
What if the reborn Cleveland Browns had claimed Warner in the expansion draft held seven months earlier?
What if the Rams had chosen Will Furrer as the No. 3 quarterback over Warner in 1998, a decision that wasn’t made until late on the final cutdown day?
What if Warner attends a tryout for the Chicago Bears in the fall of 1997? A swollen elbow caused by a mysterious bite on his honeymoon cancelled that workout.
What if Warner never gets a Rams tryout?
As Warner made his meteoric rise from grocery clerk obscurity to NFL stardom in the years that followed, there was no shortage of people claiming they had a hand in Warner’s success.
Even Rams owner Stan Kroenke made a late jump into that parade when he told USA Today in May 2016 that he recommended to Vermeil that the team keep Warner in ’98.
(Vermeil has diplomatically said he doesn’t recall that conversation.)
But here’s a spoiler alert: Kroenke wasn’t the one who discovered Warner’s talent. Who did, you ask?
Well, Mike Martz sharpened Warner’s skills and tested his will as the Rams’ hard-driving offense coordinator in ’99.
Vermeil saw something in Warner — he didn’t know exactly what — but made the decision to keep Warner over Furrer in ’98. And then a year later, he named Warner the starter after Green went down despite sentiment from some at Rams Park for veterans Jeff George or Jeff Hostetler.
General manager Charley Armey was Warner’s earliest backer. He helped put together Warner’s first workout with the Rams in December 1997. He went to Amsterdam in the spring of ’98 after the Rams had signed Warner to watch him play in NFL Europe and offered encouragement.
But who “discovered” Kurt Warner?
SHAKING THE BUSHES
Even Armey, so instrumental in giving Warner a chance, cautions: “Don’t forget Al Luginbill in this story.”
“If there was one guy that helped me as much to get back in the league, it was Al,” Warner said. “I still believe to this day that the reason the Rams signed me was simply as a favor to Al because Al wanted me to play in Europe. He had worked with a number of their guys.”
Now living in the Phoenix area where he runs a player evaluation service (Underclassmen Report) for major colleges, Luginbill has been head coach of teams in college, in NFL Europe, in the Arena League, and even in the short-lived XFL. At San Diego State, he recruited running back Marshall Faulk — you may have heard of him.
Several years later, as head coach of the Amsterdam Admirals, he was shaking the bushes for quarterback help for his NFL Europe team.
Once the NFL Europe season ended in late spring, he’d return from Amsterdam and work out of his home, then in San Diego, looking for talent. Particularly quarterback talent. He’d scout NFL teams in training camps, eyeballing fringe players who might get cut.
He also kept an eye on the Arena League. He knew about Warner and the numbers he was piling up there with the Iowa Barnstormers. He knew about Warner’s brief, ill-fated training camp stint with Green Bay in 1994. He had watched tape of Warner’s college games at Northern Iowa.
And he was intrigued.
“I don’t know why,” said Luginbill, now 70. “It was a gut feeling. I just liked what I saw.”
Finally, he had to go see for himself.
So he drove up the California coast to watch Warner’s visiting Barnstormers play the Anaheim Piranhas on July 20, 1996. Warner’s Barnstormers posted a 50-44 victory and Luginbill wasn’t disappointed.
“Boy, this guy,” Luginbill recalled, still gushing about what he saw 21 years earlier. “The ball came out so quick. And he was so accurate.”
Until last week, when a reporter mentioned the anecdote, Warner never knew Luginbill was at that game. Luginbill recruited Warner over the phone but couldn’t get him to Amsterdam.
“It was late in the process, and he was very committed to staying with the Arena League, which I respected,” Luginbill said. “And I couldn’t guarantee him then that I could get him allocated (to an NFL team).”
At the time, Warner was in his second season with the Barnstormers. He had become something of a local celebrity and was making good enough money that he could support his future wife, Brenda, and her two children from a previous marriage. Without getting a spot on an NFL training camp roster as part of the deal, Warner didn’t think it was worth the risk.
But Luginbill kept trying. In 1997, he called John Becker, then a Rams personnel executive, but also a friend since the 1970s and their days coaching junior college football in California. He talked to Armey, who was then in his first year with the Rams but would succeed Becker as head of the personnel department in ’98. Vermeil also knew of Luginbill from the California juco circuit.
“I told Charley Armey and John Becker, both of them, I said this guy’s better than anything that they were playing at that time,” Luginbill said.
Luginbill somehow convinced them to give Warner a tryout, hoping they would sign him and send him to Amsterdam that spring.
In theory, the Rams liked the idea of having Warner get some experience in NFL Europe before the start of training camp. Months before Warner played for Amsterdam, he had to “pass” his tryout with the Rams.
But first came the Bears, who initially wanted Warner in for a tryout right before his October ’97 wedding to Brenda. Because of the wedding, the tryout was postponed until after their honeymoon in Jamaica.
Well, just before the end of the honeymoon, Warner woke up to discover his throwing elbow was swollen to the size of a grapefruit. Something had bitten him, perhaps a centipede or scorpion.
“Not in a million years would you ever guess that, and then to have it happen like it did on my throwing elbow,” Warner recalled. “I couldn’t move it, I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t do anything. It was unbelievable.”
He had to cancel again on the Bears, and never heard from them again.
In December the Rams called, and Warner was off to St. Louis for his workout. There was nothing magical about that day; NFL teams routinely bring in “street” free agents for a look-see over the course of the year.
“Just a very simple process, almost doing it as a favor rather than trying to discover a player,” Vermeil recalled. “Kurt will tell you he didn’t think it was an outstanding workout, but I sort of liked it.
“I liked his effortless throwing ability. He just impressed me. It wasn’t a big major deal, OK? It really wasn’t. I always had a soft spot in my heart for the free-agent kid because I always considered myself a free agent in the NFL as a coach. So I had empathy for him.”
Warner actually thought the workout, held in the indoor facility at Rams Park, was several steps below outstanding. A thumb injury from his ‘97 Arena League season hadn’t fully healed, and he had trouble gripping the football.
“I had an awful tryout, worst workout of my life,” Warner said. “I thought there was no chance. They called and offered me a contract. To this day, I’m like, it had to be as a favor to Al, because there was really nothing that I did in that workout that would elicit a contract.”
But he got a contract on Dec. 23, 1997. No signing bonus. No guaranteed money. The NFL calendar was different then; a 5-11 Rams regular season had ended Dec. 20 in Carolina. So for Warner, his next stop was NFL Europe.
TO AMSTERDAM AND BACK
The following spring, Armey traveled to Amsterdam to get a look at Warner as well as Tom Nutten, who was also on that Admirals team and became the starting left guard on two Rams Super Bowl squads. Armey even took them out to dinner.
“If there was one guy that was in our corner and really went back and encouraged us in the process it was Charley,” Warner said. “I think he came back and really encouraged the staff there to take a look at us, whatever that meant.”
After his great success in Arena ball — including 183 touchdown passes and 10,465 passing yards in three seasons — Warner had no trouble transitioning back to the big field of conventional football for the Admirals.
“He led the league I think in every category that could you lead,” Luginbill said. “I just thought he had things you couldn’t coach. Later on, that proved to be the case.
“He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for. His ability to move around in the pocket and get rid of the ball. And his accuracy is what makes him special. That’s just my opinion.”
Warner returned from Europe barely in time for the end of Rams’ minicamp, the last practices before the team took their summer break before training camp. It would be his first practice as a Ram.
“I can remember like it was yesterday,” Vermeil said. “He’d been away, he hadn’t been in any meetings. He got there like the night before.
“He got there and he was in the practice sessions and all that, and we threw him in with the team in the red zone and put him in, gave him play, he called it. Anyway, he threw a touchdown pass.”
Vermeil paused, and then added with emphasis: “You know, that was impressive.”
And that, as it turned out, was just the beginning.