Kurt Warner has called an end to one of the great storybook careers in NFL history.
The 38-year-old quarterback announced his retirement from the game on Friday after a dozen years in a league that at first rejected him, then revered him as he came from nowhere to lead the lowly St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls, winning the first of them.
Written off as a has-been, he rose again to lead the long-suffering Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl a year ago. Warner, a man of deep faith who carried a Bible to each post-game news conference, walked away with a year left on a two-year, $23 million contract, knowing he still had the skills to play at the highest level.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” he said. “I don’t think I could have dreamt it would have played out like it has, but I’ve been humbled every day that I woke up the last 12 years and amazed that God would choose to use me to do what he’s given me the opportunity to do.”
Warner had one of the greatest postseason performances ever in Arizona’s 51-45 overtime wild card victory over Green Bay on Jan. 10, but sustained a brutal hit in the Cardinals’ 45-14 divisional round loss at New Orleans six days later.
“He has had a dominant career. He’s a good person,” Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “He’s got to do what’s best for his family. He played long enough. He took us to the Super Bowl last year. We had a great season this year. It’s a good thing. If you’re going to go out, go out on top.”
The Cardinals signed Warner to a one-year contract in 2005 largely because no other team would give him a chance to be a starter. His opportunities over the next two years were scattered and even when coach Ken Whisenhunt took over in 2007, Warner was the backup to Matt Leinart.
But when Leinart went down with an injury five games into the season, Warner got his chance. He started 48 of the remaining 49 games of his career.
Warner leaves the game with a legacy that could land him in the Hall of Fame even though he didn’t get his first start until he was 28.
In a comparison with the 14 quarterbacks to make the Hall of Fame in the last 25 years, Warner has a better career completion percentage, yards per pass attempt and yards per game. Only Dan Marino had more career 300-yard passing games. In 124 regular-season games, Warner completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 32,344 yards and 208 touchdowns. He and Fran Tarkenton are the only NFL quarterbacks to throw for 100 touchdowns and 14,000 yards for two teams.
Cardinals general manager Rod Graves called it an emotional day “because I realize once again how extraordinary he was.”
“I’ve only had the privilege of being around one other person that I can say was close to him and that was Walter Payton,” Graves said. “I think when you have an extraordinary player and one who is just as extraordinary off the field, then you realize you were in the presence of someone special.”
Whisenhunt said Warner ranked “at the top” of players he had coached.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in this league,” he said, “and I think it’s well noted that he’s one of the best people I’ve been around.”
Warner brought his wife, Brenda, and their seven children to the podium, hugging each one of them. He choked up as he thanked them.
“Every day I come home and it doesn’t matter if you won or lost or have thrown touchdowns or interceptions, the one thing that I always knew is that when I entered that door, when I stepped in our house, that none of that mattered to these guys,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much of a blessing that is.”
Warner, who grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and played collegiately at Northern Iowa, ranks among the career leaders in a variety of passing statistics.
He was the fastest player in NFL history to 10,000 yards passing and tied Marino as fastest to reach 30,000.
He has the top three passing performances in Super Bowl history. His 1,156 yards passing in the 2008 playoffs broke the NFL record of 1,063 he set with St. Louis in 1999.
Warner’s rise from obscurity seems the stuff of sports fiction.
He played three seasons in the Arena Football League and one in NFL Europe, mixed in with a stint stocking grocery shelves back in Iowa.
Warner made the Rams as a backup in 1998, then was thrust into the starting role in 1999 when Trent Green was injured.
What followed was a masterful and wholly unexpected season, when he led the Rams to a 13-3 regular-season record, then a Super Bowl triumph over Tennessee. He was named the league and Super Bowl MVP.
St. Louis was upset in the first round of the playoffs the following season, but Warner had them back in the big game in 2001, where “The Greatest Show on Turf” lost a squeaker to New England. The season earned him a second NFL MVP award.
But after an injury-plagued 2002 season, he was sacked six times and suffered a concussion in a 2003 season-opening loss to the New York Giants. He never started for St. Louis again.
He signed a free agent contract with the Giants for 2004, but was replaced by rookie Eli Manning after nine games. Warner came to the Cardinals in 2005 and was an off-and-on starter before replacing the injured Leinart part way through the 2007 season.
Warner had to beat out Leinart the following year, then led the Cardinals to the NFC West crown and playoff victories over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia before the narrow loss to Pittsburgh in last year’s Super Bowl, where he threw for 377 yards. He called that season the crowning achievement of his career.
Warner and his wife operate the First Things First Christian charitable foundation. Last year, he was named the NFL’s Man of the Year for his off-field and on-field accomplishments.
“We all learned great lessons from Kurt’s humility, dignity and grace. We will forever be thankful for the success he brought us and the unparalleled generosity he has shown the St. Louis community and beyond,” Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom said in a statement.
Warner’s departure leaves Leinart the presumed replacement. The former Heisman Trophy winner has started 17 games for Arizona but only one in the last two years.
Warner said he plans to spend time watching his children grow up, do some preaching and perhaps get into football broadcasting.
He knows what he wants his legacy to be.
“It’s not the way I threw the football, it’s not particular games that I won, but that they remember that here’s a guy that believed, that worked hard,” he said. “Although things didn’t always go in his favor, he continued to press through, and with his faith in himself and his faith in God, he was able to accomplish great things.”