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From nowhere, and everywhere, comes a star

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- To gain proper appreciation for the finest story in the NFL since, well, ever, one must begin in the middle. Otherwise, you will find the beginning too preposterous to believe, and the end may turn out to be too fantastic to absorb.


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[Gary Shelton]

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This is where the Bucs enter the tale, so let us begin with the sight of an unlikely hero performing the unexpected, of a quarterback standing in a pocket, daring the opposing defense to pick its poison.

It is here you find Kurt Warner, the quarterback too good to believe. He is riding the crest of a season that compares with most the NFL has seen, where he has carved his initials into one opponent after another. This is the force the Bucs must stop in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, a player whose story sounds almost fictional, attempting to complete a season that sounds almost like a fable.

photo
[AP photo]
Short of foresight, the Rams exposed Kurt Warner in the last expansion draft. 

Warner, the NFL MVP, threw 41 touchdown passes this season; only Dan Marino had thrown more than 40. He had nine 300-yard games; only Marino and Warren Moon had done that. His quarterback rating of 109.2 was the fifth best in history.

Already, the comparisons have begun. Receivers coach Al Saunders compares him with former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts. "Fouts had courage, toughness and accuracy," Saunders said. "Those are the things Kurt has, too."

So how do the Bucs stop this guy? How do they stop this plot line from where it appears to be going?

First, perhaps, they should understand where he has been.

Where do you begin to tell the story? On the bench at a I-AA school called Northern Iowa, where Warner wasn't good enough to start until he was a fifth-year senior? In the Packers' training camp, where all he garnered was the derision of the other quarterbacks? In the grocery store, where his primary target was paper and his secondary one was plastic? In the Arena League? In the World League?

"I couldn't have written a script for myself as good as the one the Lord has written," Warner said. Well, maybe he could have. But he couldn't have sold it to anyone. Too corny. Compared with Warner's story, Fantasia seems like a documentary.

Go back to the Packers' camp after he left Northern Iowa. He was with Green Bay for six weeks, but he only took "about 10 snaps" in practice. Brett Favre kidded him mercilessly, calling him "Pop Warner." The story goes that one day, then-Packers quarterbacks coach Steve Mariucci tried to send him into a scrimmage, and Warner was too shy to go in. Warner says he doesn't remember that, but he doesn't deny it because the situation was "so overwhelming."

So he was cut, and he went to work in a grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, making $5.50 an hour. He wound up with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League -- although he was almost cut after a shaky start -- and averaged 61 touchdown passes for three years. He went to NFL Europe and played for the Amsterdam Admirals, where the Rams signed him. They were so impressed by what they had they allowed him to throw all of 11 passes last season and left him unprotected in the expansion draft.

How does this happen? How does a player slip past all the scouts, past all the stopwatches, and become a star at 28? How did the league not know who Kurt Warner was? How did the Rams not know? Before last season, former offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome wanted to cut Warner to keep Will Furrer. After last season, Warner was placed on the expansion list.

"No one knew about me because no one had seen me play," Warner said. "The Arena League is on television at midnight on Saturdays. I only played one year of college ball. Even this year, the Rams didn't know if I could even be a quality backup quarterback.

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"There are a lot of good scouts out there, but you'd have to think one or two people slipped through who could have had a good career."

Consider this: Warner started this season only because of happenstance. Trent Green was signed to be the Rams' passer, but he was hurt. The team considered signing Jeff Hostetler, then decided, what the heck, it would go with Warner. Just like that, after five years and two continents and a cleanup on Aisle 9, a star was born.

Perhaps this is why doubters persist when it comes to Warner. Because who would believe this guy's story? Except for Warner, that is.

"This is how I always expected to play," Warner said. "In my dreams, I always hoisted the trophy at the end of the season."

The best thing about Warner, however, is that his personal story rivals that of his career. When he was in college, he was dragged along to a country music bar one night. He didn't like country music, but he liked a Marine he met there. Her name was Brenda Meoni and she had, well, something.

Oh, it didn't seem like a fit. She was 25, four years his senior. She didn't like football. She was getting a divorce, and she had two children, one of them a special needs child. (Zack is legally blind and mentally handicapped.)

They dated for five years, then married. Kurt adopted her children. They had one of their own. They didn't have much money.

Sunday, Brenda leaned over the railing at the Trans World Dome and smiled at her husband. She is a small woman, her hair spiked upward. She was cradling a football her husband had just given her. She seems to be enjoying the story.

The rest of us are, too. There is the story about the cereal: Warner is making the NFL minimum for a second-year player ($254,000), but he donates all the proceeds of Warner's Crunch Time cereal to charity. There is the way he celebrated last weekend's playoff game, by going home and having pizza and popcorn and watching a Disney movie. No, Joe Namath didn't do it this way.

So unleash the scouts. Let them scour the capitals of Europe. Let them watch the games of a lesser commissioner. Let them check out the grocery stores. Let them work out the dreamers.

Because if there is another person who dreams like Warner, they need to grab him.

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