Among today’s many Christian athletes is Arizona Cardinals Quarterback Kurt Warner – #13. He is in his tenth season as a pro-football player and formerly played for the New York Giants, and most notably the St. Louis Rams, during which time they won the 1999 Super Bowl. Kurt earned the title of Super Bowl XXXIV MVP and has twice been named NFL MVP.
This outstanding American football quarterback is noted for his accuracy, with a career completion percentage of 65.5%, an NFL record. Warner is also ranked third all-time in career passing rating (93.8), trailing only Steve Young and Peyton Manning. Kurt Warner fans are hoping his left elbow injury heals quickly, however, as he is still wearing a bulky brace on the left arm and is handing off with his right. Warner will continue wearing the brace this Sunday when the Cardinals play at Tampa Bay.
As compelling as Kurt Warner’s NFL history is, his personal life is even more captivating. His charitable foundation, First Things First, sums it up. As Warner stood on the Super Bowl platform after the winning game, a reporter asked him, “First things first, did you say anything before you guys went out for that play?” referring to his historic touchdown in the last seconds of the game. Kurt Warner’s response:
First things first, I gotta give the praise and glory to my Lord and Savior up above! Thank you Jesus!
His dedication to Jesus was not always his first priority. That came after years of living with his faith somewhere in the background of his life, although he was raised in the church. He finally came to know his Lord and Savior at about 25 years of age, after some questions about his faith were raised, and experiencing life swimming upstream. He realized it was about a relationship with the living God.
We all come to a crossroads in life to find out what matters and what our lives are really all about. Hopefully, we all find out that the starting place of where that journey begins is in Christ, and sometimes this reality comes to us through hardship or sudden dramatic events. Kurt experienced both of those as he struggled financially, in football, in his family and through grief and loss.
Let’s go back to 1992, when Kurt was Northern Iowa’s starting quarterback, and he met his future wife, Brenda. She was a former Marine and single mom with two children, one of whom was disabled, having suffered severe brain damage as an infant after being dropped by his biological father.
Warner, however, was not a bit reluctant to pursue a single mother with a special needs child, and ended up marrying Brenda in 1997 and adopting her two children, Zachary and Jesse. The Warners went on to have five beautiful children together.
Many other hardships presented obstacles to Warner as he chased his dream of playing professional football. After being signed as a free agent by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, he was cut before the regular season. To make ends meet, he worked for a time as a stock boy at the Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls. He spent the next several years playing Arena football and with NFL Europe. It wasn’t until 1997 that he was taken on as the St. Louis Rams third string quarterback. The rest is history.
A family tragedy may be most responsible for Kurt’s faith today. In 1996, Brenda’s parents were both killed in a tornado in Arkansas, where they had just retired. In the aftermath of this ultimate blow, Kurt and Brenda both struggled with those questions of why God didn’t intervene. This is one of Kurt’s reflections on that ordeal:
That situation showed me that you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. You have to live life for today and for this moment. It was at that point that I realized the Lord needed to be at the center of my life. I couldn’t wait until tomorrow or next year. It needed to be right now.
As Christians we all know that our lives are held up in front of us like a reflection in a mirror, but for Christian celebrities it is a particular challenge living in a glass house. Kurt seems to have turned this to his advantage. In a 2003 interview with Today’s Christian Woman, Kurt had this to say:
I’ve been a Christian in the public eye for so long now, the publicity helps keep me accountable. I know I have a responsibility to live up to Christ’s standards on the field and off.
Perhaps the real test of Warner’s reputation comes from his former team. Last month when the Arizona Cardinals played the St. Louis Rams at St. Louis, the Rams fans gave Kurt Warner a standing ovation. Not many visiting team players receive that kind of reception from the home team, especially when they get beat. This man is simply a class act, and through his First Things First Foundation, has accomplished enormous amounts of charitable work in the St. Louis area, as well as in Iowa and Arizona.
Last year, Warner was replaced at quarterback by rookie Matt Leinart, and there was much speculation over whether Warner would retire and if he would ever be a starting quarterback again. However, a combination of ineffective starts and injuries on the part of Leinart have led to Warner starting many games since, and he currently is named starter for the remainder of the 2007 season, with Leinart on injured reserve due to a broken collarbone.
These ups and downs seem to be a part of Kurt Warner’s destiny. Even at Northern Iowa, he waited four years before starting at quarterback, finally getting his break as a fifth year senior. The New York Giants sidelined him for a rookie as well – then-rookie Eli Manning. Warner’s current injury of torn ligaments in his left elbow certainly casts doubt on his continued ability to start for the Cardinals. The one thing that doesn’t shift up and down, though, is Kurt Warner’s unwavering faith and commitment to God and his family – first things first.
Right now his First Things First Foundation is part of the America’s Team Ball Drive, an outreach to provide our soldiers overseas with new or gently used sports equipment. The foundation’s arms are wide reaching as Kurt and Brenda work to support single parents, personally host week-long Disney World vacations for children with life threatening illnesses, make frequent visits to children’s hospitals, host Special Olympics clinics, host Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless…the list of projects goes on and on. The most remarkable thing about Kurt Warner’s foundation is his and Brenda’s very personal involvement. They are right there in the middle of it all, touching lives in the name of Jesus with their own hands.
You can also find Kurt on the “Good Sports Gang” videos for children as Coach Warner, where he acts as advisor to a lively gang of cartoon bouncing balls with diverse personalities. These videos are designed to promote faith, self esteem, good sportsmanship and ethical behavior.
photo credits: nfl.com and celebrityphoto.com