Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams, the hottest quarterback in the National Football League, prints his own trading cards. But it's not an ego thing. The cards tell the story of Warner turning his life over to Christ. He carries them around so he'll have something meaningful to hand out to fans who ask for his autograph.
His new life in Christ is intertwined with his dramatic rags-to-riches football career. The NFL's most valuable player led his team against the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV on Sunday.
Warner became a Christian four years ago, shortly after tragedy touched his life. The parents of his girlfriend Brenda, now his wife, were killed when a tornado demolished their home in Mountain View, Ark. "They had planned to be baptized that night, but stayed home because Brenda's mother had a headache," USA Today said. People at the church were spared.
Kurt watched as Brenda, a Christian, responded to the tragedy with poise and grace rather than self-pity. He also knew how she had dealt with a crippling accident suffered by her son, Zachary, eight years earlier, when he was dropped on his head as a baby.
Brenda sat in a rocking chair next to Zachary's hospital crib for 17 days, watching as he suffered seizures, quoting Bible verses, and asking God to perform a miracle. Although legally blind and brain-damaged, Zachary is now a fifth-grader who can read, gets around fairly well, and takes mainstream and special education classes.
Three months after the deaths of Brenda's parents, Kurt became a Christian. Two months after that he proposed to her, and he has adopted Zachary and her daughter Jesse.
Kurt got involved in a Bible study and began to "understand what was really important in life," he told Crosswalk.com. "I had my life and my faith, and they were two separate things. But as I began to grow in my relationship with God, I began to understand how they fit together."
The family attends St. Louis Family Church, as does Isaac Bruce, a Rams receiver. Pastor Jeff Perry leads a Bible study at the Warners' home each Wednesday night during football season.
Warner's long road to gridiron success was filled with setbacks and bad breaks. He warmed the bench for four years at the University of Northern Iowa. Finally getting a chance as a fifth-year senior, he led the Panthers to the NCAA Division I-AA semifinals and was named the Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
But he was passed over in the NFL draft and rejected by the Canadian Football League. Warner took a job stocking shelves for minimum wage at the Hy-Vee supermarket in Cedar Falls,Iowa, while he worked out at a college practice field during the day.
A year later he was playing again, but in small-time Arena football, an indoor game using eight players on a side and 50-yard fields. He missed a tryout for the Chicago Bears in 1997 when he was bitten on the elbow by a vicious spider, leaving him unable to throw.
After three years he took a step up. He was signed by the Rams and sent to the Amsterdam (Netherlands) Admirals of NFL Europe, where in the spring of 1998 he led the league in passing yardage and touchdowns.
The Rams hired Warner for the 1998 season, but he played in only one game. He was left unprotected in the expansion draft, but the new Cleveland Browns didn't want him, either. Warner was still with the Rams in 1999, but the team signed superstar-prospect quarterback Trent Green before the season for $16.5 million, and it looked like Warner would be overlooked again.
Green got hurt, and Warner stepped up to take his place. To the surprise of almost everyone, he threw a record 41 touchdown passes, led the league in completion percentage, and took the Rams to the best record in their conference, 13-3. In five months he had gone from being an anonymous bench-sitter to a Pro Bowl selection, and was named the NFL's most valuable player.
Kurt is now a celebrity but says he owes his success to Brenda and his faith. He declined an appearance on the David Letterman Show to spend his wedding anniversary with Brenda. He has his own frosted flakes cereal, Warner's Krunch Time, and the proceeds go to Camp Barnabus, a Christian camp in Purdy, Mo., for children with special needs.
Warner told his story at a Billy Graham event in St. Louis last fall.
"Who am I? I am a devout Christian man," he told the crowd of 40,000. "I am not a football player. That is what I do. When I throw a touchdown pass now, my thoughts are on how can I use this success on the field as a platform to glorify and praise my Lord Jesus Christ. People often ask the secret of my success as a football player. It has nothing to do with how I work out in the off-season, or my diet. The secret of my success is simply Jesus Christ."