Finding a rooting interest in the Super Bowl always makes it more fun to watch. Especially when the two teams aren't teams you normally root for.
Some go with the favorite, others the underdog and for some, they pull for a particular player. I fall into the last category, which is why I'll be cheering for the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Nothing against the Steelers, mind you. They're a great team full of old-school, hard-hitting guys like Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu — the types of players that fans who love football love to watch. But I'm hoping for a Cardinals upset due to my appreciation of quarterback Kurt Warner, and of course, his Packers' connection.
Everyone who follows football knows Warner's supermarket-to-Super Bowl story — he went from stocking shelves in a grocery store to the Arena Football League's Iowa Barnstormers (who have one of the coolest helmets ever) to the old NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals before bursting onto the NFL scene in 1999 by winning league and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP honors with the St. Louis Rams as they defeated the Titans in one of the most exciting championship games to date.
It's one of the greatest and unlikeliest stories in all of sports, let alone football. After injuries led to his departure from St. Louis following the 2003 season, Warner went to the New York Giants, where he'd get benched in favor of rookie Eli Manning. He'd sign a one-year deal with Arizona in 2005 and had three mediocre starts before a groin injury put incumbent starter Josh McCown back under center.
The following spring, Arizona drafted quarterback Matt Leinart in the first round. But a combination of injuries and poor play prevented the former Southern Cal star from hanging on to the starting job. When Warner was named the starter heading into 2008, he responded with 4,583 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and completed better than 67 percent of his passes. He was named the NFC starter in the Pro Bowl, but most importantly, he's back in the Super Bowl, taking the Cardinals with him for the first time in franchise history. Consider the Matt Leinart Era officially on hold.
While it might be a stretch to call his 1994 training camp stint with Green Bay a "connection," I probably have a fonder recollection of it than most.
That 1994 training camp always will hold special memories for me. I had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and was interning with the Green Bay Packers' public relations department. The internship paid $200 a month — not that I wouldn't have done it for free — but by far the biggest perk was getting a dorm room at St. Norbert College in De Pere with the rest of the team and being allowed to eat all my meals with them.
I'd pass time in the evening hanging out with some of them (shout out to Wesleyan, Conn., tight end Jeff Wilner) playing Madden '93 and NHL Hockey (the one where you could make the players bleed) on my Sega system. And, of course, we'd talk football. It was as close as you could get to being in the NFL without actually being in the NFL.
One player I made sure to catch up with was my old teammate from Sheboygan South High School, who was a surprise sixth-round draft pick that past spring out of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse: receiver Bill Schroeder. What few outside of Schroeder and me probably recall was that his roommate at St. Norbert was a little-known quarterback from Northern Iowa named Kurt. As in Warner.
I remember heading over to their room, just across the courtyard from the one I shared with then-linebackers coach Jim Lind's son, and meeting Warner for the first time. We were the same height, but he was smaller built than I was at the time and looked almost scrawny in a T-shirt and shorts — not that he looked that big in his pads.
But I remember him being a nice guy, and he was definitely excited to be there. When Schroeder was showing me his playbook and talking about how thick it was, Warner reached up on a shelf near the door and said, "Oh yeah? Well, check this one out."
He handed me his playbook, which was probably three times as thick as Schroeder's. The three of us looked over a couple plays while he and Schroeder talked about what they did on each of them.
That was the most I'd talk to Warner aside from the, "Hey, how's it going?" around the cafeteria or practice field. Then again, I was in training camp longer than he was. It hardly felt like a brush with greatness at the time. In fact, it was barely something I remembered until six years later, when Warner blew up with Rams and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a "Who IS This Guy?" headline.
I told my relatives in Belleville, Ill., just across the Illinois border from St. Louis, that I had met Warner when he was with the Packers, to which they responded, "When was he with the Packers?" But suddenly, it was a story worth telling, and one I'll repeat this week to my Aunt Margie, a former St. Louis Cardinals fan who became a Rams fan and remains a Warner fan.
Under a hot, August sun, I can remember watching Warner in a No. 12 jersey throwing spirals to rookies like Schroeder, West Virginia's Jay Kearney, Florida A&M's Terry Mickens and free agent Willie Harris outside the newly opened Don Hutson Center. Guys with $5,000 contracts didn't get to throw to Sterling Sharpe or Robert Brooks.
Warner didn't look bad, but he didn't stand out, either. In reality, he was a "camp arm" there to take a few snaps so guys that were actually going to make the team stayed fresh. You knew he wouldn't beat out former Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer or Rose Bowl MVP Mark Brunell for a backup spot to Brett Favre. But since I got to know him, I was hoping Warner could at least end up on practice squad, as Schroeder would that year.
That didn't happen. Instead he caught on with a Hy-Vee grocery store back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, working the night shift. I could relate. After my internship was up, I moved into my parents' basement in Sheboygan and got a job as a bell boy, parking cars and schlepping luggage at the American Club in Kohler, Wis. Hey, bills have to get paid, right?
Both of us found our way back into football, and I don't feel bad saying that out of the two of us, he's probably done a little better for himself. I'm also pretty confident that he doesn't tell a version of this story where he met a kid who ended up writing for the Packer Report.
So come Sunday, I'll be pulling for Warner, a guy who's a few months older than me, whose brown hair and stubble is showing some gray, just like mine, and who happened to show me a few plays in his playbook 15 years ago in the place where his Hall of Fame career got started. After all, it's a short list of people who actually remember him being there.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Reason to root for Cardinals' Warner
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