- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Kurt Warner’s career has come almost full circle now — ashes to ashes, Arena League to NFL waiver wire. Perhaps he’ll wind up with the New York Giants, and perhaps we’ll discover he has a Second Act in him, that there’s life in that right arm yet. But we’ll address such issues another day. This morning let’s just rejoice in the marvel that was/is Kurt Warner, the closest thing we’ll ever see to a real-life Joe Hardy. Or is it a real-life Sherman Klump?

Joe Hardy, older readers will recall, is the out-of-nowhere slugger who almost wins the pennant for the Washington Senators in “Damn Yankees.” Sherman Klump, the younger set will tell you, is the chubby chemistry professor who turns himself into “Buddy Love,” babe magnet, in “The Nutty Professor.” Warner’s story is so improbable, he seems almost related to those two. Where did this guy come from, anyway? Is he a frustrated Rams fan who sold his soul to the devil so the team could win the Super Bowl? Is he a BALCO employee who stumbled across a magic potion that transformed him into a Pro Bowl quarterback?

The arc of Warner’s football life almost suggests as much. Kurt doesn’t come from Hannibal, Mo., like Shoeless Joe Hardy did, but it seems like he should. Undrafted coming out of Northern Iowa, consigned to the lower ranks of Arena ball and NFL Europe, Warner was a Total Unknown when he took over as the St. Louis QB in August 1999, after Trent Green blew out his knee. Five months and 49 touchdown passes later, he was hitting Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard score to beat Tennessee in the Super Bowl.

I ask you: Who in pro football — or in any other sport, for that matter — has ever pulled off something like that? Roy Hobbs did it in “The Natural,” of course (the movie, not the book), but that, like “Damn Yankees,” was make-believe. Let’s face it, sports heroes don’t just materialize out of thin air. A 28-year-old quarterback who has thrown all of 11 passes in the NFL doesn’t suddenly become Dan Marino.

But for three surreal seasons, Warner did. From 1999 to 2001, he completed 67.2 percent of his throws, averaged nearly 300 yards a game and had a passer rating of more than 100. He was the perfect quarterback for the perfect offense, a quick-release artist surrounded by such talents as Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk. Then there was the coach behind the scenes, pulling the strings — Mike Martz, the Mr. Applegate (aka the devil) of the production. How was he able to get this kind of play out of Warner when no one else had? Unless …

And then, just as abruptly, the air went out of the balloon — as if a contract had expired, as if the beaker containing the secret elixir was suddenly empty. Kurt Warner, Pro Bowler, turned back into Kurt Warner, fringe quarterback. You can pretty much trace it to a single play, the sideline pass he threw in Super Bowl XXXVI that the Patriots’ Ty Law picked off and returned 47 yards for the game’s first touchdown. The Rams, prohibitive favorites, went on to lose 20-17, and Warner hasn’t been the same since.

Injuries, such as a broken hand, have had something to do with it, but the problem clearly runs deeper than that. In the nine games he’s played the past two seasons, his interceptions-to-TDs ratio has been 3 to 1 (12 picks vs. four scoring passes). Meanwhile, Mr. Applegate — I mean Martz — has given Warner’s job to Marc Bulger, a serviceable QB who couldn’t have touched Kurt in his prime.

The last few years, riding the bench, Warner has gotten less attention than his kooky, spiky haired wife, Brenda. Seems like she was always calling in to sports talk shows to rail against the Rams’ management or encourage the club to trade Her Man — for his good, not theirs. It was sad to see such a stirring tale reduced to low comedy, the quarterback’s wife coming across like a distaff Don King. Maybe that was part of Warner’s pact with Lucifer, too — three years in heaven for an eternity in hell.

Still, it was a heck of a ride … if, indeed, we’re at the end. Five seasons ago, nobody knew who Kurt Warner was. Three years later, we were wondering if, incredibly, he might be headed to the Hall of Fame, despite being the latest of starters. And now he’s looking for a place to hang his helmet and hoping to revive his once brilliant career

Kurt Warner: He’s Joe Hardy, he’s Sherman Klump, he’s Roy Hobbs — he’s pieces of all three. He’s also a reminder, happy and sad, that in sports, anything can happen.

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