- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

Ron Warner’s name probably doesn’t mean much to anyone who isn’t an NFL personnel guru or a Kansas University fan from his sackmaster days in the late 1990s.

But Warner has been around the block a time or three. He was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1998, signed and cut by both the Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears in 1999, played for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2000, spent parts of three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and had a stint in Europe thrown in for good measure.

At long last, though, Warner thinks he may have found a home in Washington. On Sunday, the journeyman defensive end will celebrate his 29th birthday. On Monday night, he’s expected to make his first NFL start, lining up at right defensive end against the Dallas Cowboys.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Warner, who will replace injured starter Phillip Daniels. “It’s been a long time coming, but I’m glad that I went through my trials and tribulations to get here. Because if I hadn’t, there’s no telling what I’d be doing right now.”

Only a few months ago, few could have predicted Warner would find himself in the Redskins’ starting lineup, against the Cowboys on “Monday Night Football,” of all things. Given his mostly nondescript track record, Warner looked like just another warm body on an overcrowded training camp roster.

But with each passing week, Warner’s name kept coming up in coaching meetings and press conferences. With Daniels battling an abdominal strain through most of the preseason, Warner saw significant playing time.

Now, two games into the regular season, he has convinced Redskins coaches and players he’s ready to start in Daniels’ stead.

“He can play,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said. “He’s a great athlete. And he’s driven. We’ll be fine over there with him.”

Warner’s path to his first NFL start wasn’t smooth. A highly touted linebacker who recorded 141/2 sacks his senior year at Kansas, he expected to be an early- to mid-round draft pick in 1998. But he tore his ACL at the East-West Shrine Game, plummeted on every team’s draft board and had to settle for being a seventh-round selection by New Orleans.

Warner spent the next six years trying to re-establish his reputation but had all kinds of trouble doing so. Cut by the Saints at the end of training camp in 1999, he signed with the Redskins but never appeared in a game and was released Nov.23. The Bears picked him up for the rest of that year, but by 2000 the only team willing to give Warner a chance was the CFL’s Blue Bombers.

Playing in Canada “humbled me,” Warner said, but the experience made him stronger.

“I took the National Football League for granted,” he said. “I didn’t respect the league. You know, most guys come out of college and think they’re No.1. But in the NFL, everybody’s good. When I got to Canada, I started to wonder if I belonged over there. And at that time I did; I didn’t belong in the NFL.”

Warner credits Winnipeg coach Dave Ritchie for helping him mature as a football player. Ritchie’s first action upon meeting the then-6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker was to get him into the weight room and turn him into a defensive end. Warner bulked up to 260 and in 11 games with the Blue Bombers recorded seven sacks.

That performance earned Warner another shot in the NFL, this time with the Buccaneers. He hung around Tampa Bay over parts of the next three seasons and played in seven games in 2002 (including on special teams in Super Bowl XXXVII).

Warner doesn’t believe his true transformation came, though, until he rejoined the Redskins late last season. Though he appeared in just one game, the finale against Philadelphia, he recommitted himself to learning the sport again. And that meant committing himself to being more than a pass-rushing specialist.

“Coming out of college, I thought I was going to be Lawrence Taylor or Derrick Thomas,” Warner said. “But what I didn’t realize was that in the NFL, you’ve got to play within the scheme. I needed to become a defensive end who could play every down, not just run around the corner and try to sack the quarterback.”

Warner got a second chance with the Redskins, he said, because of vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato. Cerrato always had liked Warner as a pass rusher, but Washington’s de facto general manager didn’t become completely sold on him until he emerged from his stint in Canada as a complete player.

“I think it was kind of an eye-opening experience, a reality check for Ron,” Cerrato said. “He realized that he had to do some things to improve, to get into the weight room and get bigger and stronger. He’s done those things, and he’s made himself into a good player.”

Even if it took six years and a lot of stops along the way.

“Now that I can look back at my whole experience, I know that I deserve to be in the NFL,” Warner said. “I got my second chance, and I’m going to take total advantage of it.”

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