- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Kurt Warner was sure he was down to his last chance to make it as an NFL quarterback in 1998 when he reported to the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.

Then he showed up for practice and saw Jake Delhomme - a young, energetic, unknown guy eager to steal the starting job.

“Jake had the stronger arm. He moved better, could make the big throws and big plays a lot better than I could,” Warner said. “All I was hoping - no offense to Jake - was that he would make a few more mistakes than me so that the coaches would give me a chance.”

Warner won the starting job and a year later was living a dream as the NFL MVP and a Super Bowl champion with the St. Louis Rams. Delhomme eventually made something of himself, too, leading the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season in his first year as an NFL starter.

On Saturday, the competitors-turned-friends face off in the postseason for the first time when Warner’s Arizona Cardinals play Delhomme and the Panthers in the NFC divisional round.

“Only in America can that happen,” said Al Luginbill, the former Amsterdam coach.

Warner and Delhomme eagerly told stories of their spring in Holland as they prepared for the rematch of a regular-season game that saw Warner throw for 381 yards, only to have Delhomme engineer a comeback from a two-touchdown deficit to give Carolina a 27-23 win.

“I had not heard of him,” Delhomme recalled. “I knew he was an Arena League quarterback; that’s all I knew. But you could tell from the first practice that he was very accurate, a very heady quarterback.”

Still, Delhomme said he thought he should have been the starter.

“Kurt had the upper hand going into camp,” he said. “I kind of found that out after the fact.”

Luginbill, who coached at Arizona State and San Diego State, had worked to get the Rams and New Orleans Saints to allocate Warner and Delhomme to Amsterdam. Warner had gone from bagging groceries to playing three seasons in the Arena League. Delhomme went undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette a year earlier and spending his first season as a pro on the Saints’ practice squad.

“At that time, Kurt had played professionally, regardless of what you may think of the Arena League,” Luginbill said. “He had been very, very successful. At that particular time, he was ahead of Jake. Jake doesn’t like to hear that, but it was true.”

But Luginbill didn’t name a starter until a couple of hours before the first game.

“He said, ‘Kurt’s going to start. You’re going to play,’” Delhomme said. “I didn’t.”

Warner went on to throw for a league-high 2,101 yards, paving the way for his storybook 1999 season with the Rams. Delhomme started one game when Warner was injured, but he struggled. Delhomme flourished a year later with the Frankfurt Galaxy to get his own shot in the NFL.

“He was a young kid, and he was going to get another opportunity, but I was never going to get that opportunity,” Warner said. “I just hoped that there was something there that they could grab hold of and give me the opportunity so I could hopefully get a chance at the NFL. But there is no question that he was a lot more talented than I was.”

Now the quarterbacks meet in January, where both have shined. Delhomme, who turns 34 on Saturday, is 5-2 in the playoffs; the 37-year-old Warner’s four games of at least 365 yards passing are an NFL playoff record.

Luginbill, who now scouts for the Denver Broncos, said he will be watching.

“You don’t always get that opportunity to work with young men like those two guys,” he said. “I’m not surprised what either one of them have done, given the opportunity.”

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