Media glare no big deal for Rams QB Warner

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Nothing, including half-dressed hookers posing seductively from windows along the Red Light zone of Amsterdam, was going to keep Kurt Warner from Sunday church.

“I just put my head down and moved quickly through there,’’ the St. Louis Rams’ quarterback said Tuesday.

Warner grinned.

“Sometimes,’’ he added, “I ran.’’

Warner might be among the most deeply religious men in the NFL, though, unlike Reggie White, he doesn’t proselytize. He doesn’t shove his sense of Christianity down your throat, and that little grin he displayed as he recalled his Sundays in NFL Europe during the spring of 1998 said a lot about why this league MVP is one of the most appealing players in Super Bowl XXXIV.

“Everyone knows how devout he is, but he also definitely has a sense of humor,’’ said Rams guard Tom Nutten, who played in Europe with Warner. “Amsterdam is considered the City of Sin, and Kurt had to make that walk of shame to church, pray and then walk back. But he would tell us about it. It was one of his little jokes.’’

Anyone who has even vaguely followed the Rams’ ascent from 4-12 in 1998 to NFC champions this season knows the Warner story. One starting season at little-publicized University of Northern Iowa. Released early in Green Bay training camp in 1994. Three obscure years with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. A year with the Amsterdam Admirals. A season backing up Tony Banks at the Rams. And then ... wow!

Pushed into the starting lineup only because expensive free agent Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury, Warner threw 41 touchdown passes and led the Rams to the Super Bowl.

What isn’t well known about Warner is his personal courage, how greatly he has touched the lives of people around him and his refusal to inveigh against those who overlooked him.

Could Warner have affected anyone as deeply as former Dolphins quarterback Todd Doxzon?

“Kurt Warner,’’ Doxzon proclaimed with absolute conviction, “was used by God to save my life. Honest, there is not one thing I wouldn’t do for him.’’

Doxzon, living in Pompano Beach and working hard to land another deal with the Dolphins, was a man with a failed life in 1998.

“I’d been cut by the New York Jets and was back in Iowa delivering subs for Jimmy John Sandwiches,’’ Doxzon explained. “I’d been pretty wild. I had a lot of encounters with drugs and women, starting when I was 14 years old. And now, one night after I dropped off a sub, I was sitting in my car alone when the spirit of God visited me.

“God said, ‘Take a look at yourself right now, Todd. I’m getting pretty impatient. No way you’re going to get back to the NFL unless you straighten out your life.’ Right there, I became a Christian. I took God into my life. But if it hadn’t been for Kurt Warner, I probably would have slipped back again.’’

Doxzon scored a contract with the Admirals and, living close to Des Moines, where Warner had played for the Barnstomers, the two began training together in preparation for the European season.

The Admirals players lived in a hotel in the north part of Amsterdam, not far from the famed sex playgrounds that have become a big part of the city’s reputation. Doxzon and Warner shared a room.

“Every day after practice and meetings, we’d come back to the hotel, have dinner and then play John Madden Football on the TV set. And after that,’’ Doxzon said, “we had Bible study for about 45 minutes. Then, we’d get down and say a prayer and go to bed. We had Bible study every single night.’’

Doxzon lasted four weeks with the Admirals before tearing a ligament in his leg. He went home, where he was fortunate enough to land a contract with the Dolphins, and he and Warner remained in touch.

“He called a couple of weeks ago,’’ Doxzon said.

They talked football and, not surprisingly, they talked about religion.

“Kurt Warner is the ultimate Christian man,’’ Doxzon said. “It’s the way he lives his life, according to the Bible. He doesn’t just talk about it, like a lot of people. He lives it.’’

But you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the emotional qualities of this quarterback. Al Luginbill, a longtime college assistant coach who was Warner’s coach in Amsterdam, is no born-again Christian, but he speaks of Warner in reverential tones.

“There is nothing in his background that makes you doubt him. He just wins. Sometimes it’s not pretty. But he is so even-keeled. You look at the way he carries himself on the field and you don’t know if he has just thrown a touchdown pass or an interception,’’ Luginbill said.

Luginbill discovered Warner quite by accident. He was scouting an Arena league player named Gary Howe in Anaheim in 1996, and his attention was drawn to Warner.

“When I saw him for the first time, it was his accuracy and the way he handled himself. ‘Whoa,’ I said to myself. ‘Who is this guy? He’s got something.’ So I started researching him.’’

It must be a strange feeling for a scout or coach to be sitting at an Arena Football League game, watching a 25-year-old quarterback who has gotten little more than a tumble by the NFL. How can you be the only football man in the United States who thinks this guy has major league ability?

“I’m not going to answer that because I don’t want to say something that might call anyone else’s judgment into question,’’ Luginbill said. “Let’s just say guys fall through the cracks. For me, playing quarterback in the NFL comes down to the ability to play under pressure, and you can’t learn that sitting on the bench.

“What I saw was a quarterback who was extremely accurate and who got rid of the ball quickly. You had to in Arena football because the field is smaller and there is a smaller edge for the pass-rushers. And everything is man-to-man coverage.’’

Luginbill stayed on the Warner watch and in 1997 could get only one NFL pro personnel man to listen to him — John Becker of the Rams. Then he hunted down Warner at the YMCA in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was working to supplement his football income.

“I got him a workout, and Becker liked him immediately,’’ Luginbill said. They signed him and shipped him off to Amsterdam.

What if Luginbill hadn’t recommended Warner? Would he have gotten his NFL shot? What if Green hadn’t been injured?

“You can’t ever say,’’ Luginbill said. “But he has everything you look for. Not just during a play, but in managing a team on the field. He has the same demeanor all the time. He’s got a strong faith in himself and the tighter the situation, the better he plays.

“One of the things that intrigued me early about Kurt was his family situation. He married a woman who had been through a very difficult marriage and divorce. She had two kids and one had a severe impairment. But Kurt adopted them and treats them like his own.’’

On Sunday, after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Tampa Bay in the NFC title game, Warner was beaming broadly. He was ecstatic but never overcome by the joy. And when someone asked him how it felt finally to be recognized after all those years in quarterback obscurity, there wasn’t a scintilla of gloating in his response.

“I just went out this year and did what I expected myself to do from Day 1,’’ he said. “They’re the same things I’ve been doing the last few years. It just happens that some people who hadn’t seen me do it got to see me do it this year.’’

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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