TEMPE, Ariz. — When the Arizona Cardinals signed Kurt Warner as a free agent in 2005, they were adding a quarterback who despite what some thought, believed he still had something left in the tank.
But what he couldn’t believe — and what no one could predict — was that not only did he have something left in the tank, but what he had was going to allow him to lead the Cardinals to a Super Bowl and the QB to the team’s Ring of Honor.
“The goal was to find a place to start,” Warner said Wednesday when asked what his expectations were when he left the New York Giants. “Because I felt like I could be productive and I could help a team win. There weren’t many teams that were willing to give me that opportunity; the Cardinals were one that was willing to.”
Warner said a lot of people questioned the decision at the time, but he felt like Arizona was “another awesome spot to go” because it offered him a chance to somewhat resurrect a second franchise.
“I thought it would be a great marriage to be able to come together and let’s try to do something that nobody expects us to do in a couple different ways.”
They did exactly that, and now their connection will last forever.
Warner will become the 14th member of the team’s Ring of Honor, which was established when the team began play at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006. As team president Michael Bidwill pointed out Wednesday, 11 of the current 13 members are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the hope is Warner will soon join them in Canton.
“For people, young fans in particular, that may not know who some of those names are, I know there are a lot of fans today whose kids and grandkids will be coming into that stadium and be able to look up at that permanent part of our history and get the stories told of who Kurt Warner is and what he stood for,” Bidwill said. “Not only his performance and how he played the game and his sportsmanship, but also what he did off the field.”
This is a story that was in danger of never being told.
Warner started just 15 games in his first two seasons with the Cardinals and was benched just four games into the 2006 season in favor of rookie Matt Leinart. The quarterback had compiled a 3-12 record leading the team, and it looked like the franchise was ready hand the reins over to the former Heisman Trophy winner.
“There was a moment when I considered retirement when it didn’t work out here,” Warner admitted. “Just the frustration, feeling like I could still play. But what you understand in this business is sometimes circumstances enter in that are a little bit out of your control.
“But that’s what makes it frustrating is that you always believe at this level the best player is going to play and that’s all going to work itself out, but it doesn’t work that way sometimes. We all know draft picks and money and all those different dynamics play into it.”
The way Warner saw it, if he wasn’t going to play in Arizona there may have been nowhere else for him to play.
“So it was just that frustrating time, and then Coach Whiz came in and that was huge for me because I think he came in with an open mind, or at least developed an open mind to say we’re going to put the best player on the football field, and that rejuvenated me and gave me new life,” Warner said. “I felt like if I was the best guy I could be out there playing again, and I felt like I still had something to prove and, more importantly, something to give.”
That he did.
Over the course of his final three seasons, Warner completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 11,753 yards with 83 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. He led the Cardinals to a 24-18 record over that span while setting franchise records for touchdown passes, completion percentage and passer rating in a season.
He became an unlikely face of the franchise, an ambassador for the “new Cardinals” who are competitive and do things the right way. Though he credits his coaches and teammates for helping him get there, it is Warner who led the way. So, during halftime of the team’s Monday Night Football contest against the San Diego Chargers on September 8, he will be the first Cardinal to have played in University of Phoenix Stadium to have his name enshrined there. In a way, that makes his induction extra special.
“When you think about what Kurt symbolizes in terms of what he did, the great things he did on the field, what he and (wife) Brenda have done off the field,” Bidwill said, “he’s just a great Cardinal in our history, and we want to permanently recognize him in the stadium, in the Ring of Honor, and do it in a big fashion and where everybody can see on national television and start off this 2014 season, his first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, by shining a light on what a great player and what a great person he is.”
Warner took the proverbial road less traveled and it may have had its bumpy stretches, but the destination is one he never would have dreamed of. Arizona was the third team Warner played for, and early on it looked like his tenure in the desert would be rather unremarkable. Instead he left a permanent mark on a franchise that wouldn’t be what it is without him, both metaphorically and soon literally.
“There were moments that yeah, I very much questioned if those last three years or anything like that would happen again, but again, I think that’s what makes it so fun, that’s makes it so sweet and what makes you look back on it so fondly because not only did I have it once where everybody told me it’s not going to happen, I had it a second time when people told me it’s not going to happen, and then to finish out my career at that level doing the things that we did,” Warner said. “I don’t know if you could write it much better to finish your career, especially the route that it took me to get here to have that chance to do it again.”