50 Leaders of the Evangelical Generation: #50 Kurt Warner. Sportsman

[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]

#50 Kurt Warner. Sportsman b. 1971

Arizona Cardinal quarterback Kurt Warner has many admirers, not only because of his stellar play, his sportsmanship, and his perseverance, but also because he’s so open about his Christian faith. He does not take the credit for his success without thanking God and praising Jesus Christ. There have been many stunning victories in Warner’s career, one of the most decorated post-season quarterbacks of all time. After each victory, the first words out of his mouth are recognition that his skills come from God and his life is in His hands.

There are many athletes today who use the limelight to shine light on their faith in God; it has become part of the sports landscape. Athletes congregate on the field after a game to pray; stars offer a sound bite honoring Jesus. It rarely makes the news. Warner is among the most prominent, consistent, and most effective. He understands a discussion with sports reporters about resurrections comes only in the context of career revivals and that tape recorders or cameras are often shut off when faith references start up.

During a visit to The Oprah Winfrey Show, Warner “basically had three sentences to say, so, in the middle one, I made sure I mentioned my faith, because how could they cut it out?” he said. “I went to watch the show on replay . . . and they cut it out!”

Warner is justified in wanting his faith to be part of his story, because it is dishonest and inaccurate to do otherwise. He is one of the NFL’s great success stories. In five years, he went from a 22-year-old stock boy at a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Hy-Vee grocery store to Super Bowl MVP. Later, he has morphed again, from unemployed veteran to a record-setting starting quarterback with the Cardinals, taking them to the first Super Bowl in team history.

“I wasn’t always this way,” he told an Arizona sports writer. During his final season at the University of Northern Iowa in 1993, Warner went to a country-music dance bar called Wild E. Coyotes. He spotted Brenda Carney Meoni and asked her to dance. Her immediate reaction? “Get away. Get away.”

“Here’s this cute guy in a bar with an entourage of females, and I’m the last person that makes sense for him to go to,” said Brenda Warner. “I’m a divorced woman with two kids, one with special needs. And Kurt’s 21. Twenty-one.”

They danced, and the next day, Warner was knocking on her door with a rose.

“Again, I’m screaming in my head, ‘Go away!’ but I opened the door and said, ‘C’mon in,'” she said. “My 2 1/2-year-old grabs him by the hand and shows him every radio we own.” He fell in love with my kids before he fell in love with me. When we’d have a fight and were going to break up, he’d say, ‘Well I get the kids.’ I’m like, ‘But they’re my kids!’ ”

They stuck together, even when it appeared football wasn’t in Warner’s future. He signed with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent in 1994 but was cut before the season began. He returned to UNI to work as a graduate assistant football coach and spent nights stocking shelves at the local Hy-Vee grocery store. He moved in with Brenda, who was struggling financially and turned to food stamps for a while. They drove a car that died every time it turned left.

He landed with the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995 and three years later was signed by the St. Louis Rams, who allocated him to the NFL’s developmental league in Europe.

Around this time, Warner began challenging Brenda about her faith. She had become a devout Christian as a 12-year-old after seeing a Christian film called A Distant Thunder. Warner questioned her, suggesting she was picking and choosing her beliefs from the Bible at her convenience. During this exploration, he studied the Bible. “When I did, it was obvious what the truth was,” Warner said. He committed himself to Christ.

Before they married, he told Brenda they should follow the Bible faithfully, which meant, among other things, no premarital sex. Brenda: “I’m like, ‘Dude, we’ve got so many other things to work on. Why that one?’ ”

They married in 1997. In 1999, he took over as the Rams’ quarterback when starter Trent Green was injured. What followed was two Super Bowls, two MVP titles. He was both revered and scorned for his outspokenness about faith.

“I do try now to strategically figure out (during interviews) how I can get somebody to include a reference to my faith because it’s so important to who I am,” Warner said.

He always has the Bible in his hand when he does postgame interviews. He joins players in postgame group-prayer sessions on the field. He loves to engage in spiritual discussions with teammates, but says he tries not to be in-your-face about it. He wants the words of the Bible to guide his everyday life.

Warner is among many evangelical Christians who, over the last generation, have risen to prominence in professional sports and expressed their faith from this platform. These include former stars such as NFL defensive end Reggie White, Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham; San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky; and Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. Also NFL coaches Tom Landry, Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs, and Tony Dungy;and Florida State University’s longtime football coach Bobby Bowden.

Currently, outspoken Christians include Yankee finisher Mariano Rivera; Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers; Olympic sprinting medalist Allyson Felix; Indianapolis Colts punter Hunter Smith; Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton; Atlanta Falcons kicker Jason Elam; San Diego Padres pitcher Jake Peavy; former NASCAR driver and team owner Michael Waltrip; PGA golfer and Masters champ Zach Johnson; and most recently, University of Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, who was selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Denver Broncos.

Of course, not everyone welcomes this expression of Christian conviction from athletes who use their celebrity to good effect. At times, the complaint is more about the exclusivity of Jesus’ message itself. USA columnist Tom Krattenmaker called for a stop to Christian witness in a 2009 op-ed article. He wrote:

“I am impressed by the good that’s done by sports-world Christians. Jesus-professing athletes are among the best citizens in their sector, and they commit good deeds daily in communities across this country. These sports stars, like all Americans, have a right to express their faith. Evangelical players and ministry representatives in sports aren’t out to harm anyone, of course. On the contrary, they see themselves as fulfilling the Bible’s Great Commission (“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28:19). In this sense, their mission is pure altruism: They seek to share the gift of eternal life.

But there’s a shadow side to this. If their take on God and truth and life is the only right one — which their creed boldly states — everyone else is wrong….It’s not just non-Christians who might have a thing or two to say about this exclusive theology. According to a December 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, 65% of American Christians believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. Our pluralism is a defining and positive reality of American life — but not one that is much valued by those who define the faith coursing through the veins of sports culture.”

Warner’s faith extends beyond the well-planned media interview. When he and his family dine on the road, they always buy dinner for another table in the restaurant, but they keep the purchase anonymous. The children choose the family. Brenda Warner said it’s their way of teaching their kids one of the Bible’s messages: It’s not your circumstances that define you but what you do with those circumstances.

Many teammates respect his choices: “Warner shouldn’t be categorized only one way,” said former European league teammate Jack Delhomme, now quarterback of the Carolina Panthers. “Football doesn’t define Kurt Warner, and I think that’s the biggest thing to me. It’s not who he is. Kurt Warner is a lot bigger.”

Added Cardinals defensive tackle Bertrand Berry: “To limit Kurt as a Super Bowl champion would do a disservice to him. I think his legacy will be that he’s just a great human being, and I think that’s the highest compliment that you can give anybody.”

He and his wife, Brenda, lead the First Things First Foundation, which provides a range of services for families in extreme need.

–Jim Jewell


About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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