Kurt Warner, faith and gridiron victory

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of watching the Cardinals-Eagles NFC championship game at Buffalo Wild Wings in Cape Girardeau. The atmosphere was electric as the crowd cheered overwhelmingly for the Cardinals. Why? Kurt Warner, of course. The former Rams quarterback retains a strong following in Missouri, in large part because of his success in St. Louis as a relative unknown.

His story from grocery store stock boy to Superbowl and league MVP probably need not be repeated here. You already know it.

But another buzz within the crowd centered on, simply, what a great guy Warner is. There aren't as many media stories about Warner's benevolence as there are about Terrell Owen's megalomania or Pacman Jones' indiscretions, but enough take place that people get a sense of the man. Recently, ESPN.com did a story that outlined some of Warner's good works -- too numerous to list here -- which have touched thousands of people.

A man unafraid to wear religion on his sleeve, Warner is quick to give credit for his success to teammates and, most importantly, to God. This oftentimes makes people uncomfortable. One complaint goes something like this: "Does Warner think players on the other side don't pray, too? It's ridiculous to think that God cares who wins a football game."

Perhaps. But if you listen to Kurt Warner talk about how religion transformed his life -- or read his books -- you'll notice that his prayers focus on forgiveness and gratitude, even when things seem bleak, rather than anything about victory.

Wins or losses in a football game, he understands, aren't the most important measures of a man.

NFL success did not come easily to Warner. And, after reaching the pinnacle in St. Louis, his career stalled and went backward as he lost his starting job to injury, coaching confusion and the perception that he was best used as a backup. Without question, Warner's fall from Superbowl MVP to journeyman QB and now back to Superbowl starter makes his message even more compelling.

"By understanding what my priorities are and never wavering, that's how you influence people," Warner told ESPN. "It isn't standing on my chair with a Bible and yelling out scripture or condemning people for being sinners. It's about living your life with a certain sense of excellence. And when people start to scratch their heads and wonder what it is that makes me different, that's when I tell them the answer is Jesus. And then I let him do the hard work."

Count me in as one of many who will continue to root for Warner, whether he wins or loses on the football field.


New coach in St. Louis: Warner's old team, the St. Louis Rams, made news, too, last week by hiring a new coach. By all accounts, Steve Spagnuolo, the much-heralded former defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, represents a smart choice by Rams ownership. In his remarks to the press, Spagnuolo talked about the four pillars of his football philosophy: Faith. Character. Core values. Team first.

Reading the transcript of his remarks, I thought Spagnuolo came across as a confident and gracious man, crediting those who helped him along the way. Among them: "I'm a very blessed man and I would like to thank the good Lord for having a guiding hand in this whole thing."

It is a line that is easy to dismiss as coaching boilerplate -- especially as so many pro athletes have made us cynical by giving tribute to God without attempting to live a good example -- until one learns more about Spagnuolo.

According to a blog by St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz: "Faith is important to [Spagnuolo]. I know some folks don't care for that. And hey, that's up to you. I don't think Spagnuolo is going to be running around preaching to people. I don't think he's going to turn the Rams into a God Squad -- and, by that, I mean that he won't be imposing his religious beliefs on players, and that he won't be favoring players who describe themselves as Christians. He made that clear to me. But it's obvious that Spagnuolo is a proud Christian. When he signs an autograph, he notes his favorite verse of scripture: Hebrews 11:1. And he relies on his faith to get him through the tough times. He draws strength from it. It doesn't matter what I think, but to me, that's a plus."

For the record, Hebrews 11:1 reads: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Spagnuolo and his wife, Maria, who volunteered with troubled youths in New York and Philadelphia, where he previously coached, were married at the Vatican.

Faith. Character. Core values. Team first.

It sounds like the Rams hired themselves a winner.

jrust@semissourian.com;

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