The word that comes to mind when hearing Kurt Warner speak is poised. The delivery of his thoughts is smooth and uninterrupted regardless of the subject matter. He digests a question, considers it, and gives an authentic yet polished answer. This is unsurprising, given Warner has spent a decade in front of cameras for NFL Network, analyzing the football landscape. But it’s not a persona that was born overnight. In fact, it’s been decades in the making.
“When I was in college and sitting on the bench for four years, when you get into moments like that, you're forced to think about, ‘Okay, what if football doesn't work out?’” Warner tells The Big Lead. “As much as you never want that to enter your mind, you're kind of forced to. So you get a different plan. The only other plan I could ever really think of … Well, I love sports. I wanted to get into media. That's the direction that I wanted to go.”
Of course, as we know now, Warner didn’t need that plan. Not immediately, anyway. As documented in his new movie, American Underdog, Warner managed to make it off the bench at Northern Iowa and battled his way to the NFL ranks in an unprecedented journey – which included stops with the Green Bay Packers, at a grocery store, and the Arena Football League. His story is not just about a love of football. It’s about dedication to family and ignoring the odds, continuing to fight for a dream. It is a tale of perseverance and battling through adversity, one of the greatest underdog stories in sports history.
Like all good things, it ended. Warner retired in 2010 after a 12-year career. He played in three Super Bowls and threw for 32,344 yards and 208 touchdowns. It was, in every regard, a storybook journey that ended with Warner’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As the credits roll in American Underdog, Warner is shown standing next to the iconic bronze bust every HoF member receives. The screen fades to black. That may mark the end of the movie, but Warner’s journey was still far from over. With no football left to play, he turned his eyes to a new set of goals, striving for more challenges to overcome. He joined the media. As was his plan long ago, before he ever stepped foot on an NFL field.
Warner went straight from football to covering football, the kind of immediate transition that few athletes make. It was a move he spent years preparing for.
“It was something I started to think about during the middle of my career,” Warner says. “So I became very conscious to do a lot of speaking engagements, to put myself out there, to learn how to communicate better. I made myself available as a means to show people that I could handle myself and I could communicate well.
“Because what you realize at the end of the day is, as good as it sounds, it's like, ‘If I have a Hall of Fame career, I'll just be a shoo-in for a job.’ Well, there’s a bunch of guys that retire every year and a bunch of really great players that retire every year and you have to tell yourself, okay, how am I going to separate myself? How am I gonna be different from those other guys?”
The move to media, as it is for many athletes, seemed like a natural segue. In Warner’s case, he says his family will be the first to tell everybody that he can’t sit still. Playing golf all day was never going to be in the cards. Warner didn’t just want a new challenge after football, he needed it. It’s who he is. He does admit this challenge was a bit tougher than he first anticipated– which only motivated him further.
“I wanted to dive right into something else. I wanted to challenge myself in a new way,” he explains. “When I made the move, I think, initially, I thought I was gonna be easy. Like, stand up in front of a camera and talk about football, like how hard can it really be? But when you've done one thing for 35 years of your life and you've never really practiced or learned anything else, there was a distinct challenge in it. That's what really drew me in the most was this challenge. I like the challenge of having to think on your feet, having to be different, having to figure out how to use what you learned on the football field and pertain it to what you're doing off the football field.”
Warner had a variety of outlets to choose from, but NFL Network immediately stood out because Warner is a self-described “football guy.” He knew he would be at his best if he got to talk football and only football. More importantly, Warner’s wife and seven children were living in Arizona. Even if he knew he needed to keep himself busy post-football, Warner had no desire to travel every weekend or work out of a studio based in the East Coast. Family has been and always will be Warner’s first priority, so the LA-based NFL Network studios were a natural fit for how he wanted to live out his retirement.
Warner believes being a successful in-studio analyst requires a similar skillset to his previous profession of quarterback. All the best-laid plans can go down the drain after the red light goes on, just as it can when under center, and thinking on his feet goes a long way towards putting on a good show. But what is key to understanding Warner as an analyst and a person is understanding his process for success.
“A lot of guys that get out of the game, they just naturally think, ‘Well I had a good career and I know the game well enough.’ They just show up and get on camera and they punched the clock and they move on,” he says. “When I was a player, I wasn't gifted like that where I could just show up and put a ball in my hands and just be better than everybody. So preparation and the work that I put in when I was playing is what separated me. It allowed me to accentuate what I was good at.
“And so it was something I learned when I was playing and it's something that I directly applied when I got out, is that I work harder than everybody else. And I found what I was good at. I found where I could separate myself. I found where I could be different than other people. That's what I always said when I was playing. I'm not always going to be more talented than everybody else. So what can I do on the football field that's different that will separate me from everyone else? You've got to separate yourself in some way and that was really my approach that I took from playing.”
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary formula for success in sports media. Personalities battle to differentiate themselves in various mediums every day of the week in this era of media. There are plenty of different avenues to traverse to accomplish that. When transitioning from football player to football personality, Warner knew exactly what path he wanted to walk.
“If you're good at anything or you want to be good at anything, you look at the way other people do it. When I was playing, I would study other guys and I would see what they did well and what they didn't do well and then try to apply that. I did that when I got on TV as well. I would watch other people and go, okay, do I like that? What stands out about that? What don't I like? And I would try to shape what I was really good at,” says Warner. “I went into this thing and said, ‘Yeah, I have personality, but I'm not going to base my character on TV on personality.’ I want to base it on my knowledge, being able to to really share and teach the game. So when I first went into it, I really made a conscious effort of almost not showing too much personality at all. Like, just be really good at winning the fans over because of what you bring to the table and then once you do that and they know that you have that, now you can start bringing the other things and becoming more of a complete broadcaster.
“Be the smart guy, be the smartest guy in the room every time you step into the room that will always sustain you and then develop who you want to be from a character standpoint after that.”
Ten years later, Warner has separated himself from the pack. He dishes out some of the best quarterback analysis in the game on a weekly basis. He has his own subscription-based online QB school, QB Confidential, helping usher the younger generation along and bringing a deeper understanding of football to anyone who wants it. In the long-term, becoming a color commentator is a goal of Warner’s; he says it’s the only job in media that comes close to emulating the second-to-second pressure of quarterbacking, with only moments to process what’s unfolding and deliver sharp analysis while the pressure is on. He’s established himself once again as among the best in his chosen field. Now Warner believes that it is his responsibility to help others understand the game he was blessed to play at the highest level.
“I love the fact that I've been able to have the career that I did and have all this knowledge in my head about this game,” he says. “I was so blessed to play this game and have all this knowledge and the freedom to be able to share it.
“I remember going to college and my quarterback coach said, ‘Get up on the board and draw cover four.’ And I remember thinking to myself, oh my gosh, I have no idea what to say. I was never taught. I was embarrassed, but nobody ever taught me. I never really had a chance. I remember thinking to myself, I don't want any kid to have to be in that situation. If they're serious about wanting to chase that dream, I want to give them a platform to be able to learn that.”
American Underdog is the story of Kurt Warner defying all the odds to reach the pinnacle of his profession, the sort of heights most can only dream. But in real life, all storybook endings have an epilogue. Warner’s involves teaching the game that gave him everything with the same level of passion and knowledge that led him to the NFL mountaintop. He has his family beside him and a constant challenge in front of him. It was a little easier than his football journey, but Warner has found his place yet again– and he isn’t done yet.