Warner Putting First Things First
TAMPA - You may have heard about Kurt Warner, the quarterback who on Sunday evening at Raymond James Stadium will lead the Arizona Cardinals into Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Came out of the barely-regarded University of Northern Iowa; escaped from the canned-goods section of the Hy-Vee Food Store in Cedar Rapids, where he stocked shelves, to play in the second-rate Arena Football League; led the Iowa Barnstormers to the AFL championship in 1995. When a teammate's injury gave Warner a chance in the NFL in 1999, he responded by leading the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. Now, at age 37, Warner is playing in his third Super Bowl. He's also a very religious guy. Warner and his wife, Brenda, are born-again Christians, not simply wearing faith on their sleeves but centerpiecing it in every living-color aspect of their lives and, in effect, upstaging all football accomplishments.That's what football fans know about Kurt Warner. They don't know much. Just ask Marci Pritts. "One thing I want to tell people about Kurt," Pritts said. "I think a lot of people see the Christian side. They paint this picture of him and Brenda as these quote-unquote 'Bible Thumpers' and 'Jesus Freaks.' 'If I go talk to them, they are only going to preach to me.' "Well, it could not be further from the truth. They are the most down-to-earth, funny, love-to-laugh people you could ever meet. They are awesome. They are grounded in their faith, no doubt about that, but they let their actions speak rather than their voices." Pritts first met Warner in 1999, his first season with the St. Louis Rams. She was the team's director of community relations, 10 years with the franchise. It's a good job; the face of the team's local involvement, working with charities, youth groups and fan base. "I loved what I was doing," she said. That explains why in early 2001 Pritts politely declined when the quarterback, through a second party, inquired whether she would be interested in taking on the job of helping develop and then run the Kurt Warner Foundation. The next day Pritts received a five-page outline, handwritten by Warner, explaining in detail his goals and ideas. She accepted the job. First Things First is closing on its eight-year anniversary, and if you want to understand Kurt Warner, first you must understand what comes first. "I don't think there is any comparison to playing the game of football and giving in the game of life," Warner said this week. "Life is about giving and impacting the people around you. I love this game, and I love playing it, and it is so much fun, but I would trade every minute of that for a minute that impacts the life of somebody else." First Things First is not a pass-through operation that raises money only to write checks that provide outside aid. Every cause is one hard-wired directly to both Kurt and Brenda's hearts. The oldest of the Warner's seven children has special needs, so their first project was supporting a Christian Summer Camp for children with special needs. Although Warner's last season with the Rams was 2003, a winter coat drive in St. Louis now is in its eighth year. It stems from Brenda dropping her kids at a bus stop one winter day and seeing another child in freezing cold with only a windbreaker. When severe flooding ravaged the Midwest, particularly Iowa, in 2007, both Kurt and Brenda assisted, in person, Red Cross relief efforts. This year First Things First is partnering with Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes in the area. "We run 12 different programs," Pritts said. "In every single one, Kurt and Brenda are involved in their conception. Everything we do has some tie-in with their story. "We always partner with another nonprofit organization that is already in the trenches. We are not reinventing the wheel. We come alongside another organization and help them do what they are already doing. For example, our Disney World trip. We partner with Make-A-Wish Foundation. We don't need to find our own family, because they already are doing great work. We partner with them." One of the most recent drives was packages for U.S. troops serving overseas. The tie-in? Brenda served as a U.S. Marine. "If you have a one-second talk with the guy, you have to know what he's about," Cardinals teammate Tim Hightower said. "He's serious and focused on what he has to do. He's not selfish. He's a guy who would give you the shirt off his back. He's passionate about what he does, and he looks out for other people. Spend a second with him, you know what he's about and what kind of person he is." If you know - really know - Warner, you have a story. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald does. "I remember my second year in the NFL and Kurt's first with the Cardinals," Fitzgerald said. "We played against Houston, and he injured his knee. It ended his season, and he was put on the injured reserve list. At the same time, his wife had a medical issue and he still had kids to take care of at home. But I remember him coming to work every day dealing with all of those issues, and he didn't change one bit. He was still the same guy." If, by chance, the Cardinals win Sunday night and Warner's performance merits a comment, the one dead-solid lock that can be guaranteed is that his first words of response will be, "I want to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." Predictably, some listeners will recoil, insisting that religion, like pillow talk, should remain personal. But Warner is what he is. He will make no apologies. "You know, when it comes to faith, you believe what you believe," Warner said. "I believe in Jesus. It makes all the difference in my life. Having the faith that I have, believing what I believe, it's the first and foremost thing in my life. Why do I always bring it up when I'm in interviews or on a stage like the Super Bowl or the NFC Championship Game? Because it's the most important thing in my life. "I know ... some people get tired of hearing it. 'How does it relate to football?' It is who I am, and it will always be who I am, and it's the most important thing in my life. So more times than not, it's going to be the first thing I talk about." There's a lot to learn about Kurt Warner.
Reporter Mick Elliott can be reached at (813) 281-2534.