In 1999-2000, quarterback Kurt Warner emerged from obscurity to lead the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. Named the league's MVP and Super Bowl MVP, he set performance records en route to football's summit. But five years earlier, he was making $5.50 per hour stocking shelves nightly at the Cedar Falls, Iowa, Hy-Vee grocery store.
Warner's story is the subject of Lionsgate's compelling film opening Christmas Day. American Underdog stars Zachary Levi (Shazam!) as Kurt Warner; Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (The Piano, X-Men) as his wife, Brenda; and Dennis Quaid (A Dog's Journey, Soul Surfer) as head coach Dick Vermeil. The Erwin brothers (I Can Only Imagine) directed the film based on the book All Things Possible by Kurt Warner with Michael Silver.
Despite his high school success, Iowa's top colleges overlooked Warner, so he played for Division 1-AA University of Northern Iowa, though only as a backup until his senior year.
As graduation approached, NFL teams initially ignored him. Eventually, the Green Bay Packers signed him but cut him after five weeks. He noted in his book, "I wasn't [yet] mentally, emotionally, or spiritually prepared to handle success."
Money was tight. He and Brenda "lived in a basement, and ate meals purchased with food stamps." They drove an old, mice-infested car that died on left turns, necessitating creative navigation to involve only right turns.
Four seasons of arena football and NFL Europe honed Warner's skills. Signed by the Rams in 1998 as a backup quarterback, he threw just 11 passes. In 1999, the starting quarterback was injured, and Warner began to shine. Sports Illustrated's cover photo included the caption "Who Is This Guy?" The Rams lost only three games that season.
In his book, Warner reflects on his character builders: "Gale Sayers, the Chicago Bears' Hall of Fame running back, [wrote a book] I Am Third .… God first, his family second, and himself third." Brenda helped Kurt understand that forgiveness and friendship with God were gifts, not rewards for good behavior.
Warner says he does not see God as a divine touchdown bestower but feels faith has practical benefits: "Any sharpness, clarity, and grace under fire I'm able to summon are a result of faith and God's presence in my life."
Warner has had numerous opportunities to display grace under fire. With a tie score and only two minutes remaining in Super Bowl XXXIV, Coach Vermeil told him, "You couldn't ask for a better script. Now go out and give it that perfect ending." Warner threw the winning touchdown pass.
Warner's NFL career spanned 12 seasons with the Rams, New York Giants, and Arizona Cardinals. It included MVP designations in two seasons and two more Super Bowls. Each was close, his team losing by slim margins (3- and 4- point differences) in the final minute of play. He was then inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.
Pleased that his story can inspire others, he notes in his book, "Your situation might seem bleak, but often you look back and realize it was part of a larger plan. I believe that the Lord has a plan for each of us that's better than anything we can imagine — even if that plan isn't obvious to us at every stage."
American Underdog is a touching love story and family drama with exciting football action and a hope-filled boost for anyone ever tempted to give up. I suspect strong-faith, no-faith, and any-faith viewers will enjoy it.
Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. His film commentaries and columns have been published by newspapers across the country and used by more than 2,000 websites.