It’s hard to explain the story of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner to people because it just sounds fake. I remember, back in 1999, I lived in St. Louis when all this happened and a phrase often thrown around was, “If this were a movie, no one would believe it.” If you don’t know the story, here’s a nutshell version: Warner was undrafted out of college and wound up stocking shelves at an Iowa supermarket. He eventually wound up in the Arena League and almost took his team to a championship. In 1998, St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil took a chance on Warner (yes, the same Dick Vermeil from Invincible who takes a chance on Mark Wahlberg’s character) as a backup. In 1999, during a preseason game, starting quarterback Trent Green got injured and Warner, a complete unknown, was the new starter. That 1999 Rams team won the Super Bowl. Warner would make two more Super Bowls (one more with the Rams and one with the Cardinals) and eventually wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Warner had a couple of down seasons between those last two Super Bowls and, rightly, feels there’s another movie in that time period.)
And, now, he has a movie about him. Or, as Warner will correct me, it’s a movie about him (played by Zachary Levi) and his wife Brenda (Anna Paquin) and everyone else who came into their lives and made any of this possible, like the aforementioned Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid).
Ahead, Warner tells us what it’s like having a movie made about his life, especially when some liberties are taken to make the narrative flow better. (One example is the movie has Warner making the Rams in 1999, as opposed to 1998 when he was a backup the whole season.) And he remembers the time when the 1999 Rams had another movie moment, back when they were mentioned in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away and, in St. Louis, this was an applause line every time.
(Full disclosure: I do not get to interview athletes very often and Warner is one of my favorite players of all time so it took a lot on my part not to, let’s say, completely embarrass myself.)
We’ve actually met once before…
I lived in St. Louis in 1999 and I stood in a very, very long line to get the “Who is this guy?” Sports Illustrated signed by you.
I believe I said, “You’re doing great.” And you looked at me and said, “Thanks, man.” That’s was pretty much it.
[Laughs] I’m sorry I don’t remember, but I’m glad you do…
It would be unusual if you did remember that.
Well, awesome. It goes back a long way.
So what is this like for you? This has to be surreal, right? Your fellow Hall of Famers like Joe Montana, there’s no Joe Montana movie. There’s no John Elway movie. Now you have a movie.
Right? “Surreal” is the word that is so often thrown around, whether it’s by us, or other people. Because it is weird. To take a step back from your real life and what you live and see it come to life on the big screen. I remember, probably about eight or nine years ago now, when Nike had all those t-shirts out with those slogans that they would have on their t-shirts. And I remember my son was wearing one that said, “One day they’ll make a movie about me.” And I remember asking him, “Okay, why are they going to make a movie about you?” And he’s like, “Dad, because I’m going to be really good at football.” And I remember having that conversation with him. And I’m like, “Son, there are a lot of people who are really good at football. They don’t make the movies about a lot of guys. If you want to have a movie made about you, you got to be different, you got to do something different.”
And so I say all that to say, there was a big time in my life and through this journey that I would sit back and go, why me? I don’t want to be this guy. I want to be like everybody else. I want to be like Joe Montana and John Elway and Dan Marino and be drafted high and have everything go in my favor. Now, I sit back 20 years later and I go, man, why me? Why do I get this journey? Why do I get this story? Why do I get my story to be told on the big screen? And, so, I’m so grateful, now, that we get an opportunity to use our journey and to be able to… And I say ours, because it’s not just my story. It is our story. Mine and my wife’s and my son’s and ours together.
By the way, your wife, Brenda, being played by an Oscar winner, Anna Paquin … not too shabby.
Yeah! Not too bad! That’s what we say. “An Oscar winner and a superhero.” That’s pretty good! We tell our kids, “We did pretty good.” But, yeah, it’s pretty incredible when you look back. But the one thing that people have always said about my story and our story was that they connected to it. It was different. It was different from the standpoint of what most athletes deal with. But it was similar in the aspect that most people deal with life like we did: deal with the struggles, deal with the obstacles, have their supermarket moment. And so it resonated with so many people, when, for so long, I wanted it different. Now I’m grateful that I have this story and this journey, and we’ve got an opportunity to continue to use that to impact a lot of people’s lives.
You mentioned stepping back and watching a movie about yourself. I’m wondering what it’s like when they tell you, “We’re going to make some changes to your life.” The movie has you starting with the Rams in 1999, but you were a backup on the 1998 team. And I understand why, narratively, it makes more sense to just cut straight to 1999. But when they’re telling you they’re going to do that, is that a weird moment?
It is. One thing we learned early in the process is, well, sometimes we don’t have the ability to introduce 20 different characters in the movie. So sometimes we have to take two or three characters that were a part of your life and we have to put them into one. And that one person has to go through different periods of your life. And so all of that is hard, because you’re like, well, that’s not really, exactly how it happened. And one thing that they had to continue to remind us is that we’re not making a documentary here.
Right. It has to play as a movie.
Right? A lot of people can make a documentary and you can go step by step and lay it out the way that you have to lay it out. We’re making a movie and we’re trying to get your story and the essence of your story and the message that you want to share to the people who are watching it. And so there are going to have to be some creative licenses that are taken in the process. The bottom line is, “we don’t want to screw up your story. We don’t want to screw up the essence of what it is.” And that’s what Brenda and I really had to grapple with. And that’s the resolution we came to is that, we’re okay because, again, the scenes in the movie are accurate. So it’s not like, oh gosh, that never happened. You’re making that up. And you’re making that up.
Right. For example, I assume what Ray Lewis said to you after your first start was accurate.
Yeah. Right! They just shape it a little bit differently. So, at the end of the day, we had to step back and go, okay, if we get the story told the way we want to tell it, if we get the message across that we want to get across, we’ve got to be willing to accept everybody doing their part. And that’s as simple as Zach and Anna playing us, but not being us. Right? Not saying things exactly like we would say it, or having the exact same mannerisms, or walking the same way. That wasn’t their goal. Their goal was to be who they were, use their gifts and talents to the best of their ability, but make sure it stayed true to who we were and what the story was supposed to be.
And so, it’s hard. Because there are things you’re passionate about and there are things that you want in the movie and you want them specific to how they happened because you think that’s the best version of them. But you also have to trust the people who are involved in the process. And believe if you’ve got the right team, you’ve got to let them do their job. You’ve got to let them put this together and see the vision for it and work together with you. And so, we were fortunate. We did have the right team and we believe that we got the story right. Even though, as you said, there’s always going to be little things that aren’t 100 percent accurate. But still, they don’t deviate from what the story was. That ’98 period…
Twenty minutes of you backing up Tony Banks and Steve Bono wouldn’t have been very entertaining.
Right. It doesn’t change anything in what the story was, because it all still played out like it did. It’s just, we didn’t have time to enter that into the equation.
Is it the greatest cinematic moment for the ’99 Rams since the movie Cast Away? Do you remember that?
I do remember that.
Tom Hanks is reunited with Helen Hunt and she’s telling him how they were one yard away from winning the Super Bowl. I saw that movie in St. Louis and my audience started cheering.
I remember talking to friends and family about it when I watched the movie, because, obviously, everybody watched the movie. They’re like, “Oh, that was awesome. We were the ones.” Even though they didn’t, necessarily, mention all the details. But yeah, I definitely remember that moment in Cast Away.
Speaking of the one-yard, you need to tell Mike Jones that if he’s going to go into this movie expecting to see his tackle, he might be disappointed.
I know, isn’t that a bummer? You almost feel like it has to end with the touchdown pass. But you’re right. It’s such an iconic moment, that it’s a bummer that we didn’t have it in there. Especially, if you notice in the movie, I never won a championship in the Arena League…
Right, the Iowa Barnstormers scene, you lost by one yard, I thought they were going to bring that back at the end…
We were stopped at the one-yard line. So I think that was the foreshadowing, everybody knows how the end of the real story played out. We’re just going to give you a glimpse of a time where he fell one yard short, as he was trying to make his journey, to only end up winning by one yard when it ultimately came to pass.
Have you talked to Dick Vermeil about this? Because I can’t help but also think it is fascinating that he’s been depicted in two big movies now, played by Greg Kinnear and now Dennis Quaid, for two different teams. Not many football coaches are in two movies played by two different famous actors.
No doubt. And I think that’s one of the beautiful parts of the movie that nobody has really connected before, was Dick and his journey and the parallels there between my journey to get there….
And that’s not made up. I remember at the time the St. Louis media was like, “He’s lost it. He’s been out of the game too long.”
Right! And everybody said going into that year, “This is it. If he doesn’t win, he’s out.” And then to have that, and then you could even fast forward, even though it’s not in the movie, then I have my “wilderness” moment. Where I’m between teams, and then I come back with the Cardinals later on and I’m able to have success. Very similar.
You really could make a sequel to this.
I’ve told the Erwin brothers that a million times.
There are other different messages and great things. So let’s just go and push this so this does really well. And then we could talk about the sequel. But I do think there are some great themes in the sequel. But yeah, I do love that part of the movie is that, so often in life, we never accomplish anything on our own.
We need somebody to see something in us that either we see, or maybe sometimes we don’t see in ourselves. And I think that’s a beautiful part of the movie: everybody looked at Dick as the has-been, he can’t do it. He’s too old. And all that stuff that you see in that scene. And he was able to see those things. But more importantly, see through those things, to see what was on the inside, as we were able to see with Dick as he went through that. And so I do think that’s a powerful point in the movie that I want a lot of people to take that as, A, sometimes you’re Dick Vermeil, where you’ve got that chance and now you can give somebody else a chance. And other times you’re Kurt Warner where you’re saying, “Just give me a shot,” and go even farther. You’re Zack Warner who says, “Hey, Dad, give me a shot to get on the tractor. Trust me, I can do this. I’m ready.” And so, I just think there’s a lot of great, powerful themes woven throughout the movie.
I do wish the NFC Championship Game was in this movie because I was at that game and the Ricky Proehl catch happened right in front of my face. I was hoping there would be a movie montage with that in it. But, that’s me being selfish…
Iconic moment, too! Iconic moments.
‘American Underdog’ opens in theaters on Christmas day. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.