St. Louis’ relationship with professional football has always been one of betrayal.
Bill Bidwell, the Purple Stallions, Roger Goodell, the NFL ownership cartel and the evil Stan Kroenke all lured our loyalty only to abandon our city.
But they can never take away those three glorious seasons that almost make the heartbreak worth the while.
One of football’s greatest teams called St. Louis home, lighting up the Dome’s scoreboard like a pinball machine on tilt. They called it “The Greatest Show on Turf,” and its ringmaster came out of absolutely nowhere.
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The tale of Kurt Warner has been told and retold over and over. They’ll be telling it for generations more because, as many times as we’ve already heard it, it’s still just so incomprehensible.
My awareness of Warner began on a sunny September day at McAndrew Stadium in 1991, when I was a student sports writer for the Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
The Salukis had been awful in 1990 but got off to a 3-0 start the next fall against opponents of marginal quality. Their first real test would be the Northern Iowa Panthers, a national quarterfinalist in what was then known as the NCAA Division I-AA.
Leading late in the game, the SIU defense knocked out UNI starting quarterback Jay Johnson, an all-conference pick and eventual All-American. The Dawgs were licking their chops for a shot at Warner, the sophomore backup.
But Northern Iowa coach Terry Allen didn’t risk it with the young quarterback. Even trailing by just a point late in the fourth quarter, Warner was only allowed to hand the ball off three times before turning the huddle back over to the still-injured starter.
Johnson and the Panthers couldn’t make up deficit. Kicker Brian Mitchell, who had earlier set an NCAA record with his 26th consecutive field goal, pushed No. 27 wide right with a little over a minute left.
If Allen had known then what the rest of the football world knows now, maybe the Salukis wouldn’t have pulled off that upset.
Because you know the story from here.
How Warner worked at the Hy-Vee super market for $5.50 an hour until breaking in with the Arena League.
How he tried unsuccessfully to catch on with the Green Bay Packers and its roster stacked with quarterbacks Brett Favre, Mark Brunnell and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.
How a spider bite on his throwing elbow torpedoed a tryout with the Chicago Bears.
How he finally earned an NFL contract with the Rams, only to be left unprotected in the 1999 NFL expansion draft.
How he was passed over yet again by the newly-minted Cleveland Browns, who chose Scott Milanovich to be their quarterback instead.
How he was thrust into the Rams’ starting role when Rodney Harrison nearly ended Trent Green’s career with a gruesome blow to the knee in a preseason game — “We will rally around Kurt Warner,” Rams coach Dick Vermeil said, choking back tears, “and we will play good football.”
How within weeks, Warner had raised the big top on “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
How he took the Rams to the Super Bowl twice and, after being declared damaged goods after a single season with the New York Giants, took the Arizona Cardinals there, too.
How, once finally given the chance, he proved to be one of the best big-game quarterbacks professional football has ever known.
Three of the top four passing yard performances in Super Bowl history still belong to Warner, a guy who 26 years ago couldn’t be trusted to lead a game-winning drive in Carbondale.
He was the NFL’s MVP twice, and he delivered to St. Louis that which they still don’t have in Los Angeles: the Lombardi Trophy.
This city and this player will forever be connected by a championship and everything else they have in common.
As of Saturday, the habitually persistent Warner, passed over time and again, will be paired forever with a city twice spurned by the NFL in Canton, Ohio, and the Hall of Fame.
And neither Bidwell, Goodell, Kroenke nor history can take that away.