From Super Market to Super Bowl: A conversation with Kurt Warner

Being cut by the Green Bay Packers was not part of the plan. Neither was returning to Cedar Falls, Iowa, and working the nightshift at the Hy-Vee supermarket for $5.50 an hour. Needless to say, playing in the Arena Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers and then doing a stint in front of Dutch fans in Amsterdam is not exactly the career path for star quarterbacks in the National Football League.

However, that was all part of the zany agony-and-ecstasy trek of quarterback Kurt Warner, a real-deal quarterback who went from stocking shelves in a supermarket to hurling passes in three Super Bowls with two different teams.

The recently retired record-holding, MVP quarterback is going to be hosting a new TV show about second chances, premiering on April 11 on the USA Network. Good News editor Steve Beard spoke to Warner about the show, his faith, and leadership in the huddle.

Your new show is called The Moment. Seems like you are the perfect host for a show about deferred dreams and second chances. 

I was the guy chasing my dream for a long time and then a number of things brought me to a screeching halt and forced me to work in a grocery store and to travel overseas to make my dream happen. It took somebody giving me a second chance for me to be able to get back in the NFL.

Let’s talk about this new show.

The individuals that are nominated for the show are those that were chasing their dreams and then somehow life got in the way. They no longer could pursue the dream that they’ve always wanted and they had to step in a different direction. Once you step in that other direction, it’s very difficult to get back on track. We come in and we surprise them with an opportunity to chase that dream again. They spend two weeks training with a mentor in their profession and getting back up to speed and learning the ins and outs of that profession again. At the end of those two weeks is a dream job interview for them in which they get a chance to showcase not only their skills in their profession, but more importantly, to really sell themselves and why a particular company should take a chance on them and what they can bring to the company.

It ties in so perfectly with my story. If we’re going to chase our dream, most of us need somebody to open a door for us and give us a second chance. My hope is to be the guy that can help open a door for someone else.

Your career track was seriously a roadmap of heartache and elation. On the way to the Super Bowls, what kept your dream alive?

I never let my circumstances outweigh or crush my dreams. Like you said, it was deferred, but it was never covered up. When I was working in a grocery store, playing football was still at the forefront of my mind. I always kept that dream alive. As soon as you start to push it out of your mind or step down a different path, it’s very difficult to get that back. I never let any of those things be an excuse.

You had plenty of available excuses, though. 

I never allowed any of those excuses to dictate my circumstances. I think that was the key for me. What you see with a lot of people is that they make the excuse that it’s somebody else’s fault. But a lot of times, people have stepped away from it and then maybe that opportunity arises and they’re not ready for it or they’re afraid to step into it because they’re going to fail.

It’s easier to sit back in the confines of your garage and create something where nobody can tell you it’s not any good than actually going out into the world and having to compete and pitch your product. A lot of people come up with something to blame for why they’re not where they want to be, and what should be blamed in most situations is ourselves.

All these things underlie The Moment and that’s why I love it so much. Hopefully some of these episodes will be like looking in the mirror for some people saying, “You know what, that’s me. Now, what am I going to do about it? Am I going to just continue to wallow in my excuse, or am I going to go out there and create a second opportunity for myself?”

I can’t knock on everybody’s door. My hope is that people watching at home say, “Ah, this show is enough to throw me back in the ring. This show is enough to inspire me to do something.”

If you wanted to be in a band, pick up your guitar again and start playing and see what happens. If you wanted to be a lawyer, pick up a couple of online classes and start working towards that.

It seems like the rest of life devours our deferred dreams. What did you do when you were tempted to give up?

The one fortunate thing with my dream was that even when I was doing these other things – arena football and playing over in Europe – there was always football that was a part of my life. There were moments of frustration when I would go to a try-out and never get a call back. I’d be thinking, man I couldn’t have done any better in that try-out.

There were moments where I wanted to make an excuse. But these excuses don’t get me any closer to doing what I want to do and to living the life that I want to live. If I’ve got to work nights at a grocery store so I can work out during the day and have opportunities to try out for teams, I’m going to work nights and do that.

I enjoyed going to work every day. I was in a much better place as a father and a husband because I did what I loved to do and I wasn’t just sitting around every day.

The Moment is not a faith-based show, but you are a faith-based man. How does faith play into the issue of dreams deferred? 

I think faith plays into it from so many different angles. As a Christian, the idea of second chances is what the Christian faith is all based on. Jesus came to give us that second chance, that second opportunity. So that’s where it starts. The real reason that I continued to chase my dream was I believe that’s what God created me for.

Hey, I’m supposed to play football, I’m gifted to play football. I believe if I get that one opportunity, I’m going to jump in with both feet and I’m going to take advantage of it and my life is going to change.

God creates each one of us with a distinct purpose. He’s gifted each of us in certain ways: to lead men, to throw a football. And He’s given us different gifts. The key is living in your gifting, living in your passions – what God put inside of you, that drive that He put inside of you. That’s what life is all about, taking that gift and sharing it and utilizing it and having an impact with it.

There are so many people that step away from what they believe they were called to be and to do, and they never really get to enjoy the life that God presents each and everyone of us because they’re not chasing those things.

We allow the world, we allow finances, we allow the big house, we allow the pressures of other people to get our minds away from what God’s really called us to.

Obviously, not everyone can play quarterback in the NFL. But I believe it is essential that athletes, preachers, and role models encourage men and women to pursue their dreams.

The mission that God has given every one of us is to use our unique talents. God says, “I want you to use that because in using that is where you’re going to have the greatest impact for Me.”

It’s all-encompassing what we’re doing with this show, trying to rekindle that fire and that passion that God put inside of every one of us so they can really step into the life that they’ve been called to. I believe that their impact on other people is going to be much greater than just wallowing around in the 9:00 to 5:00 job or in the career that they’ve got now where they don’t enjoy it and they’re punching a clock. They really can’t be the people they want to be or have the impact they want to have in those positions.

You have some of the most incredible records in NFL passing history.  They are going to be etched in NFL history forever. But even for you, there was a time when your interceptions outnumbered your touchdowns. How do you get out of that funk and launch your success again?

My life has been about setbacks and breakthroughs. And I believe that the microcosm of life is sports. That’s what sports is about, it’s about ebbs and flows, it’s about highs and lows. It’s about the fact that it’s very difficult, if even possible, to play the perfect game. And so, there are going to be moments that you don’t succeed. But to me, those are the greatest challenges in life. You didn’t play very well last week. Now what are you going to do about it?

This person said you’re not good enough, what are you going to do about it? This team said we’re cutting you because you can’t play. This coach said you’re not good enough to start on his team. When people say that, what do you do with it? Do you run and hide underneath a rock or do you say, “Okay, I hear you, now I’m going to go out and show you.”

That was how I approached it. And I think that’s how all great players and all great leaders and all great people of accomplishment look at it. They don’t look at it like I have to be perfect and if I’m not perfect then I’m going to run away.

All great people realize they are not going to be great every time out. But when I’m not great, that presents to me the ultimate challenge to accomplish something.

What did you learn about leadership in a huddle?

The first thing is that all eyes are on you. So how you respond, what you say, what your actions are, is the primary thing in any kind of a critical situation. I’ve thrown an interception in the Super Bowl and we went from being ahead to being down by 10 points.

We step back into the huddle and all eyes are on me. And I have no idea where we’re going from here. What’s next? How I respond in this huddle is going to infiltrate the entire team.

As a leader, you must understand those critical situations and how you’ll respond. Maybe one time you’ve got to yell and scream and get on your teammates. Maybe one time it’s just, “Hey guys, my fault, but I’m going to make up for it right now.” Maybe sometimes it’s just looking at them with confidence, “Don’t worry about it, guys, I’ve got it covered.” And then there’s other times where there’s nothing I could have said. These guys are scared to death, saying, “Man, you just lost the Super Bowl for us.”

The only thing I could do was say, “Here’s the play.” And you go out and make a play and then you watch them come back, play by play, because you’re responding in a certain way with your action.

In loss and victory, all eyes are on the leader.

Yes. And the second thing I learned being in a huddle is that you can’t lead everybody the same way. There’s a lot of people out there with these leadership books that say, “Okay, here’s how you do it.” Well, I don’t believe that. I believe that the key to leadership is knowing the people – your followers and understanding how to reach each and every one of them. You’ve got to find ways to reach them where they are.

Some players, I had to get in their face. I had to embarrass them because it was that embarrassment that pushed them to the next level. Other guys, if you embarrassed them, they shut down. They didn’t want to talk to you.

You had to put your arm around them and say, “Okay, you know, here’s the deal….” There’s just different ways to lead. Some people are rah-rah people, where you have to yell and scream and emotionally kind of tap into them. Other people, you can yell and scream all day long and it doesn’t change their expression one bit. They want to see you work, they want to see your actions. You have to be in tune with your guys, your team, your group, your business, your employees to understand what drives them.

There are very similar aspects between a football field and The Moment. Part of my process on the show is to learn what helps motivate these people. I’ve got to get them from working in their garage to being ready to present with one of the biggest companies in the country in two weeks.

I’ve got to find ways to push his or her button. I’ve got to find ways to force the issues, to take them places that they’ve never gone before, they don’t want to go, or they didn’t think they could go.

Leadership becomes a huge part of being able to encourage them along the way and find ways to go through those disappointments and those struggles and get them back on track and get them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

They might not like you, but your goal at the end of the day is to accomplish something – not to make them your best friend. A lot of different aspects of that that are difficult, because we all want to be liked; we all like to be everybody’s favorite. But you’re going to be respected more by getting the results at the end of the day than just being everybody’s best friend.

This has been a true pleasure, my friend.Thank you very much.

My pleasure. Take care.

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