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The Real Story Behind ‘American Underdog’

The biopic stars Zachary Levy as NFL MVP Kurt Warner.
American Underdog: The Kurt Warner True Story
By  · Published on December 6th, 2021

Real Stories is a column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the life of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, the true story of which is told in the movie American Underdog.

Sports stories often feel cliché. Or just a little too good to be true. And the true story of Kurt Warner is no exception. While NFL fans will know Warner best as the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the St. Louis Rams to their first and only Super Bowl, his road to stardom took one of the most unconventional routes imaginable.

The story of his life and career now features as the subject of a biopic. Whether you’ve just seen the movie or are preparing to sit down and watch it, here is a look at the true story of  Kurt Warner’s life as depicted in American Underdog:

One and (Almost) Done in the NFL

Kurt Warner (played in American Underdog by Zachary Levi) was born and raised in Iowa. A standout football player growing up, he went on to play not too far from home, at the University of Northern Iowa. For three years, he served as the backup quarterback. But eventually, he worked his way to the starting job and was named the offensive player of the year in his conference. It was the kind of story that would resurface throughout his career.

After his tenure at UNI, Warner entered the NFL as an “obscure, undrafted quarterback” in 1994. He joined the Green Bay Packers, then headed by future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. But his tenure in the NFL did not last long. After training camp, he “failed to impress” and was cut by the team.

Needing a job, Warner took a gig stocking the shelves at the Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls. He made only $5.50 per hour. But Warner did not give up. He returned to UNI, worked as an assistant coach, and kept training. And then another opportunity came.

Kurt Warner Returns to Football

In 1995, Kurt Warner returned to football and joined the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League, a professional indoor league. Warner quickly became a standout player in the AFL, earning honors and bringing his team to the ArenaBowl (the league’s Super Bowl equivalent) in 1996 and 1997.

During his three-year stint in the AFL, Warner threw for more than 10,000 yards and 183 touchdowns. Years later, the league inducted Warner into their Hall of Fame, and ESPN named him one of the 20 best players in league history.

The Spider Bite

While still in the AFL, Kurt Warner got a big break when the NFL’s Chicago Bears called him and asked him to fly to Chicago for a workout that Friday. He quickly agreed, but his then-fiancée, Brenda (played by Anna Paquin in American Underdog), reminded him of a simple fact: they were getting married on Saturday. So Warner, naturally, asked the Bears if he could reschedule the workout for after their honeymoon. The team agreed.

But a certain arachnid had different plans. The night before they were set to return, a spider bit Warner on the elbow, which swelled to the “size of a grapefruit.” Warner said on the Pardon My Take podcast (via Sporting News):

“Of course, I had to call the Bears back again and go, ‘OK. You’re not going to believe this. Yes, the first time it was my wedding, the second time it was my honeymoon. And now I got bit on my throwing elbow by something in Jamaica. And you can only imagine what was going on on the other end of the line, going, ‘Who is this dude? We’re trying to give him a chance to make it in the NFL and this is what he comes up with three times?'”

The Bears decided to pass on Warner. But luckily, another opportunity soon appeared.

Kurt Warner Returns to the NFL, but first: Europe

Not long after the spider incident, Kurt Warner got a call from the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, at that time led by head coach Dick Vermeil (played in the movie by Dennis Quaid). Finally, it was an actual opportunity.

But before Warner could finally make his NFL debut, he first had to travel to the Netherlands, to play for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe. After a few standout performances, Warner eventually returned stateside and became the Rams’ backup quarterback.

During the 1999 preseason, the team’s starting quarterback, Trent Green, suffered a season-ending injury. Warner was ready, but Vermeil was initially skeptical. After all, Warner didn’t exactly have the typical experience one might expect from an NFL quarterback. But his teammates had his back, and Warner got his chance.

Goodbye ArenaBowl, Hello Super Bowl

Kurt Warner, the former stocker of shelves, began the season with one of the hottest starts in NFL history. He led the team to a 5-0 record and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Rams’ offense, with Warner at the helm, was so dominant, they were nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf.”

The team set a string of NFL records, and Warner himself was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. The Rams ended the season with a 13-3 record and faced off against the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl.

The game ended with one of the most famous plays in NFL history. The Titans were about to tie the game with a touchdown when Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackled wide receiver Kevin Dyson one yard from the goal line to secure a Rams victory. It’s the kind of drama fit for a movie.

At the end of the game, Warner received the Super Bowl MVP award. He’s the last player to receive both the regular season MVP and Super Bowl MVP awards in the same year.

Kurt Warner is Not a One-hit Wonder

In 2000, Kurt Warner signed a seven-year contract for $46.5 million dollars. As ESPN reported at the time, “Kurt Warner’s story is complete — rags to unimaginable riches.” He’d come a long way from applying for food stamps while working at the grocery store.

“We just laughed,” Brenda Warner told ESPN when asked about the contract. “Our first two kids were born in poverty and our next two kids are born with, you know, riches. It’s kind of a different world.”

During the following season, Warner broke his hand, and Trent Green, then in the back-up role, filled in. But in 2001, Warner returned without missing a beat, once again winning the NFL MVP award. He went on to set the NFL record for most passing yards in the first 50 starts. It was a record that stood until 2018 when it was broken by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Warner also returned to the Super Bowl in 2001 and faced off against another young quarterback and rising star: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. But it was Brady’s turn to beat the odds. The Patriots beat the Rams, and Brady’s own path to stardom began.

A Hall of Fame Career

In 2003, Kurt Warner left the Rams and went on to play for the New York Giants, then eventually the Arizona Cardinals. He retired in 2oo9. By the end of his career, he had thrown for more than 32,000 yards and 208 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017, becoming the only person to join both the NFL and Arena Football halls of fame.

At his induction ceremony, Warner summed up his life and career as such:

“For a long time, I convinced myself that I could will my way to my dream. As long as I wanted it bad enough, I could make it happen. But if there’s one great truth that I learned from this great game, it’s that no great accomplishment is ever achieved by yourself. To be successful is contingent on others, and it always starts with someone taking a chance on you.”

See the true story of Kurt Warner in American Underdog when it hits theaters in the United States on December 25, 2021.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.