Column: Beyond the Super Bowl Hype

Two stories worth telling amid annual NFL excess fest
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

It’s hard to think of too many endeavors that receive more overblown attention than do sports. And within sports, nothing’s more overblown than the Super Bowl.

This time around, we’re getting endless stories about President Obama picking the New Orleans Saints – because … that matters? – a preview of the ads scheduled to run during the game, and several hundred articles analyzing the recuperation of Dwight Freeney’s sprained right ankle, and how that might affect national security. Or some such.

But in the midst of this morass are two stories worth telling.

The first is Kurt Warner. After graduating from Northern Iowa in 1994, not one NFL team drafted him. In other words, the NFL determined there were at least 222 players better than Kurt Warner that year alone.

Warner was tempted to pack it in. Instead, he started packing groceries in Cedar Falls, Iowa, while living in his girlfriend’s parents’ basement, serving as a graduate assistant coach for his alma mater, and working out in the hopes of getting another chance. He had to settle for the Iowa Barnstormers, a team that played in the doomed Arena Football League. But, what should have been a dead end proved to be a launch pad.

Arena Football’s funny rules required Warner to speed up his decision-making and his delivery – skills you need to succeed in the NFL. Three years later, one of the NFL’s worst teams, the St. Louis Rams, hired him as a backup. The next season, incredibly, the Rams won their first Super Bowl, and Kurt Warner won the league’s MVP – his first of three.

Last week, Warner retired with a pile of records, a pile of money, and a well-earned reputation for playing his best in the biggest games. He said he didn’t want to be known for being a clutch player, but a hard worker. He’ll have to settle for both.

Warner left the stage with quiet dignity – two qualities not often associated with NFL players – just as a younger quarterback was taking his place.

Drew Brees was one of the most celebrated high school quarterbacks in Texas, a state that celebrates high school quarterbacks more than it does Supreme Court justices. But Brees blew off the hometown Texas Longhorns to head north to Purdue, where he set just about every school record for passing. He took the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl in over three decades, and was named not just an Academic All-American, but the Academic All-American of the Year.

But in the NFL, Brees struggled his first three seasons. Soon after he finally found his rhythm, he also found a new city to play in: New Orleans, which had been ravished by Hurricane Katrina the year before. The Saints’ home, the Superdome, had become the very symbol of the disaster, and the owners were considering moving the team for good.

Enter Drew Brees, who not only led the historically pathetic Saints to the playoffs, he spent his money and his time creating his own foundation, which restores schools, parks and playgrounds, in a city desperate for all three. A recent Sports Illustrated cover story said Brees was “as adored and appreciated as any [athlete] in an American city today.”

It’s hard to argue with that, and even harder to root against Drew Brees.

So, if you missed Kurt Warner, enjoy Drew Brees while you can. Players like this don’t come along very often.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. February 5, 2010 at 10:30 am | permalink

    I’m not religious, but I love Kurt Warner’s comment that he “hoped God would allow him to not love the game anymore”. It’s hard to walk away from something that you love, that has been part of your life for so long, even when you know that it’s time to give it up. As a Green Bay Packers fan, I really wish my team’s former quarterback would have retired with such grace.

  2. By JNOEL
    February 5, 2010 at 6:14 pm | permalink

    Thanks John, for the thought-provoking take on players with character in the NFL. Much can (and should be) said about character, honesty and decency – especially when it pops up on the Mountain of Cash known as the NFL.

    Your theme reminded me of why I don’t like Payton Manning, QB of the Colts. Not that he lacks character – strictly speaking – but that he strikes me as a Drama Queen and doesn’t seem to have ever had to work for things other than by showcasing his talents and his value to the franchise.

    History: I watched Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers play Nebraska in November 1997. At the time, the Vols were the only team considered able to knock Nebraska out of contention for a “shared”national championship with Michigan. Naturally, I was rooting for Tennessee in that game.

    But, early in the game, Manning received a bruising. He was pulled from the game and spent the rest of it ostentatiously pacing the sidelines with “some kind of look” on his face – probably meant to show his regret and frustration. He could have played – but the coach wanted to “protect” this precious NFL-bound commodity. With Payton Pacing, the Vols just stopped playing. I watched their defensive line just stand there while Nebraska’s running backs ran right through and around them. Nebraska’s passes went overhead – the Vols seemed to regard each of those to be some kind of UFO phenomenon.

    Politics: I wondered what motive there might be for such a performance. I soon realized that:
    1. Tennessee considers itself a rival of Michigan, they’d be tempted to give Michigan its comeuppance, albeit indirectly.
    2. Michigan was hogging all the attention from ALL of the sports writers who cover NCAA football. I had read the Knoxville press coverage and they were fawning over Manning. Stories abounded about his “generosity” (buying ice cream cones for everyone in line at a Dairy Queen).
    So it made sense that Manning would take one last dramatic role on the football field. But no one expected it to be that of “disappointed loser.”

    This NFL season has provided a very similar picture of Manning – he’s in ads showing off his “sense of humor,” he’s on the sports networks and sports pages – featured as “the Best Quarterback in the Universe” – etceteras. And of course, there’s that famous incident where the Colts coach pulled him out of the game (possibly because his makeup got smeared) to “save him” and the Colts lost.

    In direct contrast – we watched 40 year-old Brett Favre get hit over 15 times and still play (limping) through to the end in the Vikings – Saints playoff game.

    So I’m ignoring all of the pre-Super Bowl hoopla. Instead, I’m praying for the N.O. Saints to lay a record number of sacks on Payton Manning in the first half. That way, Mr. Manning will be seen only on the sidelines during the second half. I really doubt that he can handle that much adversity.

    I hope there are more (sports) stories like this in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. I think AAC should be credible competition to the come-lately outfit who “borrowed” AAC’s mission (coverage of Ann Arbor). Competition is good!! (and I could use a break from that other outfit).

  3. By John Dory
    February 7, 2010 at 3:00 pm | permalink

    The Kurt Warner saga is a good story and very inspirational.