When CBS first approached Kurt Warner last October to book an appearance on the offbeat, irreverent Late Night with David Letterman TV show, Mr. Warner replied that he had to put first things first: The date suggested was Kurt and Brenda Warner's wedding anniversary, so the rising-star Rams quarterback declined. Later in the season, at a more convenient time (and with his pastor along with him), Mr. Warner-no longer a mere rising star, but a shoo-in for the NFL's Most Valuable Player-made his appearance on the goofy Letterman show, where he was asked to toss footballs into a wood chipper.
But the biggest show came on the last weekend in January, where Mr. Warner chipped, chopped, and shredded the Tennessee Titans' pass defense. He set a Super Bowl passing record with 414 yards, hurled a game-winning 73-yard TD strike with less than two minutes to play, and was named MVP of the game. Upon the podium, the world watching as the championship Lombardi trophy was awarded, ABC's interviewer said to Kurt Warner: "First things first, the touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce, the momentum had changed, did you say anything before you guys went out for that play?" Mr. Warner corrected the broadcaster: "First things first, I've got to give the praise and glory to my Lord and Savior up above. Thank you, Jesus!"
The Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams featured other players whose lives illustrated this first-things-first ethic. From the game-winning touchdown connection of Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce, to the less heralded defensive stops by Kevin Carter, London Fletcher, and game-saving tackler Mike Jones, play after play displayed players who had been humbled yet persevered, to gain the ultimate reward in the National Football League.
Mr. Warner played several roles in his journey to the pros: Green Bay Packer discard, supermarket stock-boy, unrespected Arena Leaguer, NFL Most Valuable Player, and finally Super Bowl MVP. His unlikely story was well documented this season, giving hope to aspiring athletes across America. His own personal inspiration is his adoptive son, Zachary, who is partially blind and disabled from an accident in infancy.
"Zachary falls down really hard 10 times a day, but he always gets right back up and exudes pure joy," Mr. Warner said. "He touches my life so much." His devotion to Zach led him to support and promote Camp Barnabas, a Christian summer camp for special-needs children.
Isaac Bruce gained 162 receiving yards in the Super Bowl, 73 of which took him to the end zone for St. Louis' victory. "I knew I had to make a play on the ball. That wasn't me. That was all God." Similarly, he credits God for allowing him to survive two injury-plagued seasons after a promising career start, as well as a serious car wreck in December that threatened his life. His Mercedes-Benz spun out of control after blowing a tire on Interstate 70 and rolled over twice before landing upright. The car was totaled; Mr. Bruce and his girlfriend emerged virtually unscathed.
Many writers and fans questioned Mr. Bruce's character the last two seasons when he missed almost half of the Rams games because of a hamstring injury. That hurt him; he had earned a reputation as one of the hardest working players on the team. This year fans embraced him once again, and "Reverend Ike" possibly does more to raise money for St. Louis' youth than any other local athlete.
Defensive end Kevin Carter had the only sack of fleet Titan quarterback Steve McNair in the Super Bowl, and led the NFL with 17 sacks during the season. If it weren't for a drastic physical change in high school, though, Mr. Carter might have been chasing musical dreams. The oft-teased boy with a speech impediment was an insecure freshman, blowing a saxophone in marching band with his paunchy 5-foot-8 frame. He shot up six inches by his sophomore year, however, and became a football prospect. He earned All-America honors in both high school and at the University of Florida.
Mr. Carter says his insecurities from childhood still motivate him, despite what he acknowledges as his God-given ability. "My big thing when I made the Pro Bowl was I wanted to deserve it," he said. This year, he earned it.
Diminutive for a middle linebacker at 5'10", London Fletcher fought his way onto the Rams roster two years ago and is now the defense's emotional leader. His relentless play resulted in nine tackles at the Super Bowl (tied for the most) and 138 tackles during the season. Mr. Fletcher had to fight his way through life also. His sister, Kecia, was raped and murdered when she was 18 and London was only 12. His mother has battled drug addiction for the past 10 years. "I looked at those as reasons to better myself," he said. Mr. Fletcher graduated from tiny John Carroll University in Cleveland, and went undrafted by the NFL, but the Rams eventually took notice.
Linebacker Mike Jones suffered through four straight losing seasons at the University of Missouri. When the NFL ignored him in the 1991 draft, he signed with the mediocre Oakland Raiders as a free agent. His first two seasons with the Rams led to a 9-23 record. Off the field, though, Mr. Jones has been a champion. His foundation sponsors free football camps every summer and supports other charity work. As he saved the game with a tackle of Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson just short of the goal line in Super Bowl XXXIV, Mike Jones finally grasped his elusive football championship.