When a quarterback is chosen as the most Valuable Player in the National Football League for the second time in three years, time is money. He can rake in big bucks for appearing in ads, and he can also do his bit for charity by appearing in a United Way commercial.
What he will not be, unless he's unusual, is a compassionate conservative willing to work directly with the poor in offering them challenging, personal, and spiritual help. Who has the time? Who needs the aggravation?
St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner is unusual, and not because of his on-the-money passes and his in-the-money, seven-year, $46-million contract. He gives big bucks to his First Things First Foundation and to charities such as Camp Barnabas, a Christian retreat in Missouri for special-needs children and their siblings. Other athletes do similar things. But Mr. Warner also gives what he has no more of than anyone else: time.
He's given Sunshine Ministries of St. Louis 20 tickets for each home game so that very poor men, women, and teens working to turn their lives around have a chance to see him in action. That's good, but not hard for a multimillionaire. What's striking is that he takes the 20 ticket recipients out to dinner on Fridays before the games. Mr. Warner, his wife Brenda, and four Warner children sit with their guests around a big table.
Carol Clarkson, Sunshine's program director, says "the guys feel special" to be eating with this year's National Football League MVP, "but he's so natural with us that they get comfortable with him. And he remembers the guys. One little guy is a Giants fan, so he and Kurt got into it, joking back and forth about the Giants and the Rams, and it continued for weeks." The 30-year-old Mr. Warner also takes his guests with him to services at St. Louis Family Church. Call the ACLU!
Journalists these days always watch for religious hypocrisy. Mr. Warner talks frequently about being a Christian, and if he indulged in trash talking and showboating or even seemed arrogant, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters like Bernie Miklasz and Vahe Gregorian would be on the attack. Instead, each last month wrote a glowing piece about the quarterback.
National reporters have responded the same way over the past three years. Sports Illustrated's writers have left behind any gee-whiz attitudes towards stars, so it's significant that an SI profile observed, "The more you watch Warner interact with his family-and reaffirm his faith-the less stunning his phenomenal ascent seems. He appears to be sincere, unabashed and unspoiled." Or, as Mrs. Clarkson says, "The important thing is that Kurt knows where he came from, and he hasn't forgotten it."
Mr. Warner came from modest religious interest to evangelical enthusiasm. He came from being fancy-free to marrying a woman with two young children from a previous marriage, one of whom is legally blind. He came from modest success as a high-school quarterback and lots of bench-sitting at the University of Northern Iowa, hardly known as an NFL feeder school. He came from working at a supermarket for $5.50 per hour when he couldn't get a football job.
In helping the poor, Mr. Warner hasn't forgotten how he helped himself, through constant practice. He knows that to "love your neighbor as yourself" means pushing him to work hard. When the St. Louis Rams gave him a back-up job in 1998, he practiced and practiced and was ready when their starter fell to injury early in the 1999 season. He took over and led the team to Super Bowl victory.
The market for talented quarterbacks served him up a big contract, but he's the type of player who would keep going if he were paid $10 an hour: beats stocking shelves at the market. And that's the secret to compassionate conservatism as well. It can be helped by what goes on in Washington, but it won't die if nothing positive happens there. People moved by God to act will always find a way to act.
It will be a shame if, because their faith is vigorous, inner-city ministries can't get help that would allow them to do more, but they'll continue to do all they can. Some people ignore the poor and others look upon them as incompetents who will always need a dole. The Warners of the world see them as fellow humans, made in God's image and capable of catching a well-thrown pass.