Sunday, January 31, 2010

He Showed Them All: Kurt Warner And The American Dream

Perhaps nowhere else but in sports is the American Dream so perfectly embodied. Perhaps nowhere else in this country are the incarnations of our truest desires and personal achievements so on display.

Just look at Phil Rizzuto, who when he tried out for his hometown team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, was told by the legendary Casey Stengel to “go get a shoeshine box” because he would never make it in baseball at his size. Just 5’6” and listed generously at 160 lbs, Rizzuto didn’t take Stengel’s advice and give up his dream. Through a scout who liked him, Rizzuto got a chance to try out with the cross-town Yankees. He made the most of it…and went on to become an MVP, a 7-time World Champion and a Hall of Fame shortstop for the Yankees. I’m sure to Rizzuto’s delight, 3 of his 7 Championships came against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Or look at Rulon Gardner, a farm boy from Wyoming with a learning disability. As a wrestler, Gardner never even won an NCAA title, much less any major international competition. And against the literally unbeatable Russian Alexander Karelin, he didn’t stand a chance. Karelin, 3 years earlier had demolished Gardner 5-0, throwing him on his face 3 times. In addition, Karelin had won 3 straight Olympic gold medals and hadn’t lost in international competition in 13 years. He hadn’t even lost a single point in 6 years. This time however—the 2000 Olympics—Gardner, the no-name farm boy, beat a man who hasn’t lost since 1987. The next day, Karelin retires.

These stories are the very soul of the American Dream—the Hollywood version where a nobody that everybody ignores who dreams—of being a champion of baseball, or boxing, or ice skating, of getting the girl, hearing the cheers, being recognized—the story we repeat over and over about “stick-to-it-iveness” and never quitting. And nowhere—not even in a Hollywood script that a screenwriter never submitted for fear of being “too schmaltzy”—is that story better told, than in the life of Kurt Warner.

By now, you’ve heard the whole story. How the big-time colleges bypassed him and the only chance he got to play was at Northern Iowa. How he was buried on the depth chart until his senior year, where he played well enough to win the Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, but not well enough to get drafted. How he bagged groceries for $5.50 an hour. How he played in the Arena league and the European league. How he rode the bench in St. Louis behind Steve Bono and Tony Banks.

And you’ve no doubt heard, how even after he won an MVP, Pro Bowl berths, a Super Bowl and broke records previously held by guys with names like Marino, Starr and Montana, he still had to wander the league. After being injured and discarded by the Rams, Warner played relatively well for the Giants, who in turn, discarded him. Warner was forced to take a 1-year 4 million dollar flyer from the reliably awful Arizona Cardinals, who won exactly nothing since the franchise was based in the Midwest.

And of course you know what he’s done for them. Only lead them to playoff victories and 35 seconds from a truly stunning Super Bowl victory. To quarterback play the likes never seen in the southwest desert—to record completion ratings and to respect from the rest of the league.

And then a truly funny thing happened. When it seemed like for his entire life, he had to beg and plead and prod to get people to notice him, to get a chance, now the reverse was happening. It was his team, his teammates, and his fans begging him to stay. Funny, no?

And frankly, that is what the American Dream is. It’s a chance to prove yourself, when no one thinks you can do it. Getting that chance and making good on it. Like Rizzuto and Gardner, and John Starks—another grocery bagger—or Jim Valvano and his Cardiac kids. Or Doug Flutie. Or a million other “Cinderella Stories” that sports seems to produce each year.

There is probably no other stage or setting other than sports for stories like these. Just look at some of the movies based on real life events that took place in sports: “Hoosiers, Rocky, Miracle, Cinderella Man, Glory Road, Rudy. And etc, and etc.

What is it about sports and stories like these that continually grab our attention?

In most people’s lives, they are never afforded the chance to prove themselves like this. But deep down inside of us all, in that place we don’t even go when we’re sitting with our psychiatrist, we all feel, should we ever have to prove ourselves, even though everyone expects us to fail, we could come through in the clutch. That we have something inside us that no one sees, but maybe one day, “we’ll show them.” That we are the Joe Montana of our little lives.

But we have no place to prove this. Aside from a PowerPoint presentation in front of clients, or getting the ketchup bottle open for our wives, none of us Cubicle Dwellers will ever really get the chance to prove ourselves like Christian Laettner against UNLV. Or like Bill Mazerowski. Or Ben Roethilsberger.
But Kurt Warner, he got to. His perseverance, dedication and his belief in his own ability—despite overwhelming odds and seemingly everybody’s’ disbelief—afforded him a chance for 12 years to show everyone exactly what he was made of. He showed them all.

And that’s the beauty of sports. And the American Dream. And that’s why we watch. So maybe, we can be a part of the dream, even for just a little while.

1 comment:

Pete S said...

Nice sentiments, P-Cat. The Kurt Warners in sports are the reasons why I watch and remain a fan.

I will admit that it bothers me to know that on the same playing fields and courts as men like Warner are psychopaths who torture animals and brandish guns in locker rooms. Disturbingly, Michael Vick gets to earn a comfortable living and Gilbert Arenas is suspended for the rest of the season, but he'll be back.

Rex Ryan flips the bird to a bunch of hostile fans and the media and NFL are calling for apologies and speculating that he will lose his job if he doesn't change his ways. I think the owners and league executives need to punish felons by not allowing them to play anymore. Never. It sours the games I watch to know that these behaviors are effectively condoned because the punishments are so lenient.