TEMPE, Ariz. – Even as he retired from football, Kurt Warner couldn't help but be concerned about the team he's leaving behind.
The Arizona Cardinals' fledgling success directly correlated to the rhythm of their passing offense, directed by the 38-year-old quarterback with perhaps the most improbable rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story in professional sports history.
But now he's gone.
"I don't think you can help but think about that," Warner said of the predicament his retirement could bring the Cardinals. "That's the hardest part for me."
However, thanks to Warner, a two-time league MVP, at least a model for success has been built.
"It's important to me to feel that I was leaving an organization in better shape than when I got here," he said during a Friday news conference at the team's practice facility.
Amen to that.
And it's splendidly ironic that his likely successor, former USC hotshot Matt Leinart, is the same kid the Cardinals attempted to have take over for Warner a season after Kurt arrived. Denny Green was coaching Arizona then, and after Leinart turned out not to be who the Cardinals thought he was, the resulting lack of victories put Green on the firing line.
He was replaced by Ken Whisenhunt, who -- along with Warner -- has changed the franchise's historically sour culture. Whisenhunt was obliged to go with Warner when poor play and injury forced Leinart to the sidelines in 2007. Warner won the job outright during the 2008 training camp, eventually dragging the Cardinals to the NFC West championship. Despite ending the regular season in a limp, the Cardinals rallied in the postseason and reached the Super Bowl. It was a period of relative shock and awe for Phoenix, a metropolitan area overrun with people who remain fans of the teams in the cold-weather cities they escaped from.
The Cardinals repeated the division title this season and survived wild-card weekend when Warner strafed the Green Bay Packers defense. But the favor was more than returned in New Orleans, where the Saints have become a compelling story not unlike that of Warner's career.
"I know a lot of people gravitate toward that part of it," Warner said, regarding a past that led him from Arena League QB and grocery store stock boy to improbable Super Bowl hero and league MVP in his first year starting for the St. Louis Rams at age 28. Another two seasons of premier play -- including another Super Bowl appearance -- were followed by injury, a precipitous plummet in production, loss of playing time, a soul-searching ride with the New York Giants and a career resurrection in Arizona.
"I've been humbled every day that I've woke up for 12 years," Warner, typically armed with his Bible, said on the dais before referring to the contents of his preferred playbook. "It's a bunch of stories about average, ordinary people who God came in and did something extraordinary with their lives."
But it seems sadly appropriate that a career so crowded with unexpected brilliance, so delayed and then interrupted by struggle, would end in such a low-key environment.
This resort-city indifference translated to the tepid scene outside the Cardinals' complex, where Friday's news conference attracted a dozen or so scattered looky-loos. Inside, a who's-who of Phoenix-area media members gathered in a respects-paying exercise with Warner. No tough questions were launched. No tricky agenda was proposed. Sure, this was a retirement event, but how could anything like that transpire under any circumstances when the star of the day was one of the most stand-up guys in professional sports?
Warner strolled into the conference room behind the franchise's ownership royalty and his own family. After thanking God, Warner brought his wife, Brenda, and their seven kids up for a public moment that rang every bit as true as one of his perfectly timed seam-route deliveries.
There were no overdue regrets or apologies to be issued. No performance-enhancing history to own. This was just Kurt Warner, whose career stat line -- gaudy during the golden years -- was complete anathema to how he lives his life.
For the record, there was no declared 99-percent chance that it was the sunset Warner would be riding into. He said he's gone and -- because he's Kurt Warner -- everyone probably believed him.
"I don't think about playing another game," he said. "There's no question in my mind that I'm doing what I want to do. I don't worry one bit about looking back and wishing that I'd played longer."
That should be a lesson for some dude in Mississippi and a message of professional comfort for Leinart.
Anyway, as local radio talk shows, a bit of bar-stool gossip and a smidgen of barbershop chatter focused on the potential doom in losing Warner and taking on Leinart, Warner took his first step toward another life.
With his family on top of the priority list, Warner said he'd continue pursuing efforts in the ministry, do some writing and attempt to keep a hand in football. The deft precision with which he handled the news conference would seem to make him a natural as an analyst on TV.
So, in five years, the pundits will reconvene on the matter of Warner's Hall of Fame worthiness.
"That's for somebody else to decide," Warner said.
When the subject of how he wanted to be remembered was raised (by him), Warner retreated to the improbability of his story.
"I want people to remember that anything is possible."
That's good advice for Cardinals fans ... and even better for Matt Leinart.