Commentary

The end is near

Kurt Warner sounds a lot like a guy ready to call it quits

Updated: January 21, 2010, 7:42 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN The Magazine

Getty ImagesA crushing loss to the Saints isn't how Warner wanted to go out, but the time could be right.

Kurt Warner. Flattened like a tortilla. Can hardly breathe. Every rib howling. Wife watching. Can't breathe either. And they pile on. Four of them. Pain doubles. Pain like passing a softball through your kidney. No penalty flag. No nothing.

Of course, this was in Warner's Arizona living room. Monday. With four of his kids. Two days after one of the most eyeball-rattling hits he'd ever taken, in the Arizona Cardinals' blowout playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.

"This is the sorest I've ever been," says Warner, 38.

And you wonder why he's thinking of retiring?

Still, if Warner does quit in the next couple of weeks -- talk to him, you'll be convinced he will -- it won't be because of his seven kids landing 720 McTwists on him, or 300-pound linemen crushing him from the blind side. It'll be because it's become nine parts job and one part fun.

"Not the Sundays," he says. "The three hours on Sundays are still fun. But it's the whole week, the whole commitment, the ability to sustain it to your fullest, day in and day out.

"You feel the pressure. You have a game that isn't that great and people are like, 'What's wrong with Warner?' That wears on you. You don't have the joy and the fun and satisfaction of having one of those great games because everybody expects you to have one of those games. You never get to exhale."

Plus, think about the two teams Warner has starred on. The St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals. Before Warner started, they were the AMC Gremlins of the NFL. Neither team had sniffed the playoffs in 10 seasons. With Warner, they were the Stones at Wembley. Without him, monkeys on a rock.

"It's kind of been: if I didn't play well, we lost. And that's a lot of responsibility. It wears you out."

Me, I don't know what he's waiting for.

What's left to prove? He's been MVP twice. He's played in three Super Bowls. Won one. Been Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. Set several all-time postseason NFL passing records. His story -- the Hy-Vee grocery stocker who lived in his in-law's basement and wound up torching the NFL for 12 seasons -- should be a major motion-picture release.

"I pray that God takes away the desire in me to play this game. I've loved it for so long. I need Him to take that away from me."

He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and if he's not, they ought to melt it down and start over. Chew on this: His numbers are better then 16 other QBs already in the Hall, including Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Namath. His 7.9 career yards-per-pass-attempt is better than Peyton Manning's or Tom Brady's. The man is a defense-reading mainframe in cleats.

You say: But Brett Favre is having his best season at 40! Warner's only 38 and in better shape!

True, but does Warner want to end up with a right arm like Johnny Unitas, hanging there limply? Does he want two fake knees like Namath? Does he want to be all those guys who need help getting out of their chair on stage at Canton?

You say: But he's leaving millions on the table if he quits now!

True, but he's still got more money than many third-world nations. He got a payout of $19 million last year. And how does it help him to take the money off the table if it leaves him laying on the operating table later?

You say: But he didn't even start an NFL game until he was 28! He's got a lot of football left in him!

True, but he's always had the foot speed of a three-toed sloth. He's had at least three concussions; "probably more like five," he says. In September of 2008, teammate Anquan Boldin took a breathtaking hit that left him sprawled out for minutes. "This is it," Warner texted wife from the bus. "I can't do this anymore. It's time to retire."

"What happened to Q," Warner says, "was personal for me. You realize you're one hit from something that affects you long, long term."

Warner knows about long-term injuries. His adopted oldest son -- Zachary, 20 -- was accidentally dropped on his head as a baby by his birth father and was blinded and mentally diminished.

Brenda Warner -- the most quotable wife in the NFL -- has said the decision is between "Kurt and God." What does that mean, exactly?

"It means I pray that God takes away the desire in me to play this game," he says. "I've loved it for so long. I need Him to take that away from me, so that I can be comfortable with this decision."

So a lung-collapsing, cleat-raising hit like the one in New Orleans is a little message from above?

"Exactly."

I say leave, Kurt Warner. Go walk your daughters down the aisle without a limp. Go play your beloved hoops until you're 60. Go write the books you want to write and host the radio show you want to host and maybe even run for politics the way people are asking you now. Go exhale.

It's not going to be easy. But you always did have a very quick release.


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