Commentary

Warner's beyond an icon

In the idol worship hierarchies in St. Louis and Phoenix, No. 13 reigns

Originally Published: January 29, 2010
By Gary Belsky | ESPN The Magazine

A lot of well-deserved accolades are being thrown Kurt Warner's way Friday in the wake of his retirement announcement, but here's one you might not have considered: Warner retires as that rarest of pro athletes, a Two-Town Sports God.

Sports Godness is tough to describe, but to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment about hard-core pornography: You know it when you see it. The distinction involves a slippery combo of athletic skill, wins, titles, civic loyalty, on-field work ethic, off-field righteousness and fan relatability. It means more than locals always treasuring your memory and framing your autograph; it means that if you knocked on their door and asked to stay the night, the guest bedroom would be yours.

"To say that Kurt Warner will always have a bed in AZ is an understatement," says Ken Slough, 33, a founder of Arizona Cardinals fan club AZ Red Army. "Kurt Warner could possibly go down as the most revered Cardinal ever."

The fact that Warner has engendered this much good will in two towns is almost unprecedented. Even more impressive is the two towns we're talking about. After all, he earned (and has kept) Sports God status in a city that absolutely hates the team he played for while achieving it a second time.

I've got some credibility on this topic, having grown up in St. Louis but stayed loyal to the football Cardinals long after they hightailed it to Arizona. (I left town, too, so how could I blame the Bidwills? Plus, Phoenix is a lovely place.) It was a measure of Warner's saintliness in the Gateway City that 70 percent of St. Louis Rams fans surveyed by ESPN The Magazine and SportsNation last year actually were rooting for the Big Red in Super Bowl XLIII.

"It's as if he never left," says longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz. "We tend to think that if Kurt Warner wanted to walk across the Mississippi River he'd be able to pull it off."

(As for Warner's stint with the New York Giants: Big Blue fans are generally neutral about him, although the smart ones no doubt observed that in New York, as elsewhere, Warner always seemed gracious when it came to grooming a younger rival. Whether it was Marc Bulger in St. Louis, Eli Manning in New York or Matt Leinart in Arizona, he seems to have always had the future of the franchise in mind, even as he competed for jobs. His attitude evinced a greater-good quality to it, which must have a bearing on his legacy everywhere.)

Then again, Sports Godness, once achieved, is hard to lose. Mark McGwire is learning this in the wake of his steroids-use admission. They still love him in my hometown, still revere and defend him, warts and all, as they do Albert Pujols and Ozzie Smith and Stan Musial (Sports God Emeritus). McGwire most likely knew this when he decided to come back to the baseball Cardinals as a hitting coach.

Spend a little time in cities such as St. Louis and you start to get a feel for what being a Sports God means. (For one thing, they usually name a stretch of road after you, as in that bit of I-70 still known as Mark McGwire Highway.)

Mind you, there's a difference between being a Sports Icon and being a Sports God. Archie Manning in New Orleans? Sports God. Peyton Manning in Indy? Sports Icon. Franco Harris and Mario Lemieux are Sports Gods in Pittsburgh. Terry Bradshaw and Sidney Crosby? Sports Icons. Crosby loses on relatability; there's something almost too smooth in a kid like Crosby, something un-Pittsburgh-like. Bradshaw played in the city but was never of the city, which is why he stayed away for nearly 20 years after retiring.

Bart Starr is a Sports God in Green Bay. And in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But to achieve legit Two-Town Sports God status, you need to do it in two competing cities with two competing fan bases in the same league, which is why Willie Mays doesn't qualify: He was a superstar in New York and San Francisco, but with the same team. And best not to talk about that business with the Mets.

Brett Favre in Green Bay? Sports God (give them time to heal and you'll see). New York? Please. Minneapolis? Not so much!

Wayne Gretzky in L.A.? Janet Jones' husband. Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton? Tricky. The Great One might be, in fact, one of the few best-in-a-sport athletes who achieved Sports God status. But when you're that famous -- globally famous -- your celebrity almost disqualifies you for consideration as a deity. Manning has that "problem" in Indy. Michael Jordan had it in Chicago. He is of course beloved -- and might even get a bed for the night -- but he is something other than a Sports God, something other than the kind of local idol that Ryne Sandberg is or Walter Payton was.

That's the relatability part of the Sports God equation; you have to seem like the kind of person who wouldn't make everyone awkward the next morning at breakfast.

Consider Mark Messier, the reigning gold standard for Two-Town Sports Godness. Messier is revered in Edmonton for helping Gretzky build a dynasty, then winning yet another Stanley Cup after No. 99 decamped for L.A. In New York, meanwhile, there are few athletes alive today who spark as much local worship.

Even non-hockey fans in the Big Apple understand that Messier's captaining of the 1993-94 Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in five decades was something of a miracle. But there's a down-to-earth quality about Messier, something cab-driver-made-good about him that oddly enough makes him a real Sports God in what at heart is a grinder of a city.

Warner never drove a cab. But he did bag groceries! And, more important, his folksy-religious-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Republicanism was tailor-made for John McCain's home state. All the more so given that (a) he seems sincere and (b) he has a sense of humor about his earnestness. And though No. 13 didn't bring a Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Valley of the Sun, he did somehow manage to hoist the Cardinals from the depths of perpetual irrelevance to the precincts of the NFL elite.

And he did so with remarkable grit and noticeable tenaciousness, with an on-field mean streak that made you think his faith helps him tame a very human sinner, a very relatable one at that. After the Cardinals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, much was made about the fact that nine of the previous 10 Super Bowl losers didn't make the playoffs the next season.

I loved hearing that fact bandied about because, as someone who worships at Warner's altar, I figured such a challenge would only raise the wrath of the great and good signal-caller.

"He took a deplorable franchise to places that, not just the fans but everyone within this state could not have believed," says Slough, the fan club prez. "With him leaving, fans are wondering, 'Where do we go next?'"

Good question. And yet another thing Cardinals and Rams fans have in common.

Gary Belsky is editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine.