All of Northeastern Ohio is excited! The Cleveland Cavaliers are on their second run for the NBA championship in two consecutive years. I grew up in Canton, loved basketball, and am definitely a homeboy, so I have always been a Cav’s fan. I had posters in my room back in the days of Mark Price, and was a diehard believer back in the days when they got the disrespect of the world. Cleveland was call “the mistake on the lake,” and the Browns, the Indians, and the Cavaliers all got a piece of that disrespect.
Unfortunately, the Browns are still hanging on that nail, but Cleveland has enjoyed a great comeback. The city itself is becoming stronger and more beautiful every day. The Indians went to the World Series last year, Cleveland won the NBA championship last year, and all the celebrations occurred without the chaos that has accompanied wins in other major American cities. All of that makes me proud.
I really appreciate the whole Cavaliers team—the Big Three are outstanding. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have made great names for themselves and the team. LeBron James? How could we not really appreciate and value our hometown boy who came back and fulfilled his promises? I am grateful for his many gifts to the state, his care for the underprivileged in his home tome of Akron and around the world. He is a family man, and I really appreciate that.
But, as much as I am a fan, I have a confession to make. My vote for my favorite athlete goes another direction. I am a big time and longtime admirer of Kurt Warner, NFL football player. His football career has proven to be one of the most improbable rags-to-riches story ever to come out of the sports world. Warner, a 28-year-old, no-name backup, catapulted to stardom in 1999. During his second full year in the NFL, he drove the St. Louis Rams offense to a Super Bowl victory, and collected MVP honors along the way.
Over the ensuing decade, Warner captained two other teams to the Super Bowl, registered another MVP season, threw for more than 200 career touchdowns, and started talk about a possible Hall of Fame induction. But his start was not easy. His parents divorced when he was a preschooler, and his mom patched together a living for them by stringing together sometimes three jobs at a time. When she remarried, Kurt had a difficult time with his stepdad, and that marriage only lasted five years. He found his refuge in sports.
Though he worked very hard, he was disappointed by the lack of interest in him from any big-time schools as he approached graduation. Warner ended up at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, a Division I-AA school that wasn't exactly famous for churning out NFL talent. After red shirting his freshman year, the quarterback was relegated to the bench for the next three seasons. He thought about quitting, and only stayed on after his parents convinced him. Finally, in the fall of 1993, Warner took hold of the starting position, leading the Panthers to an 8-3 record, a playoff berth, and conference honors as the Offensive Player of the Year.
During those years, he met a 25-year-old single mother of two young children, including a son Zach who had suffered a brain injury when he was an infant. They married in 1997, and Warner legally adopted his wife's children. The two eventually had five additional children.
But Warner didn’t get drafted after graduation. He went to Green Bay’s training camp and was cut in six weeks. Still, Warner held on to his dream. He took a job in Cedar Falls stocking supermarket shelves for $5.50 an hour, trained during the day at his old college, and told anyone who would listen that he'd be an NFL quarterback some day. In 1995, Warner was asked to play for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. He eventually caught the attention of the Rams, a struggling NFL franchise that sent him overseas to play in the NFL's European league in the spring of 1998. Because of a starting player’s knee injury, the Ram’s called Kurt up to play. Eventually he led the Rams to two Super Bowls, and he won two league MVP awards.
Warner's time with the Rams ended following the 2003 season after injuries, costly turnovers, and a general disintegration of the talent around him put the club in rebuilding mode. He played for the New York Giants, then the Arizona Cardinals, refusing to be discouraged despite many issues. He led Arizona to the NFC West title, enjoying one final hurrah by passing for 379 yards and five touchdowns in a thrilling 51-45 playoff win over the Green Bay Packers. Despite having one year left on his contract, Warner closed the book on his rags-to-riches pro football career by announcing his retirement in January 2010. He joined the NFL Network as an analyst shortly afterward.
Clearly, I love his incredible sport’s history, but more than that I love Kurt Warner, the godly man. In practically every interview the born-again Christian is quick to credit God, not only for his success, but also for determining where he's played throughout the course of his career. In 2001, with his wife Brenda, Warner established First Things First, a charity that helps those in need. The Warners’ generosity is even shown when they personally go out to eat. Often, Kurt picks up the check for a family at another table. Warner's kids choose the unsuspecting customers, who are never told who paid their bill. Warner chose the jersey number 13 to show his disdain for superstition and other things that don't line up with his faith.
My favorite athlete is Kurt Warner.
But my basketball team is the Cleveland Cavaliers. Go Cavs!