On August 5, 2017, Super Bowl XXXIV champion and MVP Kurt Warner was inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame. It was a moment that had been anything but certain when Kurt found himself third on the depth chart for much of college, or when he went undrafted, was released from training camp, and took a job stocking shelves at a grocery store. But Kurt grew up with a strong support system who instilled him with the confidence and perseverance that he needed to push through these challenges and continue in pursuit of his goals. Last year, as First Place celebrated our 18th birthday, Kurt spoke with us about his own journey navigating the uncertainties of adulthood, and why he and his wife have chosen to support foster kids in the transition to independence. Here’s what he had to say.
Your circumstances don’t define you. Too often we allow our circumstances and what life looks like right now to define who we are and who we can be. And I think my life’s a perfect example. A lot of people wanted to put me in a box for a long time and say “You can’t. You won’t. It’s not going to happen for you.”
And I’ve come out on the other side and said, “That box does not define me. There’s more to me than what I’m seeing right now and where I am right now.” That’s what this is all about. It’s about kids understanding that their circumstances and where they are right now does not have to define them long-term.
We’re all learning as we go. No one becomes 18 and has all the answers and knows how to do all of those little thing. I think it’s so vital for all of us to have a support system, no matter who that is. Whether that’s in the family, whether that’s a friend, whether that’s somebody outside that’s willing to put their arm around us and give us the time and the willingness to help us move from 18 to that next stage. Because I don’t really care where you grow up or what you have, nobody knows that stuff innately. You need help learning those things and preparing for life, for long-term life. And I can’t imagine doing that, and having to fight through that on your own.
I didn’t feel like an adult, but what I felt was that adulthood was right there.
You go from home to college, and you go “I don’t know how to cook anything.” I can remember in college just trying to figure out how to do laundry — what goes where, what kind of water to use. I had no clue what I was doing.When I went through those moments of struggle, the one blessing that I always had in my life was a support system that I could reach out to. I could call home and say, “Mom, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
And I think that’s where it’s hard for me to put myself in the place of someone who’s in the foster care system or doesn’t have that support system or that family that they can reach out to at those moments. But I remember around the age of 18, I was dating the woman who would become my wife. She had two kids at the time, and we were driving down the interstate in the middle of the winter. We ran out of gas, and I had no money to pay for gas.
I made her and the kids search under all the seats in the car. I had to walk to the gas station and beg the gas station attendant for a couple gallons of gas, promising I’d come back at some point.
And there I was, thinking and dreaming of what life was going to be playing professional football in the NFL, while in the meantime everything else was in shambles. It was one of those shocking moments where what you look like on the outside or what you’re trying to project is nowhere close to what’s going on on the inside.
The one thing that I knew and the constant and the confidence that I had was in sports. And I think a lot of people saw that and said, “Man, this is a confident young man.” Whereas on the inside I was scrambling everywhere else. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t know if sports doesn’t work out, if I have any other talents. I don’t know how to manage life and time.” And all of those different things.
The crazy thing is that I had found sports and had gotten a scholarship to play in college, yet I found myself on the bench. You put all your eggs are in one basket, saying I’m just gonna play four years of college football and then I’m gonna go right into the pros. Then you find yourself sitting on the bench where the dream’s kind of being squashed by everyone else. That’s when you start looking around wondering what am I gonna do? What am I gonna be? How am I gonna handle life if this doesn’t work out? Because I was really not prepared for anything else.
That time is so vital, whether it be having people around you that can give you direction to just get you to try something.
My wife and I have been blessed to be able to work with some kids in the foster care program. We started a mentorship program with six or eight kids that were in that age range of late high school transitioning into what’s next.
I remember my wife and I sitting down so often and thinking how it felt like they were behind everybody else because of bouncing around from one place to another or not being in a position where they could develop the confidence in their skills and what they brought to the table.
And I think what always resonated was each time they came back, the sense of confidence and the sense of direction that they started to gain. And you just wish that you could take all the kids that are in the system and help them see who they really are and what they can be and the gifts that they have. Because I believe that for so long those things have been squashed, and it’s been more just about surviving and going from one day to the next. It hasn’t been about thriving. It hasn’t been about understanding they do have a future, and it’s a bright future, and they can accomplish anything that they want.
Love and support goes so far in helping them to be able to make that transition.