In mid-September, as Brophy College Preparatory prepared to take the field at Basha High School, the Broncos’ quarterbacks coach surveyed the landscape. “It’s just a football game,” Kurt Warner said. “People take it too seriously.”
For those who love the sport, it’s hard not to, and that includes Brophy quarterback Elijah “EJ” Warner, who later passed for 180 yards and a touchdown but saw his team lose 37-12.
Afterward, father and son met at the 50-yard line. As Kurt reflected on the game, EJ teared up.
“Could you imagine,” a fan said, “being the son and player of the Kurt Warner?”
Although the rest of the country will have an opportunity to peek into the former NFL quarterback’s life with the nationwide release of his biopic “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story” Saturday, the Valley has had a front row seat for years. Most recently it has been to watch him coach EJ, a standout quarterback who just finished his Brophy Prep career and is fielding college offers.
The challenge for both has been navigating the father/son and coach/player relationship.
His four seasons with the Cardinals, including leading the franchise to a Super Bowl in 2008, made Kurt a familiar face in the community. He also won two NFL MVP awards (1999, 2001) and led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title.
Much of his focus these days, in addition to his studio analyst role on NFL Network, is on his family: wife Brenda and seven children.
On the ride home after the Brophy game, Brenda watched and listened as Kurt replayed the game through his mind and reflected on what he expected from EJ and the team.
“God kind of thinks this is funny,” Brenda said. “One, I hate sports. I’m not a sports fan. Then, I see my husband, a former quarterback, coaching my son as the QB. It’s not easy.”
Brenda said she never understood what it takes for a coach to be a good coach or an athlete to be coachable, so the only way she knew how to be there for her family on the field was through prayer and texts to Kurt.
“I’d send some strongly worded advice to maybe lay off my son,” Brenda said. “And if (Kurt) were a different coach that wasn’t (EJ’s) father, or my husband, I might have some words with that coach. But I also pray for them from afar the entire game because that’s something I can do.”
Unknowingly, Brenda became the anchor for the father and son/coach and player duo over the years.
“We’d be a lot less balanced without mom,” EJ said. “Way too much anger for sure and yelling. She creates this balance between us, making sure we’re not going too far. It would be too much football. I mean, there’s never too much football, but she hates, like hates it. We need a balance in life, and she creates that.”
Even with Brenda as an anchor, some game days tend to be more challenging for EJ than others, like the game against Basha.
“It’s an emotional game,” Kurt said. “Oftentimes, I think when you see that (emotion), it’s less than tough, but more tough love. It’s more (EJ) being hard on himself because he wants to be great. And I’m sure there’s some expectation there that he puts on himself based on where I went in my career.”
Kurt is widely regarded as one of THE NFL’s all-time free agent signings, and it served as the impetus for a movie about his life.
His coaching moments are also learning experiences.
“I like (tough love),” EJ said. “I want to be great and go to the next level, so if that’s what it takes (for) him to get on me all the time, I’ll take that 100%. He wants what’s best for me, and I understand that.”
EJ is not the only disciple of the former NFL standout that believes in Kurt’s approach. During an interview with Sirius XM, Kedon Slovis, the former USC quarterback who recently transferred to Pittsburgh, praised his mentor.
“He doesn’t care if you lose the game,” Slovis said. “He just wants you to get better. As a learner and player, you have to love that because every opportunity you want to get better. When he’s your coach, he’s going to make sure you get that opportunity.”
Kurt guided Slovis at Scottsdale Desert Mountain High School as the school’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Slovis received 13 scholarship offers before committing to USC.
In his debut season, he set the NCAA record for completion percentage (71.9) by a freshman and also broke the USC freshman record for passing yards in a season (3,502).
“All the quarterbacks I’ve coached, and that I believed have a chance to move on (to the collegiate level), I coached tough,” Kurt said. “I want to do everything I can to help them accomplish their dream.”
For the benefactors of tough love, it isn’t always easy.
“I’ve always tried to teach my kids that you can’t have the blessing of being Kurt Warner’s son without the burden of it,” Brenda said.
One of the burdens is expectation and EJ admits that he “struggles with it.”
“I expect more of myself than anybody else. I struggle with just trying not to be perfect all the time, to be perfect to kind of live up to what he (Kurt) did. It gets heavy sometimes.”
While EJ’s older brother Kade opted out of playing quarterback, EJ embraced the calling.
The alternate route proved successful for Kade as it kick-started a journey that included All-Arizona wide receiver recognition at Desert Mountain High and eventual starting wide receiver at Kansas State.
“You’re the head and not the tail,” Brenda said she taught her kids. “You’re above, and not below. You will find favor with man and God. You were created in the image of God to do good things and love people.”
“I am beautiful,” Brenda’s kids would finish. “I am strong.” Just like Kurt and Kade, EJ found his path.
On Oct.15, with 4:05 left in the fourth quarter and Chaparral leading by six points, EJ led Brophy on a four-play, 58-yard scoring drive in a matter of 34 seconds. EJ turned to Kurt on the sidelines, who was beaming with pride.
“He looked over at me,” Kurt said as he laughed. “Like, ‘I know you wanted that, you like that one (play)?’”
With the odds in favor of Chaparral, Brophy won 28-27. Kurt embraced EJ in the middle of the field after the player finished the night 27 of 44 with 286 yards and three touchdowns.
He finished the season by completing 64.6% of his passes for 2,742 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“We’ll butt heads and get after one another because we’re competitive,” Kurt said. “But it’s those little moments in the game that make it a lot of fun. I’m proud of EJ on the field, but it never compares to what he is altogether.”
On the ride home from the Chaparral game, Kurt raved about EJ and his performance.
“EJ’s very intelligent,” Kurt told Brenda. “He’s very accurate (in that) he has such (a) sense of the game that I don’t get to see in a lot of people over the years.
“My 18-year-old son is pretty special.”
Story by Ruby Arora, Special for Cronkite News