Monday, January 10, 2022

American Underdog

Sports movies almost always get me emotionally, which is weird because I'm not much into sports. But show me Field of Dreams, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Miracle, and lo, many more whose names I could rattle off, and I always get choked up and teary-eyed. American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story was no exception, when I saw it last night at the local movie house. And it gave me the added pleasure of glimpsing my former city, St. Louis – still the place I've lived longer than anywhere else, even seven years after leaving – although the story reaches its climax (the 2000 Super Bowl) before I moved there. Nevertheless, I was able to (kind of) answer a fellow audience member's question about the story. There's a scene where starting QB Trent Green goes down with a knee injury and the lady thought he had been killed. I was able to reassure her that, at a later date, when I was living in Kansas City, Trent Green played football there (and, indeed, he went back to play in St. Louis again, years later, and is alive to this day.)

Even that (Trent Green's later career in KC) was before my time in SL, so clearly what moved me about this movie wasn't any particular crossover with my life or the fact that I followed the story when it happened (which I didn't). It's not even, particularly, the blandly Christian spirituality portrayed by the movie, as it depicts Kurt and Brenda Warner's spiritual struggles as their fortunes rose and fell; or rather, fell and rose. I can't even claim to really understand the appeal of watching football, let alone playing it, though I've done a tiny bit of both (way, way back). I think what really grabbed me about this movie was the instant bond that formed when Kurt Warner, still a college football player having a tough time getting off the bench, paid a surprise visit to his future wife's house after sparks flew between the two at a barn dance, and her blind, brain-damaged son pulled him into the house, made him lie down next to him on the bathroom floor, and sang "You and me goin' fishin' in the dark" along with the radio. You could see this big jock falling instantly in love with a mentally handicapped kid and you just knew they were going to be a family, and watching that happen meant more to me emotionally than whatever football heroics Warner managed to pull off.

And yes, he pulled of some serious stuff. Despite not being drafted by an NFL team – despite languishing for four years in poverty, trying to support his family with a job at Hy-Vee and later, settling for a stint in the Arena Football League – he ended up becoming a starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, league MVP, Super Bowl MVP, the first quarterback ever to win the Super Bowl in his first year in the NFL, the first undrafted quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and breaking Joe Montana's record for passing plays in a Super Bowl game; and it wasn't the only Super Bowl he won, either. Successful, 12-year career, yadda yadda, all very nice, but the real underline goes under the bit where he and Brenda raised seven kids and her oldest, whom Kurt eventually adopted, is still doing great.

You feel glad that the guy proved himself despite everyone laughing at the idea of him leading an NFL team; you feel a share in the pride of the people who knew him at his lowest, and during his rise, when they see him eking greatness out of a seemingly hopeless situation; but in the last analysis, what gets you (and by you, I mean me) choked up, and keeps you up thinking about it all night afterward, is the part where an ungoverned man-child gets caught by a divorced woman and her two kids and becomes the man and the dad they need. The little kid's note to "Daddy Kurt" before his first game as an NFL starter opens the floodgates, if they haven't burst already, by recalling to mind their whole journey as a family in a few, loving words.

Besides these Kurt-becomes-a-daddy scenes (and there are a few others in that arc that I haven't mentioned), here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Kurt tries to propose to Brenda, but she says "yes" before he can finish. (2) In general, the football scenes that mercifully, and effectively, compress hours of tedious back-and-forth to the big plays where Warner either gets sacked, or throws and interception, or (increasingly often) nails the receiver. (3) His man-to-man talk with Brenda's father in the garage, challenging Kurt to man up and make a commitment to the family.

I could name a bunch of others. I enjoyed pretty much the whole movie, including the sad parts (like Brenda's parents' sudden fate), the frustrating parts (like Kurt's brief stint with the Green Bay Packers), the grim and gray parts (like when they're so broke they can't pay their electric bill and Kurt has to run several miles in the snow to buy a can of fuel to put in their empty gas tank), and yes, even a sequence where Kurt and Brenda break up. Ouch. But even I knew, to a certain point, that things turned out all right in the end; watching it actually do so is very satisfying, and seeing a picture of the Warners' big family really is the big payoff.

Playing the Warners themselves are Zachary Levi of Chuck and Shazam and Anna Paquin of The Piano, X-Men, Almost Famous and True Blood. It also features supporting turns by Dennis Quaid, Adam Baldwin and Bruce McGill.

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