Former CFL coach gave Warner first pro football job with Barnstormers - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Former CFL coach gave Warner first pro football job with Barnstormers

DES MOINES (THE CANADIAN PRESS/KWWL) - John Gregory boldly predicts the Arizona Cardinals will shock the NFL and upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.

Now, the former Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach is going out on a limb with a little inside information. Leading the Cardinals' potent aerial attack is Kurt Warner, the former grocery store employee Gregory discovered in 1995 while the head coach of the Arena Football League's Iowa Barnstormers.

"Arizona is going to win and that's because of Kurt Warner," said the 70-year-old Gregory, back in Des Moines coaching Iowa's entry in af2, arena football's development league. "The nice thing about Arizona's situation is Kurt has been there and won it (in '99 with St. Louis over Tennessee) and lost it (20-17 to New England in 2002) but even in the loss he was still in the game.

"(Pittsburgh's) Ben Roethlisberger has been there also (winning it three years ago in Detroit) but I think Kurt is a better thrower and a better pure quarterback.

"The other thing about Kurt that people don't realize, and this was one of the first things I recognized about him, is he can get out of trouble back there and still get the ball downfield accurately. He doesn't have very good running speed but he's like a basketball player who can slide out and get his jumpshot off and make it. That's the kind of athlete he is."

Warner will also be chasing NFL history in Tampa. An Arizona win will make Warner the first quarterback in league history to lead two different teams to a Super Bowl crown.

But that seemed so improbable back in '94 when Warner was cut during training camp by the Green Bay Packers. He returned to be a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater - Northern Iowa - and worked nights stocking shelves and bagging groceries at a local store to make ends meet.

Warner never gave up on his dream of playing pro football and sent game tapes to teams north and south of the border looking for tryout offers. However, it was Gregory, also a Northern Iowa alum, who gave Warner his first shot professionally, inviting him to a Barnstormers free-agent camp.

"He only played his senior year as a starter," Gregory said when asked why Warner wasn't on teams' radar screens. "The fortunate thing is we were just starting out as a franchise and we were looking for local players so that gave him an edge right there.

"And then he just learned really, really quickly."

So quick that he became the Barnstormers' starter and led them to consecutive ArenaBowl berths in 1996 and '97 before signing with the NFL's St. Louis Rams.

There was a catch. Warner first had to play with NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals, with no guarantees. He responded by throwing for a league-high 2,101 passing yards and 15 touchdowns, then returned to the Rams and became the backup to starter Trent Green.

Warner was quickly thrust into the starting lineup in '99 when Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in an exhibition game. Warner, then a 28-year-old rookie, responded by capturing his first NFL MVP award and leading St. Louis to a most improbable Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans.

And at age of 37, Warner is at it again, having taken the underdog Cardinals to their first-ever Super Bowl appearance against a Pittsburgh club looking for a record sixth NFL title.

"This is a fairy-tale story that has come true," Gregory said. "You know, all those storybooks we read of people doing things and winning the big one?

"Well, here's a guy who has really won the big one. This guy, one day, will end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

And, Gregory says, it couldn't happen to a nicer, more deserving person.

"Kurt is an extremely hard worker and very intelligent," Gregory said. "But most of all he's a nice guy, a really nice guy."

Warner might be gone but he's not forgotten in Iowa. The Barnstormers are planning to create a "Good Luck" banner that will be delivered to Warner next week in Florida.

Given Warner's deft passing touch, it's surprising he never received a tryout offer from the CFL. Gregory - who coached in Canada from '84 to '94 with Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Hamilton before joining the Barnstormers in '95 )-has no doubt Warner would've excelled in the wide-open Canadian game.

"Kurt would've been like Tom Clements," Gregory said, referring to the Canadian Football Hall of Famer. "He's got a little stronger arm than Clements had but has the same ability to read a defence like Tom did.

"I think Kurt would've been amazing up there."

Gregory has kept in touch with his former quarterback through the years, sending him a congratulatory email earlier this season when he was named the Cardinals starter.

"I was actually in Phoenix playing golf at the time," Gregory said. "So I sent him a big hurrah after earning the starting spot with the Cardinals."

Despite Arizona's underdog status, Gregory believes Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau, one of the NFL's most respected defensive co-ordinators, will take the big-play threat of the Cardinals' offence very seriously.

The NFC champions not only boast Warner, but 1,000-yard receivers in All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald, Aquan Boldin and youngster Steve Breaston. And the running attack features the two-headed monster of veteran Edgerrin James and rookie Tim Hightower.

A popular defensive gameplan against a dropback passer like Warner is to blitz linebackers or even a safety to either sack the quarterback or at the very least force him to throw before he's set. The risk, though, is the secondary is often in man-to-man coverage, a dangerous prospect given Warner's experience and Arizona's big-play receivers.

Therefore, Gregory expects the Steelers to try and get pressure on Warner with their defensive line while implementing different looks in their pass coverage.

"I think they're going to have to work on their four-man rush and change up the coverages," Gregory said. "I think they're going to double Fitzgerald, I don't think you can play the game without doubling him.

"That's going to open up the other receivers."

It's certainly an informed opinion, given Gregory has enjoyed coaching success on both sides of the border.

He earned two Grey Cup rings as a CFL coach ('84 as an assistant with Winnipeg, '89 as Riders head coach) and was named the league's coach of the year in 1989. And in '95 and '96 Gergory was named the AFL's top coach and led Iowa to five division titles in six years before following the franchise to New York in 2000.

Life these days couldn't be better for Gregory. He's back coaching in his native Iowa and in the off-season lives in South Carolina where he can actively pursue two of his favourite activities - golf and fishing.

But he does admit to missing the CFL.

"I do," he said. "I thoroughly enjoyed it and had so much fun up there.

"But I really do like coaching arena football. It's a lot like the CFL. It's a lot of fun and they throw the ball a lot. And being from Iowa, it's great because we pack the house every game. And the winters? They're are a lot nicer now."

Online Executive Producer Nate Leding

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