TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson went on his official visit to the University of Northern Iowa his senior year of high school in 2009, he walked past a display honoring former Panthers quarterback Kurt Warner.
Johnson didn’t know much about Warner, whose story had been mostly written by then. Warner had was cut by the Green Bay Packers, played in the Arena League and NFL Europe, stocked shelves at a grocery store, won a Super Bowl and an MVP award with the St. Louis Rams and, finally, led the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl.
Warner’s fairy-tale career was about a year from wrapping up and the Pro Football Hall of Fame about eight years away.
But as Johnson listened to every step of Warner’s path to the NFL, he could sense a pattern. There was a lesson for Johnson to learn, one that has come to define Warner, Johnson and the University of Northern Iowa.
Nothing was given to Warner.
“Kurt’s legacy was a guy that didn’t get anything handed to him,” Johnson told ESPN.
“You might not start right away, you might not be the five-star recruit coming out of high school, but if you keep working hard, keep learning and once your chance comes up, make the most of it because you might only get one game, you might only get a few reps, but if you make the most of those reps or that game, you can make it to the top.”
Just like Warner.
Warner’s enshrinement Saturday in the Hall of Fame is proof your pedigree, where you went to school and how you got to the NFL don't matter. Anyone can make the Hall of Fame.
“That’s just amazing,” former UNI Panther and current Cardinals defensive tackle Xavier Williams said. “Honestly, it just shows you, you work hard, you get an opportunity, you take advantage of it, anything can happen.
“That’s all he did. He just worked hard and took advantage of what he was given.”
Fourteen years after Warner threw his final pass for Northern Iowa, in a double-overtime loss in the first round of the 1993 Division I-AA playoffs, that lesson still holds true for the Panthers.
“He represents what we believe Northern Iowa is and that’s perseverance,” Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley said. “Nothing was given to him. Everything was earned.”
Farley, who was linebackers coach during Warner’s time at UNI, remembered Warner had the talent to start as a freshman. He ended up sitting for three years behind Jay Johnson, playing sporadically. But when Johnson graduated and Warner was named the starter in 1993, he seized the opportunity and was named the Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
That’s just part of what made Warner’s legacy at UNI.
He had the physical traits. In practice, Warner displayed his strong arm, Farley said. He could make the deep out and the deep comeback just as easily as he could make the most basic of throws.
Then there was Warner’s work ethic.
Farley, who doubled as Northern Iowa’s strength coach during Warner’s time, watched him begin training as an 18-year-old freshman, so he’d be prepared for his shot. Warner continued his regimen as a sophomore and then as a junior, working on developing both his game and his body.
“He didn’t wait for his senior season to start working out,” Farley said. “He was training to be the starter.
“He just worked. He didn’t talk a lot. He didn’t do a lot. He just worked.”
After college, Warner decided to chase the dream of playing in the NFL. Farley thought the dream was over when Warner was cut by the Packers. But after every door slammed shut, he returned to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to work and work out.
Warner would just not let the dream die, Farley said.
“He was working for his dreams,” Farley said. “We see it now, everything looks good, but imagine two, three years out of college and you’re still not in the NFL. A lot of guys don’t stick to the dream, and Kurt did and he is the most deserving guy that I can ever imagine to get into the Hall of Fame.”
He also helps Farley make a pretty convincing recruiting pitch: Come to Northern Iowa, work hard, don’t give up and you, too, can make it to Canton, Ohio.
This weekend has helped Farley’s cause.
Williams and Johnson both played in the Hall of Fame Game for the Cardinals on Thursday, and Warner will be enshrined Saturday.
“What I tell our team is, ‘You can become the best of the best through Northern Iowa,’” Farley said. “Now go back directly to Kurt. We’ve had some great ones. The common denominator of the great ones is how they train. They train as freshmen like they want to win that day.”
To Farley and Johnson, Warner’s success is also a reflection on their home state.
Johnson meets players in the NFL -- some on his team, some on others -- who have never met anyone from Iowa.
Johnson and Warner had lunch at the Cardinals’ practice facility during organized team activities. They talked life, children, Iowa and, of course, UNI. They learned they both had summer jobs during college. When the conversation turned to football, Johnson asked Warner how he learned in the NFL, whom he'd learned from, what made him better, how it feels to be in the Hall of Fame -- a question Johnson hopes one day to be able to answer.
“It lets me know that a guy from UNI can make it,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of stuff I’ve learned from a guy like Kurt Warner being in the Hall of Fame.”