TEMPE, Ariz. -- Brenda Warner had heard the question for a while.
Who was going to present her husband, Kurt, for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Brenda’s response was the same every time: “I don’t know.”
She wasn’t lying. She had no idea who Kurt was going to ask. Brenda didn’t know what everyone was talking about. She finally had to ask her sister, who explained that every inductee to the Hall of Fame is introduced -- or presented -- by someone of their choosing. Brenda was sure Kurt would ask former St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil.
“He loves that man more than life itself,” Brenda told ESPN. “Every time they talk on the phone, it ends with both of them in tears and loving words and it’s just precious to watch. I just assumed he was waiting for the right time for that.”
Kurt was waiting for the right time, but not to ask Vermeil.
Kurt had tears in his eyes when he asked his wife of 19 years if she’d present him. Brenda was shocked.
“I said, ‘Did everyone say no?’” Brenda said with a laugh. “I just thought it was so odd that he asked me and then he went on to say all the beautiful things that you’ve heard him say, that nobody has sacrificed as much as you have and all the wonderful things that a wife would want to hear, and it just touched my heart.
"It was just one of those moments that it feels like we’ve been through so much together and most people know about the good things and we obviously remember all the highs and lows because they brought us this point.”
Thinking she was going to stand on stage inside Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Saturday evening and introduce Kurt, Brenda tried to put their journey on the field -- from their first meeting during line-dancing lessons through his stints with the Green Bay Packers, Iowa Barnstormers and Amsterdam Admirals, and success with the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals -- and off the field into words. She wrote a speech, but then discovered it would be taped and spliced with highlights for a video that will play before Kurt takes the stage on Saturday. So she read it to him in private.
Brenda will be the fourth wife to introduce a Hall of Famer. Gene Jones, the wife of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, will be the third, and will present right before Brenda.
Once the magnitude of being one of four wives to present their husbands in Canton set in, Brenda was “thrilled” that Kurt recognized the private side of being an NFL player -- the part not shown on highlights or in postgame interviews.
“The bottom line is, through this entire journey, all the ups and downs, all the good and bad, there has been one person that has been with me through it all, that has sacrificed as much as I had and really allowed me, within our circumstances, to chase after my dream and may have put things on hold, took on different responsibilities that she may not have if we went in a different direction,” Kurt said. “I just really believe that being up on the stage, it’s a part of so many different people that helped me to get there, but she’s the one that I believe deserves to share that moment with me and share that stage with me.
“That is why I chose Brenda to present me.”
Brenda didn’t want to go out the night she met Kurt for the first time. Her mother, however, insisted.
It was 1992. Brenda was 25, divorced and living in Iowa with two children. She'd received a hardship discharge from the Marines two years earlier to care for her son, Zack, who was left blind and with brain damage when Brenda’s first husband dropped him as an infant. She was on food stamps and living in low-income housing.
Her mother believed Brenda needed to get out, meet people, start living again. A country bar near Cedar Falls, Iowa, was hosting line-dancing lessons. To Brenda, that was about as innocent as a night out could get, and in any case, what were the odds she would meet someone?
Then Kurt walked in with his best friend.
During one of the dances -- the barn dance, Brenda recalled -- she and Kurt ended up paired together. At the end of the dance, he asked if she wanted to keep dancing. She said yes. He said his name was Kurt. She said her name was Brenda. That was the extent of their conversation at the bar.
Throughout the dances, women came up to Kurt to say hi or give him a hug. He was 21. A quarterback at the University of Northern Iowa. Tall. Dark. Handsome. To her, it was all an instant red flag. Yet they kept dancing and closed the bar at 2 a.m. Kurt walked Brenda to her car and went in for a kiss. Stopping him, she proceeded to give him the CliffsNotes version of her life, voicing what she thought would be the kiss of death to their brief flirtation. She ended her summary with this: “I understand if that freaks you out and if you never want to see me again, but that’s the way it is.”
Kurt never got his kiss. Brenda thought she’d never see him again.
But Kurt knocked on Brenda’s parents’ front door the next morning. He wanted to meet her children. Looking back, Brenda can’t believe she let a man she'd just met the night before -- someone she'd spent hardly any time with -- into the house, but she did. Zack, who had developed a love for music after going blind, showed Kurt all the radios in the house.
“I’m holding my 9-month-old daughter, thinking ‘What am I doing?’” Brenda said. “I honestly realized that moment that this guy’s special.”
As their relationship blossomed and Kurt’s courtship continued, there was one part of Kurt’s life that she couldn’t get over. He kept telling Brenda he wanted to play in the NFL. He'd been named the Gateway Conference’s offensive MVP as a senior and wanted to keep playing. That wasn’t a job, she kept thinking. She couldn’t wrap her head around what making the NFL even meant. Brenda had never watched an NFL game. She grew up in a NASCAR household. She was once given a Dallas Cowboys trash can, but didn’t want it because she didn’t like how it looked.
Nevertheless, she stuck with him after he was cut by the Packers, and remained by his side through three years of arena football and a season in NFL Europe. All the while, she waited patiently for him to give up his dream and get a real job like her father, who spent his adult life making John Deere tractors.
Then Brenda started watching him play. That’s when she knew he would never have another job, and it had nothing to do with his ability.
“I realized he was doing what he was created to do,” she said. “I couldn’t really explain the football side of it -- and probably still couldn’t after all these years -- but there’s moments you watch someone, whether it’s watching the Olympics or watching someone sing, and you realize they are completely in the moment they’re supposed to be in. And what a joy it is to watch someone be living what they were created to be doing, and that’s what I looked at football as. That was the NFL. Until he was ready to walk away, as long as we’re able to pay the bills and I don’t have to be on food stamps and live in low-income housing, like I did when I met him, let’s just keep seeing how long this can last.”
No matter how many times she watched Kurt pick himself up, Brenda didn’t want to be the one to end it. She was never a football fan, so she kept her eyes trained on Kurt. That meant she witnessed every hit he took. She also noticed how long it took him to get back up.
It was an internal battle for Brenda. She knew she couldn’t be the one to tell him to stop playing. She wasn't certain that persuading Kurt to retire would be the right thing. So she prayed, hoping for a sign that would make Kurt recognize it was time to quit. It came in the form a hit on Jan. 16, 2010, at New Orleans.
“When he laid there, I was done,” Brenda said. “I knew I was done. And I think at that moment, when you realize a child that has a disability and has brain damage and I get to see him struggle every day and it’s not going to get better, that this is what life is, that always played a part with every hit that Kurt took, in my own mind.”
Brenda’s personal struggle was complicated. She wanted to see Kurt healthy, but she enjoyed watching him play.
“So the Hall of Fame is just that moment where you realize all those struggles and all those times he was told he wasn’t good enough, or that I heard he was too slow or he was washed-up or when he was cut or he was benched, or whether he was benched again, it’s about that moment that he gets to be honored, and I think most people relate to that side of the journey rather than the Super Bowl trophies,” she said.
“Kurt reminds people of who they want to be. Not all of us have become who we really want to be, and he does that for people.”
Brenda was one of those people.
As football took them all over the country -- and the world -- they decided she’d stay home and take care of their family, which soon grew to seven children. After getting out of the Marines, she became an RN as a way to care for Zack. Brenda loved being a nurse, and particularly enjoyed taking care of other people. Instead of doting on patients, she became devoted to taking care of her family.
It wasn’t until she turned 50 last month that Brenda began trying new things -- stuff she couldn’t do when her children were younger or her family was crisscrossing the map. Like welding. Brenda had always wanted to learn how to weld, though she thought this might sound weird to an outsider. So she took lessons, bought the equipment and now spends her day welding while her children are at school. She has filled her house with her art and makes her own jewelry, which she’ll be wearing this weekend during the Hall of Fame festivities.
Just as football is Kurt’s outlet, welding has become Brenda’s way of being herself.
“Personally, it’s the first thing in my life that I didn’t need somebody to like my work or to give me compliments or affirmation,” she said. "I’m doing it because I love it and that’s freeing. In the NFL, I was that NFL wife that was judged a lot. No matter what I wore, no matter what I looked like, no matter what I said, expectations were not ever met and I didn’t fit in real well, so it was kind of a relief to be out of that and just be who I want to be.
“That’s what I believe I’ve been able to do these last couple years.”