Staying in the Game
by Morgan Benavidez / Photography by RJ Cook Photography
With a big sunny smile and amazing blue eyes, Brenda Warner commands attention, even with her 5-foot, 2-inch frame. The wife of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, she has been the subject of much media buzz during her famous husband’s three journeys to the Super Bowl. But Brenda has a quiet presence standing in the narrow hallway of a photographer’s studio as a busy setup crew shuffles in all around her. She’s wearing a simple yellow dress and is clearly beaming. “This is so much fun,” she keeps repeating.
After introductions, it’s on to makeup, hair … and a long overdue interview. She begins with clearing up rumors that have been oft repeated for eight years, thanks to a widely circulated email about how she and Cardinals Quarterback Kurt Warner supposedly met. The email contains a somewhat contorted version of the truth, according to Brenda. For example, it claims that Brenda was working in a grocery store at the time she met Kurt when, in fact, it was Kurt who worked in a grocery store. Another falsehood is that son Zachary is a quadriplegic with Down syndrome; instead, he suffers brain damage and blindness as a result of an injury sustained when he was four months old.
After eight years of dealing with misguided speculation about the prominent couple, Brenda has learned to shrug most things off. She points out that the real story is much more interesting than the misinformation floating around in cyberspace. The couple has written a book about their lives titled, First Things First, which is due in bookstores June 30.
A DATE WITH DESTINY
Brenda met Kurt in a country music club and the two of them spent a dreamy evening together, dancing the night away. At the time, Brenda never imagined the romantic evening would lead to anything more, and she made it clear she had no expectations from the handsome stranger. “He walked me to my car and bent down to kiss me goodbye,” she recalls, “and I said, ‘Listen, I’m divorced with two kids, so if I never see you again that’s fine.’”
To Brenda’s surprise, Kurt showed up at her home the next morning. “Zachary got up from his seat, took Kurt’s hand and started showing him my house,” Brenda says. “I just stood there thinking, ‘What have I just done?’”
However, her instinct told her this was someone she could trust. While their connection was instantaneous, Brenda knew that she and Kurt were at very different stages in their lives. At 25, Brenda had just left the Marine Corps, was newly divorced with two children—one severely handicapped—and was living with her parents. Kurt was a 21-year-old aspiring football player free to focus on his own career. Nonetheless, it was obvious to Brenda how much Kurt loved children— hers in particular. “He fell in love with my kids before he fell in love with me,” Brenda says.
Sadly, just four years after meeting the love of her life, Brenda was forced to endure more heartache when her beloved parents were killed in an Arkansas tornado. “Nothing prepares you for that at all,” Brenda says. “They were all my eggs in one basket. It rocked my world.”
INTO THE LIMELIGHT
Six months later, Brenda walked down the aisle alone, unaware of the exciting journey ahead. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she says. “When I married Kurt, he wasn’t in the NFL. I really didn’t even know what that meant.”
What it did mean was a great deal of adjustment for the growing family—the couple now has seven children. Brenda now reflects that her husband’s rise to fame has been a continual learning process. “We just learned as we went along,” she says. “We made mistakes; we did some things right. We made changes and adapted to the situation.”
As an NFL wife, Brenda quickly learned that being in the public eye can be taxing. For example, Brenda’s hair became a hot topic for the media right from the start. “When I was first in pictures or in the media, I had short, gray, spiky hair,” Brenda says. “That’s my natural hair color—I turned gray at 25. And it happened that Kurt liked the gray.”
Over the years, Brenda grew her hair and now colors it regularly, but it’s definitely not a top priority. “There’s so much more to me than my hair,” says Brenda, “but that gets talked about more than a lot of things that should get talked about.”
Fame and fortune never diminished the Warners’ commitment to being great parents. Brenda admires the fact that Kurt doesn’t let his football injuries get in the way of time spent with their children. Seeing 11 years of bruises, broken bones and the braces Kurt has to wear in order to play the game, she says she respects what he does more than ever.
“It’s not just a game—he gets beat up,” Brenda says. “It affects our family and it affects his future.”
When Brenda watches a game, she is focused on the hope that her husband isn’t injured. “Yep, that’s what I watch for during the entire game, saying, ‘Get up, get up!’” she admits.
When Kurt returns home, the children don’t ask about the game as they wrestle with their dad. “They don’t know what happened, but I know he’s hurting,” she says. “And yet, he still gets down on the floor to play with them or he gets up the next morning to take them to school, no matter how much he’s hurting. I married up, I’m telling you!”
THE WARNER RULES
The Warner clan includes Zach, 19; Jesse, 17; Kade, 10; Jada Jo, 8; Elijah, 5; and 3-year-old twin girls, Sienna and Sierra. Brenda says that for survival, even the youngest members of the family get themselves dressed in the morning. “We allow them to pick out whatever they want to wear,” she says. “It doesn’t matter to me if it matches or not. It teaches them creativity. I love to see my daughter come up with an outfit that’s like, ‘Wow!’”
While Brenda admires mothers who cook a hot breakfast every morning, she says that is simply not the case in her house. “It’s toaster strudels, frozen waffles or cereal. They each get their own breakfast and we sit at the table and enjoy each other instead of [focusing] on the stress of the morning.”
Another way the Warner family keeps it together is by sticking to the “Warner Rules.” For example, the children are expected to always show respect to others. “When we’re at a restaurant and the kids order their meals, they have to tell me the color of the waiter’s eyes,” says Brenda. “[Then,] I know they gave that person respect by looking them in the eye.”
Naturally, conflicts will arise when a family spends so much time together, but the Warners don’t believe in timeouts or grounding. “When our kids aren’t getting along, they have to hold each other’s hands,” says Brenda, adding that this often turns an ugly situation into a fun one.
Overall, the Warners strive to create an atmosphere of strong family bonds. “Family is more important than any other relationship you have,” Brenda says. “We’re a team. Your siblings will be with you from crib to casket; your friends will come and go. You don’t understand that as a child. Someday when [our kids] get it, I know they will thank us.”
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Brenda recalls that when Kurt’s team won the Super Bowl, the announcer with the microphone said, “First things first, Kurt—tell us about that pass to Isaac Bruce.” Kurt responded, “First things first—I give glory to my God.”
Brenda says this was the birth of the First Things First Foundation, a nonprofit public charity founded by the Warners in 2001. Each year, the foundation funds a weeklong trip to Disney World for dozens of children suffering from serious illnesses and their families. “We get to spend a week ‘loving on’ parents who were told there was no hope,” says Brenda. “I remember being told to give up, and these parents are not giving up. They can relate; they can meet Zach and hear my story.”
Another program set up through the First Things First Foundation provides assistance to single mothers. Brenda feels fortunate to be able to lend a helping hand.
“I’ve been that single mom,” says Brenda. “In one house, we had no closets, so we just had to stack up all the clothes. I’ve had cars that had rats in them and you’d have to bang on the dashboard for them to be quiet once in a while. I had one car that would die every time you’d turn right. To be able to look in a single mom’s eyes after she’s received a houseful of beautiful things and some groceries—I mean, that is a privilege.”
THE REAL MRS. WARNER
Brenda says her mantra is, “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.” Throughout joy and heartbreak, she has remained remarkably grounded and optimistic. “When I turned 40, I thought, ‘You know what? I am what I am,’” she says. “I’m okay. I could be much better, but I could be much worse. I get up and do what I need to do.”
When she’s not caring for her own bustling brood, Brenda says one of her favorite things to do is lavish affection on needy children. “I go to a hospital where there are sick babies—a lot of them have been taken from their parents because of abuse. They don’t care who I am; they don’t care what my husband does; they don’t care how much money we have—they just want to be held.”
With her early difficult trials as a single mother and her “this is me—and I’m okay with who I am” outlook, some women have found Brenda an inspiration. “When I was standing in line for food stamps with two kids by my side, mourning for my mom and dad and living in low-income housing, if you would have told me that in
20 years I’d be able to [inspire other] people, I would have thought, ‘Shut up!’ I look at success as making a difference in this world,” she says, “and I hope that I’m doing it little by little.”
Brenda refuses to get her identity through her role as an NFL wife. “I am not just Kurt’s wife. I am a woman first,” she says. “I’ve been on red carpets where Bo Derek is right in front of me, and I think, ‘Why am I here?’ I feel like someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘You don’t belong,’ because really, I don’t. Yet, God has put us in this position, so I say, ‘Alright God, I’m trusting you … do not let me be the one who trips!’
Brenda accepts the way her husband’s success has put the family in the public eye with as much strength and grace as she accepted previous hardships, yet she never loses sight of her original vision of creating a warm and stable family life. Nevertheless, she says it’s been a fun and unexpected ride, musing, “Who would’ve thought …?”
Morgan Benavidez is an Editorial Intern for Phoenix Woman magazine.
*This article reprinted from Phoenix Woman with permission. It is no longer in print. Brenda Warner will be one of the speakers at this year’s Women of Faith in Phoenix. If you have a personal story to share about your experience with Women of Faith that you would like to see published here, please email me for guidelines: firstname.lastname@example.org