TAMPA — The man who will forever be known as Kurt Warner’s boy was packing to travel from his home in Arizona to Tampa for rookie minicamp.
An undrafted receiver from Kansas State, Kade Warner invites you to examine his life and career as if you were about to watch home movies.
There he is as a 10-year-old at Raymond James Stadium, the last game he ever attended to watch his dad play quarterback for the Cardinals, in a loss to the Steelers in Super Bowl 43.
Here he is being coached by his dad in Pop Warner and later in high school in Scottsdale, where he broke the state record for career catches (241).
With no scholarship offers, here is Kade insisting on walking on at Nebraska and being named captain despite never catching more than 17 passes, as he did as a redshirt freshman.
After many arguments with his two-time NFL Most Valuable Player father, there is Kade having a career season at Kansas State, celebrating wins over TCU for the Big 12 championship and his breakout game against Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
No, Kade is not the supermarket stockboy and barnstorming Arena League star who piloted the Greatest Show on Turf to a pair of Super Bowl appearances with the St. Louis Rams. Nor is he the subject of American Underdog, a motion picture about Kurt and Brenda Warner’s life that was released in 2021.
But the similarities are striking, not only in terms of physical resemblance to his Pro Football Hall of Fame father but also because both had to overcome long odds to get their shot in the NFL as undrafted free agents.
“I’m so grateful for who my dad is and what he’s able to do for me on the ball field,” Kade said. “I said in other interviews, too, I’m the smartest receiver in this draft class, and I fully believe that, but 90% of that is because of who my dad is and what he was able to teach me and allow me to learn at such a young age. He’s the greatest coach I’ve ever had. But that’s just on the field.
“Obviously there’s all those intangible bits of knowledge that he feeds me off the field. They’re so important just that he’s been through these trials and been through these hard times and where no one believed in him. No one thought that he could do what he did. That’s all we need a lot of times in this world, just an opportunity to show we can do.”
Bucs offer a fighting chance
Kade, 24, will get that opportunity beginning Friday and Saturday at the Bucs’ rookie minicamp. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder was pacing the floor talking to his agent as the NFL draft concluded when he agreed to sign with the Bucs.
“I came back to my family and told them I was going be a Buccaneer and started crying a little bit and everyone just started hugging me and loving on me,” Kade said. “It was a moment I won’t forget.”
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Kade chose Tampa Bay because he can read the Bucs receiver room with the same detail as he dissects an opposing secondary. After Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the Bucs don’t have a veteran receiver on the depth chart that they drafted, and Russell Gage took a pay cut to return to the team. In the sixth round, the Bucs selected receiver Trey Palmer, who had 1,048 yards receiving and nine touchdowns at Nebraska last year.
Kade doesn’t run a 4.33 40-yard dash like Palmer. He’s a 4.65 guy at best. But he can play any position, although he is probably best suited as a slot receiver.
“I went back and watched (Kade) and he’s way better than I thought he was,” his dad said. “He’s open a lot and runs great routes. He can win even on the outside. I knew he was good, but I wasn’t able to isolate him or see him get as many catches.”
That changed a bit last season, when Kade caught a career-high 45 passes for 456 yards and five touchdowns in helping the Wildcats to a Big 12 title. Against Alabama, he led K-State with five catches for 48 yards.
“Look back at the season, and I felt like I played my best in games that I needed to and against all the ranked teams that we played,” Kade said. “I played better and better and just kind of fell back on my habits and who I was as a player. … It meant the world, especially in those big moments, that the team was not only able to use me, but lean on me.”
Kurt remembers the arguments he had with his son about transferring out of Nebraska to get more playing opportunities. “I had to fight him for him to do it,” Kurt said. “I told him, ‘Just go.’ Sometimes people don’t see the way you see you and it was with a lot of consternation that he did and I know he’s glad he did it now.”
Kade did take something besides his memories from Nebraska. It’s where he met Abby Sufficool, and the couple became engaged on Easter Sunday.
Tenacity from mom and dad
Of course, everyone is familiar with Kurt’s journey. He started one season at Northern Iowa and had a tryout with the Packers in 1994 before landing with the Arena League’s Iowa Barnstormers, whom he led to two ArenaBowls in three seasons.
He played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe in 1998, leading the league in passing yardage, completions and touchdowns. That led the Rams to sign him. And an injury to Trent Green in the 1999 preseason gave Kurt his opportunity and he ran all the way to the steps of Canton, Ohio, with it.
But the personal struggles are documented, too. The parents of his wife, Brenda, were killed in a tornado in Mountain View, Arkansas, in 1998. Their oldest son, Zachary, whom Kurt adopted along with Brenda’s oldest daughter Jesse, has been blind since suffering a head injury in an accident when he was a baby. They have seven children, three boys and four girls. Youngest son E.J. is the starting quarterback at Temple.
“It’s an easy connection between our football journeys, but my wife having some struggles and going through some different parts of the journey, I think (Kade) pulls from that as well and sees both of us,” Kurt said. “I think he’s always very conscious of that, which is why I think it’s cool to reference mom. It’s easy and natural to go, ‘Yeah, my dad played in the NFL.’ But I think he respects her journey and what he learned from her as well.”
Kade’s NFL journey will begin this weekend with the Bucs, a team his dad beat 11-6 in the NFC Championship Game with a touchdown pass on Jan. 23, 2000. Kurt and the Rams went on to defeat Tennessee in the Super Bowl that season.
“I’m not apologizing for any of it,” Kurt said. “I respect the organization. I respected that team and we were fortunate.”
Likewise, Kade feels fortunate to be able to carry the Warner name back into the NFL on a journey that to this point has not been that dissimilar to his father’s. Kade is Kurt’s son but very much his own man.
“Nobody asked for that, right?” Kurt said. “The expectations that come with that, no matter what, especially when there’s so many similarities between us on top of that. But I think Kade does a great job understanding two perspectives. He understands first and foremost, he’s got his own journey. He respects my journey and takes what he can from it but he understood that journey is not his journey. The other side is understanding that some of what he has become and the intelligence and the way that I called it and used him in high school has been a tremendous benefit for him.
“He’s like another coach on the field. If you watch him in college, you’ll see him always signaling out to guys or telling them where to go and what to do. So that mind for the game he has on top of it, I think he appreciates that part of it, too.”
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