It started this past February with a clandestine trip to a tire shop in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the site of what used to be a country and western bar years earlier. Brenda Warner had asked a girlfriend to head out on a reconnaissance mission to get the exact coordinates of the location. Back in the day, Wild E. Coyote’s was a raucous, sawdust-filled spot, with Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw on rotation. It was also where, in 1992, an aspiring football player named Kurt Warner struck up the courage to ask a sassy Marine in red cowboy boots to dance.
Thirty years later, that former Marine and her NFL Hall of Fame husband would find themselves on the dance floor again, this time inside a rented whiskey saloon in Oklahoma City that had been transformed by Hollywood filmmakers to look like the original. With Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark” playing the background, Brenda surprised Kurt with matching bracelets engraved with the coordinates her pal had secured. They haven’t taken them off since.
This December, audiences around the world will get to watch stars Zachary Levi and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin recreate that magical first night at a barn dance in a feature film from Lionsgate called American Underdog, which debuts in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.
And, while the movie re-traces Kurt’s incredible rise from supermarket shelf-stocker to Super Bowl champion and MVP, the film is also a testament to the Warners’ decades-long love story, a tale of never settling, finding the love you deserve, and perseverance through difficult times.
Today, the parents of seven (you read that right!) spend most of their time flying back and forth from Scottsdale to Kansas State to watch their son Kade play college ball, and then their teenage son Elijah lead his Brophy High School team back here in Arizona. In between Kurt’s NFL TV commitments in Los Angeles, Brenda’s welding projects, their relentless commitment to Treasure House in honor of their son Zack (another incredible “underdog” story you’ll see unfold in the film), hanging with their four daughters, being grandparents, and fitting in a few last-minute intense pickleball games with friends, the Warners found time to reflect on exposing their lives to moviegoers in a project that’s been more than 10 years in the making.
TARA: It’s one thing to have people all your life say, “This would make a great movie.” I’m sure you visualized who would play you guys in a film. Brenda, you’ve joked about Denzel playing Kurt [laughs]. I was excited to hear it was Zachary Levi. How do you get there? What were your first thoughts?
KURT: Well, I think both of us came at this from different perspectives going into it from the casting side. You wonder to yourself, ‘okay… is it about getting bigger name people to play us and play that role? And will that make it do better at the box office possibly?’ Or, is it better to get people who are less known, kind of like we were at the time… the underdog story? I think I wrestled back and forth with what would be best. But as you know in the movie industry now, it seems like you need a big star attached to [a project] to really get the publicity and get a studio behind it. I never really thought about who would play both of us, because I don’t watch enough TV for me to know a lot about that stuff [Laughs]. So for me, it was about who do we get attached to it and what’s the most advantageous to the story. I think Brenda was on the other side. Knowing so many people from different realms… the big stars and then people she watches through other shows. She would mention names and I’m like, ‘I have no idea who that is’ [laughs]. She would say ‘that’s perfect for you or that’s perfect for me.’ So, I think she was much more heavily involved in who she felt could really portray us and could pull us off for the big screen.
BRENDA: I think for me it was more that I had to make a shift that this movie isn’t how I see myself. It’s how others see me, because I didn’t write it. I didn’t direct it. I didn’t cast it… so just kind of releasing that… that this is how other people see me and to trust that. When you find out somebody’s playing you? It’s humbling and weird and exciting. Then when I got to know Anna, it was all worth it.
TARA: The movie is called American Underdog, but Brenda, your story and some of the parts of your life that are included are very personal, and quite frankly, more emotional on many levels than Kurt’s story. How hard was it for you to open up and know that a lot of the personal stuff about you is in a movie that is about Kurt?
BRENDA: It is surreal because, when you see it being played out, you relive it. So, something about your mind and your heart and your soul even goes back there to that pain and to kind of realizing that, gosh, that was the lowest of low… and then all of a sudden, something else hits you and you think ‘no this is the lowest of low.’ Then you’re 25 years down the road and you think, ‘you know what? This is a reminder that I survived. That I’m a survivor. That I am who I am today because of making it through that.’ … I think it makes our story relatable because we went through some really tough times... you just hope that people will say, you know what? They weren’t superheroes… they weren’t extra special.. they just kept going and they kept getting up and they kept doing the best they could. So that helps make it worth it having to relive all those moments just hoping someone will be touched by it.
TARA: I’d love to hear from each of you, what was the most fun day being on set as you’re watching this film?
KURT: Ironically enough, the majority of the time I was on the set it was football stuff. And as great as those football scenes are... it was the stuff away from the football field that was the most impactful to me. The day at the bar… that was a lot of fun because it brought back so many different memories. The day when we did the wedding. Reliving those moments at the wedding… thinking back to [our kids] Zack and Jesse… how that played out… I think those were the two days or the two scenes that impacted me the most when I was on set.
BRENDA: Oh gosh [pauses] that dance scene was special. Our daughter Jada got to be an extra in the dance sequence. And so knowing that we have a 20-year-old daughter who wants to be an actress and she got to stand next to the actress that plays her mom in the movie just was kind of extra-special for me personally. Just to see her kind of fly a little bit and spread her wings and step into her first motion picture.
TARA: And with an Oscar winner no less [laughs]. I know that marriage is not easy, and you guys have been through a ton. You’ve got seven kids all going in different directions. I’ve told you before, I don’t know how you do it. Did this movie strengthen the bond? Are there any secrets to surviving what you all have survived in addition to a film being made about your life?
KURT: Our secret from day one is saying that there are no options other than finding a way through whatever. I think both of us, because of what we’ve been through, realize that, okay, life is going to suck at times and it’s not going to be what we want, but there are no options than to do it together. I think one of the cool things about this movie that I never expected was when our kids saw it. I think the depth of appreciation that they have for us and for the journey we went through now is deeper than it ever was before. And I think that kind of helped us through this movie to see that sort of impact. I don’t know what’s going to happen on the big screen, but that to me is one of the coolest parts… Our kids stepping back and going ‘wow, that was awesome,’ and just appreciating both sides of our journey. It seemed to really hit home for them in a way I’ve never heard them express before.
BRENDA: You know, I remember being divorced with two small kids and talking to my mom one night when I was really, really depressed and just felt hopeless, and she stopped me from going down that road. She said, ‘I believe that someday you will find someone who will love you the way you deserve to be loved.’ And, I want my four daughters and my three sons to never settle for somebody who doesn’t love you the way you deserve to be loved. I think that is what rings through this movie, too… that even as a mother with a child with special needs, I want him to be surrounded by the love he deserves. You know, as a single mom, I wanted to be loved that way and not just settle for somebody who would take care of me or take care of my kids. I hope it’s not a secret. We’re screaming it out loud during this movie. Don’t settle and bring your best to that person and pick somebody who brings their best. And that is what we do every day. Some days are tougher to do that, but we still do it.
TARA: SO… What are you guys doing Christmas Day?
TARA: Will you be in a theater?
KURT: I do believe we’ll probably be in a theater. It’s not something we’ve ever done on Christmas Day before… although we’ve heard, since our movie is scheduled to be released on Christmas, we’ve heard a number of people tell us about how that’s what they’ve always done… go to the movies.
TARA: So what IS your Christmas Day Warner Family tradition?
BRENDA: Oh, for sure we’ll be in matching PJs, eating waffles, fake snow in the front yard, and soaking up every minute as a family before he goes to work. Always faith, family, and football. That being said, think we can sneak a family of eleven into a theater [laughs].
For more information on Treasure House, visit TreasureHouse.org.