They've come a long way
Warner, Delhomme European teammates
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Kurt Warner was sure he was down to his last chance to make it as an NFL quarterback in 1998 when he reported to the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.
Then he showed up for practice and saw Jake Delhomme, a young, energetic, unknown guy eager to steal the starting job.
"Jake had the stronger arm, he moved better, could make the big throws and big plays a lot better than I could," Warner said. "All I was hoping, no offense to Jake, was that he would make a few more mistakes than me so that the coaches would give me a chance."
Warner won the starting job, and a year later was living a dream as the NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion with the St. Louis Rams.
Delhomme eventually made something of himself, too, leading the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season in his first year as an NFL starter.
Tomorrow night, the competitors-turned-friends with those modest backgrounds face off in the postseason for the first time when Warner's Arizona Cardinals (10-7) play Delhomme and the Panthers (12-4) in the NFC divisional round.
"Only in America can that happen," said Al Luginbill, the former Amsterdam coach.
Warner and Delhomme eagerly told stories of their spring in the Netherlands this week as they prepared for the rematch of the regular-season game in which Warner threw for 381 yards, only to have Delhomme engineer a comeback from a two-touchdown deficit to give Carolina a 27-23 win.
"I had not heard of him," Delhomme recalled. "I knew he was an Arena League quarterback. But you could tell from the first practice that he was very accurate, a very heady quarterback."
Still, Delhomme thought he should have been the starter.
"Kurt had the upper hand going into camp," Delhomme said. "I kind of found that out after the fact."
Luginbill had worked to get the Rams and New Orleans Saints to allocate Warner and Delhomme to Amsterdam.
Warner had gone from bagging groceries to playing three seasons in the Arena League. Delhomme went from being undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette a year earlier and spending his first season as a pro on the Saints' practice squad.
"At that time, Kurt had played professionally, regardless of what you may think of the Arena League," Luginbill said. "He had been very, very successful. At that particular time, he was ahead of Jake. Jake doesn't like to hear that, but it was true."
But Luginbill didn't name a starter until a couple of hours before the first game against the Rhein Fire.
"He said, 'Kurt's going to start. You're going to play,' " Delhomme said. "I didn't."
Warner went on to throw for a league-high 2,101 yards, paving the way for his storybook 1999 season with the Rams. Delhomme started just one game, when Warner was injured, and struggled. But Delhomme flourished a year later with the Frankfurt Galaxy to get his own shot in the NFL.
"He was a young kid and he was going to get another opportunity, but I was never going to get that opportunity," Warner said. "But there is no question that he was a lot more talented than I was."
Delhomme said he didn't sulk as he rode the bench in Amsterdam and quickly became friends with Warner despite their competition.
"It was only 10 games we played together, but just watching his demeanor, not too many things fazed him," Delhomme said. "He threw an interception one time. It wasn't his fault, but quarterbacks get gun-shy. They won't try again. The next time we dialed it up, he did the same thing, threw it, and completed it."
Sounds a lot like Delhomme's style today, unafraid to sling the ball to star receiver Steve Smith in double coverage, and the author of 12 game-winning scoring drives in the final two minutes or overtime.
And while Delhomme has recovered from reconstructive elbow surgery, Warner resurrected his career after being let go by St. Louis by zipping the ball around with that signature quick release. Warner helped the Cardinals beat Atlanta, 30-24, last Saturday in the franchise's first home playoff win since 1947.
It's clear both are proud of how each has flourished after early struggles. Delhomme remembers how as Warner was in the middle of the first of his two MVP seasons, he made his first NFL start with the Saints.
"The first message on my machine in my apartment was from Kurt Warner after the game. That's him. That's the kind of guy he is," Delhomme said.
"I called him after he made the Pro Bowl this year. Same thing, left a message. I texted him Saturday night after the game. I'm proud of him. I'm happy for him. He deserves it."