American Underdog tells the unlikely story of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, but the movie changes a few things along the way. The film follows Warner from his final year of college at the University of Northern Iowa until his first game in the NFL as a starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams. The cast includes Zachary Levi as Warner and Anna Paquin as Brenda, Warner’s supporting wife.
Directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, specializing in confessional films, American Underdog shows how Warner worked to achieve his dream of playing football at a professional level. Warner took an unusual route to the NFL; he wasn’t picked by any team in the NFL Draft, and didn’t get his first real opportunity to play professionally until five years after graduating from college. The film depicts his time playing in the Arena Football League before taking a tryout with the Rams.
Generally, American Underdog sticks to the most important plot points in Warner history. Some elements have been omitted in order to make the story lighter; the biggest change was made to add dramatic weight to the film’s climax. This isn’t the first time that a sports film has adapted to a true story, because Friday night lights made similar changes. Here’s what the Erwin brothers changed by translating Warner’s journey to the big screen.
Coaching at the University of Northern Iowa
Although Warner was hoping to be drafted into the NFL after booking an agent, no team took him after his final season playing at UNI. After trying unsuccessfully for the Green Bay Packers, Warner got a job restocking the shelves at the Midwestern grocery chain, Hy-Vee, to support Brenda and her children. In reality, however, Hy-Vee wasn’t the only job Warner had after graduation.
Warner’s resupply job was on the night shift. During the day, he served as an assistant coach with the University of Northern Iowa football team he had played for as an undergraduate student. American Underdog shows the hard work Warner did to stay in the starting lineup under coach Terry Allen (one of Firefly‘s lead, Adam Baldwin) but omits his continuing relationship with the school as a graduate. Given that the real Warner places more emphasis on the time he spent stocking grocery shelves between college and his NFL career, it makes sense that the film would do the same.
Warner’s Time with the Barnstormers
In addition to omitting one of Warner’s pre-NFL revenue streams, American Underdog is vague about the time Warner spent in the Arena Football League. Despite two jobs, money was continually tight for Warner and his family, so he decided to accept an offer to play football for the Iowa Barnstormers. The AFL is less prestigious than the NFL but was quite popular in the late 90s when Warner was looking for an opportunity to play football.
American Underdog gives no indication of how long Warner has played for the Des Moines team, instead focusing on the difficulties that remote working has caused her relationship (a difficult decision Lara Jean also made during the last To all the boys film) with Brenda. Warner was the Barnstormers’ starting quarterback for three years, from 1995 to 1997. The film also omits the fact that Warner received a tryout with the Chicago Bears prior to the 1997 AFL season. Apparently, Warner was bitten by a spider before the test which prevented him from attending.
Again, these are minor changes; the inclusion of the information about the Bears trial may seem a bit repetitive since Warner’s failed trial for the Packers was included earlier in American Underdog. Likewise, the main point of showing Warner’s time in the AFL with the Barnstormers was to show how Warner responded to adversity of not being able to enter the NFL soon after college. The directors made the creative decision to shorten the timeline in order to keep the story moving, similar to Denis Villenueve’s decision to cut a major scene from Dune.
The start of Warner’s career in the NFL
Another omission in Kurt Warner’s story in American Underdog also serves to move the story forward and revolves around Warner’s entry into the NFL. The film shows Warner trying out with the St. Louis Rams, getting into the squad, and ultimately being placed in the starting quarterback position. In real life, before officially playing for the Rams, Warner was dispatched to play in the NFL Europe for the Amsterdam Admirals.
Warner returned to play as the Rams’ third quarterback in the fall of 1998, after putting on a strong performance in Europe where he led the league in both passing and touchdown yards. His first season with the Rams was not so successful and led to his being selected to be an unprotected transfer-eligible player to the Cleveland Browns in the 1999 NFL expansion draft. quite dramatic but would have added considerable time to American Underdog‘s nearly two hours of runtime.
Finally, after all of his hard work and patience, Kurt Warner got the chance to play in the NFL when coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid, who almost played Alan Grant in jurassic park) named him a starting quarterback for the 1999 season. For dramatic purposes, American Underdog omits the fact that Warner was given a small amount of playing time in 1998. Instead, they view the Rams’ 1999 opener against the Ravens as his first game in the NFL. After a stormy start, Warner turns on the heat and leads his team to victory. This game is where the movie ends, but football fans will know it was just the start of a great season for the Rams, affectionately called “The Greatest Show On Turf”. Warner has had an incredible year, leading his team to the Super Bowl, which American Underdog shown in a montage of real music videos from the 1999-2000 NFL season.
Warner’s post-NFL career
While editing the clip, American Underdog provides some post-scripts on Warner’s life after Super Bowl 2000. They mention his subsequent Super Bowl appearances in 2001 and 2009, and his blossoming marriage to Brenda who had five more children. His post-NFL career remains unsaid, despite the fact that Warner has always been very active in broadcasting football. After retiring from the NFL in 2010, Warner returned to his roots by becoming a broadcaster for the Iowa Barnstormers.
He also began working as an analyst for the NFL Network and appears regularly as a contributor on NFL Total Access. He has made a few television appearances outside of the soccer world, including a guest appearance as himself on The life of the suite on the bridge (whose stars, Dylan and Cole Sprouse, moved on to more important things) and as a competitor on Dancing with the stars. The film focuses on the most difficult trials in Warner’s life on the path to making an unlikely dream come true. The essays left out are very similar to things already included in the movie, keeping it from getting repetitive. Framing the climax around the opening of the 1999 season makes it difficult to include everything that happened in Warner’s life afterwards. Given the narrative arc of American Underdog, omissions and alterations to the story are forgivable.
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