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Cheering for the good guy

American Underdog is a worthwhile telling of Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner’s story

A scene from American Underdog Mike Kubeisy/Lionsgate

Cheering for the good guy

American Underdog, opening in theaters Christmas Day, tells the true story of a remarkable athlete—NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner. And it tells the important role his wife and family played in his achievements.

An against-all-odds athlete success story always inspires audiences. But this PG film focuses mostly on Warner’s personal and relational struggles and growth. His eventual embrace of Christianity comes naturally, without cloying, overemotional scenes.

Warner grew up idolizing four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Montana. All Warner wanted to do was be an NFL quarterback. But no team drafted him after playing at Northern Iowa, and the Packers cut him at training camp. Warner, played by Zachary Levi, winds up at the local Hy-Vee supermarket stocking shelves, ironically including boxes of Wheaties plastered with a photo of Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.

While in college, he meets and later marries Brenda (Anna Paquin), a single, divorced mom with two children. Her unfaithful husband left after he dropped their son, causing a traumatic brain injury and irreversible blindness. Scenes between Warner and Brenda’s son, Zack, played by Hayden Zaller, who is also blind, provide the film’s warmest moments.

Brenda has her own compelling story, telling Warner she’s a work in progress. Her strong faith in God helps Warner see he’s made his own dreams paramount to God’s will.

Never losing his desire to quarterback, Warner grudgingly agrees to play Arena Football with the Iowa Barnstormers. (The movie doesn’t refer to his time with the NFL Europe Amsterdam Admirals.) It’s a whole different style of play on a smaller field. But Warner learns valuable skills that garner attention from the St. Louis Rams, who sign him.

How Warner gets his big break at the expense of the injured starting quarterback is only part of his success story. Head coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid), who also made a comeback after 14 years out of coaching, calls him aside to tell him, “There’s something special about you, son, and I can’t wait to find out what it is.” Vermeil himself reports these words as 100 percent accurate. Apparent antagonist offensive coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly), derogatorily calls him “Pop Warner” (a reference to youth-league football). But there’s a reason behind his jabs.

The movie includes some notable game footage of the real Warner spliced in well with the actors’ gridiron action. But the film drops the ball in one way: Levi plays a believable Warner, replete with athletic build and a decent forward pass, but at 41 he looks way too old to play Warner in college scenes.

Even though we know how the movie ends, it’s still an inspiration to watch—especially the less familiar parts off the field. The Erwin Brothers do a good job telling a true sports story that elevates faith, marriage, family, and overcoming the odds.

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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