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Former Seattle Seahawks running back Curt Warner always shows his best against challenges

UPDATED: Wed., April 10, 2019, 7:08 p.m.

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

An update for all the truly old-school Seattle Seahawks fans: Curt Warner’s knee is fine.

“Actually, I still get around fairly well,” Warner said recently of his famed right knee, the 1984 destruction of which swept over football fans in the Pacific Northwest like a tsunami of despair.

Or was it an eruption of volcanic anguish?

Either way, consider it curious, and perhaps a bit unfair, that so often when fans discuss Warner’s brilliant career with the Seahawks during the 1980s that the memory is often followed by a specific wistful speculation.

Oh, yeah, Curt was great, but just think of what he could have been if he hadn’t blown out that knee.

Warner’s career stands on its merit. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1983 when he led the conference in rushing, and a Seahawks Ring of Honor member.

Yeah … but what if?

“Curt was solid gold for us,” said John Nordstrom, managing general partner for the original ownership group. “He would have been one of the all-time great NFL backs if he hadn’t gotten hurt. If he stayed healthy, he would have been unbelievable.”

So the only critique of Warner could be that his exceptional career fell somewhat short of the astronomical expectations that he had created, himself, by being so good so quickly.

Warner, 58, is philosophical on the topic, and is a man who fully understands how many issues in life are more important than lamenting something that might have turned out better 30 years ago.

“I think if I could have stayed healthy, in my mind at least, I could have gotten the kind of yards it takes,” he said when asked of his potential, relative to typical Pro Football Hall of Fame standards. “But, what are you going to do? I can look back and say I played pretty well when I was healthy. Some things in life you have no control over – health is one of them.”

Few understand that reality more than Warner, whose experiences with the health circumstances of his family led to a surprising midlife development: Warner has become an author. Along with his wife, Ana, he has written a memoir, “The Warner Boys,” which details the drama and trials of raising of a family that includes twin sons with autism spectrum disorder.

It’s a story of hope and survival in the face of adversity. The inspirational value of the message might turn out to be even more resonant with readers than anything Warner accomplished on the football field.

Still, he was magical for a time. His raw statistics (6,844 yards and 56 touchdowns rushing in 100 NFL games) don’t come close to capturing how much excitement Warner generated among Seahawk fans starving for a winner.

A generation of those fans might benefit from a reminder just how good Curt Warner was when he was at the height of his acclaim – before he was an author.

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Curt Warner, a former football running back who played for Penn State, the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams, waves to the crowd after receiving his College Football Hall of Fame jacket during the College Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Festival on July 17, 2010 in South Bend, Ind. (Joe Raymond / AP)
Curt Warner, a former football running back who played for Penn State, the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams, waves to the crowd after receiving his College Football Hall of Fame jacket during the College Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Festival on July 17, 2010 in South Bend, Ind. (Joe Raymond / AP)

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno received mountains of letters touting prospects. But this one, from the tiny West Virginia town of Pineville, wasn’t from a coach, but from Curt Warner’s English teacher, Libby McKinney. She focused on what a fine young man and promising student Curt Warner was. Paterno was intrigued.

“Joe gave it to me and said, ‘I really like this letter, follow up on it and check him out,’ ” recalled Tim Curley, Penn State’s football recruiting coordinator at the time. Curley flew to Pineville for a game.

“The first six times Curt touched the football, he scored a touchdown,” Curley said. “Even though he played at a very small high school, I knew this young man had special talents.”

Paterno needed to see him in person, though, so he risked flying with Curley through a midwinter storm to watch Warner in a basketball game.

“We could see what a great athlete he was,” Curley said. “But bigger than all that was just what kind of person he was, his personality, his integrity just really stood out.”

When Curley and Paterno returned to the little regional airport in the rugged hill country, “it was snowing sideways and it was so cold Joe’s glasses were iced up, and we were on the top of a mountain about to climb into a little four-seater airplane.”

As he stepped into the plane, the storm-tossed Paterno ominously gave Curley a threat: “He better be worth it.”

Warner proved his worth in his first game as a freshman, scoring three touchdowns against Rutgers in front of 86,000 people. Mrs. McKinney was in the stands, presumably screaming, “I told you so!”

While setting 42 school rushing records, earning two All-America honors and helping Penn State win a national championship, Warner played best in the biggest games. In three straight bowl games, Warner was either the game’s MVP or outgained an opposing back who had won the Heisman Trophy (USC’s Marcus Allen in the 1982 Fiesta Bowl, and Georgia’s Herschel Walker in the 1983 Sugar Bowl).

Under new coach Chuck Knox, the Seahawks headed into the 1983 draft with the ninth pick in the first round. Knox needed a special running back to fuel his beloved rushing attack, so the Seahawks traded their first-, second- and third-round picks to Houston, moving up to No. 3 to take Warner.

Warner validated the investment immediately. At Kansas City, Warner broke his first rush for 60 yards and finished with 165 yards of total offense. With Warner leading the AFC in rushing (1,449 yards), the Seahawks turned into one of the hottest teams in the NFL, upsetting the Dolphins in Miami in the playoffs and making it to the AFC championship game before losing to the Raiders.

As the golden-throated narrator John Facenda said in an NFL highlight film of Warner’s impact on the Seahawks: “Never before had one player so clearly altered this team’s course, and none had accomplished the feat in such stylish fashion.”

“The fans wanted it so badly; they had never been to the playoffs,” Warner said. “People were very appreciative of us playing some good football, and I’m glad we were able to deliver.”

Those who never watched Warner, or can’t remember what he could do, should search online for videos.

He had a smooth, gliding style and was deceptively fast in all directions. At times, defenders looked like the rooks and bishops in chess, capable of pursuing along certain predictable axes or angles, while Warner enjoyed not only unrestricted movement, but so often executed a knight’s move, blazing fast and straight at the point of attack, only to suddenly stop and execute a full-speed 90-degree cut that left defenders frozen. If needed, he would leap over them.

Having come just short of the Super Bowl in 1983, the Seahawks were considered a legitimate title threat at the start of the next season. Early in the ’84 season opener vs. Cleveland, Warner took a pitch wide right, stretching the defense to set up his patented cut-back action.

His foot planted, his knee detonated, and by the time he hit the turf, the Kingdome fell silent.

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Curt Warner rushed for 6,705 yards during his seven season with the Seattle Seahawks. (Chris Anderson / Cowles Publishing)
Curt Warner rushed for 6,705 yards during his seven season with the Seattle Seahawks. (Chris Anderson / Cowles Publishing)

“ … that damned AstroTurf in the Kingdome.”

Former Seahawks owner John Nordstrom

At the time, the kind of ACL injury Warner sustained most often ended a running back’s career.

But team doctor Pierce Scranton pieced him together, and Warner joined the dedicated Seahawks trainers in a year of painful rehabilitation. Warner looked back in time for motivation.

“I was uncertain about whether I’d ever get back to what I’d been,” Warner said. “But then I thought about my dad working 40 years in those coal mines of West Virginia, and that inspired me. He would never give up.”

Surprisingly, the Seahawks flourished in his absence, going 12-4 in 1984. Against all odds, Warner returned to rush for nearly 1,100 yards in 1985, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors.

The full comeback arrived the next season, making 1986 the best of his career. In comparison to the Seahawks’ contemporary gold standard, Marshawn Lynch, Warner’s 1,823 rushing/receiving yards in ’86 was even more than Lynch’s 1,786 total yards in 2012.

A communications graduate, Warner is cautious and precise in his speech, but when you ask him what running the football was like, he speeds up, stringing together independent clauses like verbal cutbacks and jukes.

“Chuck’s offense gave me freedom … there’s textbook plays and then there’s football plays … never exact. You’ve got a split second to make a decision … then you go. Sometimes my best runs were for 2-3 yards … sometimes you make a couple guys miss in the backfield just to get back to the line.”

But nearly every play for a running back ends in some manner of violence. For running backs, the destructive elements accumulate, the severe torque of the cuts, the tonnage of defenders, the unyielding artificial surface that makes each game seem feel being tossed off a rocky cliff and hitting every ledge on the way down.

And then it’s done. A blazing comet at 22, taken down at 23, back to speed at 25, out of the league at 29.

“It wasn’t just that knee. I had a total of six surgeries, three ankle surgeries,” he said. “I got horse-collared and rolled up on in Kansas City one year, and I just wasn’t the same. When you can’t produce, you get replaced by somebody who can.”

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Curt Warner is inducted into the Seahawks Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony, Sunday, Nov. 27, 1994, in Seattle. Also taking part in the ceremony is his wife Ana, while his two-year-old son Jonathan yawns. (Barry Sweet / Associated Press)
Curt Warner is inducted into the Seahawks Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony, Sunday, Nov. 27, 1994, in Seattle. Also taking part in the ceremony is his wife Ana, while his two-year-old son Jonathan yawns. (Barry Sweet / Associated Press)

“The NFL is a tough game,” Warner said of the end of his career.

Yeah, it is tough. But so is life. And the lessons he learned about resilience and fighting back and staying strong were called upon more than he could have imagined.

In the ’90s, Curt and Ana were buffeted by the death of a full-term stillborn son and a series of miscarriages. They later struggled for years before learning their twin sons, Austin and Christian, had autism spectrum disorder. By then, in 1999, Curt owned a car dealership in Camas, Washington.

The challenges at home were around-the-clock as the twins were sometimes destructive and self-injurious. Curt and Ana pulled together and functionally withdrew from the public eye to focus fully on parenting. They feared that telling people other than just their closest friends would seem like they were complaining about the demands of raising children they dearly loved.

Neighbor Don Lovell, when interviewed for the book, explained his introduction to the Warners’ circumstances. “You’d go over there and it was like a war zone,” Lovell said. “There were holes in the walls everywhere. Curt would work to fix two holes in the drywall and in half an hour there would be two more kicked into a different wall.”

The thing Lovell stressed was that, even at the most dire, the Warners “never complained about it once.” Not even when one of the twins started a fire in his bedroom in 2008 that burned most of the house down, and nearly all their possessions.

“I was with Curt when he went back into the room where they had all his trophies and game balls and everything,” Lovell said. “And everything was melted and ruined or burned. And, you know, he didn’t blink an eye … he was just happy that everybody was OK.”

Warner sold his car dealership and got licensed to run a small insurance company in Portland. He said he’s still open to any opportunity that might present itself, but their twin sons, now 24, are still living at home and highly dependent on their parents.

Over the years, the scar on his knee has faded. And many football fans think of a quarterback named Kurt Warner, rather than Curt Warner, when they hear the name spoken. All the trophies and game balls and memorabilia from his career have been burned or melted by fire.

But he’s still considered a legitimate Hall of Famer in some quarters.

“He’s a Hall of Fame husband,” Ana said. “He was always there, always convincing me we were going to be OK. He always had my back. Always. And he’s still solid as a rock. Yes, he’s a Hall of Fame husband and father. He absolutely is.”

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