NFL: Delhomme and Warner were Admirals in Amsterdam
By Scott Fowler
By Scott Fowler
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In April 1998, two unknown quarterbacks flew from America to Amsterdam.
In that freewheeling European capital — where prostitution is legal and marijuana is sold openly in coffee shops — they narrowed their focus and stuck to a single mission.
Beat the other guy.
They were in their mid-20s then, but their personalities had already been forged.
Jake Delhomme was fire. He would celebrate a touchdown in practice with a hug-seeking sprint that would have made Jim Valvano proud.
Kurt Warner was ice. Nothing ever fazed him. He never raised his voice.
Ice won that time. Warner started in front of Delhomme all season for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.
On Saturday, those same two quarterbacks—now very well-known, but still fire and ice — will meet again. Delhomme's Carolina squad will host Arizona and Warner in a divisional playoff game at 8:15 p.m. in Charlotte.
This time the stadium where Delhomme and Warner play won't have a moat surrounding it like the one in Holland did to keep unruly fans off the field.
But the quarterbacks' mission remains the same.
Beat the other guy.
Delhomme and Warner struck up a friendship in Amsterdam, one that has solidified as their professional successes have mounted. They share an agent and a set of personal values. Both are family-oriented. Delhomme will turn 34 Saturday. Warner is 37.
Delhomme text-messaged "Congrats" to Warner after Arizona's playoff win against Atlanta.
When Delhomme got his first NFL start several years ago, the first congratulatory message on his answering machine was from Warner.
Both remember that spring of 1998 with fondness now, the way many of us remember our senior year of college or our old garage band.
"We were young pups," Delhomme said.
His memories have a more bittersweet tinge, though. He thought he should have started over Warner back then. Still thinks so, if you want to know the truth. He was angry when he didn't get that job.
They had never heard of each other until they joined Amsterdam's team. That wasn't surprising—both went undrafted and played for small colleges (Delhomme for Louisiana-Lafayette, Warner for Northern Iowa).
But when they saw each other throw at the team's first practice, they both got nervous.
Said Warner of Delhomme: "I don't think there's any question about it. Jake had the stronger arm, he moved better. He could make the big throws and big plays a lot better than I could. 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."
Said Delhomme: "I knew he was an Arena League quarterback. That's all I knew. But you could tell from the first practice, he was a very accurate, very heady quarterback."
Delhomme was 23 back then, with a steady girlfriend (his future wife, Keri Melancon) back home in Louisiana. He was homesick. He spent a lot of time on the phone.
Warner was 26. He had just gotten married. His wife was pregnant.
The two were paid $1,600 a week, netting a modest $16,000 for the 10-game season. They ate a lot of French fries and hard-boiled eggs (the team's pre-game meals always featured chicken breasts, but Delhomme claims they weren't cooked).
Like every other Amsterdam Admiral, they had to share a small room in a mediocre hotel with a teammate.
"You didn't go there to get rich," Delhomme said. "You went there to play."
A last-minute decision
That was the problem for Delhomme. He didn't get to play.
The man who made the decision to keep Delhomme on the bench was Al Luginbill, who now lives in Arizona and works for the Denver Broncos evaluating pro personnel. Luginbill is partially credited for discovering Warner, who went from stocking groceries after college to NFL Most Valuable Player in 1999 and 2001.
The head coach at Amsterdam from 1995 through 2000, Luginbill has coached some good quarterbacks. He also won an XFL championship with future Pittsburgh star Tommy Maddox. He coached future NFL quarterback Jay Fiedler in Amsterdam the year before he had Warner and Delhomme.
Every year, Luginbill had to construct an NFL Europe team mostly from scratch. He brooked no nonsense.
"I always told my players in Amsterdam one thing," Luginbill said. "If you get into trouble, call home, because that's where you're going. We're not here to babysit you."
Luginbill had seen Warner play for the Arena League's Iowa Barnstormers and liked what he saw enough to talk him into coming over to Amsterdam. Delhomme was a favorite of Amsterdam offensive coordinator Joe Clark.
Luginbill didn't make a decision right away. In fact, he waited until the last possible moment.
In retrospect, you can see why. He was choosing between two future NFL Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Luginbill said this week that neither player has changed much.
"Both of them had the intangibles you can't coach," he said. "Their competitiveness and toughness was very similar. The way they played was not. Kurt was much more the classic dropback guy. Jake could get out, make plays on his feet—he was a little more of a gunslinger. He was probably a better overall athlete. But Kurt had a great ability to buy time in the pocket and get the ball there accurately."
As Delhomme remembers it, Luginbill told the two quarterbacks where they stood only hours before the season opener.
"It went down to the wire," Delhomme said. "He told us two hours before we played the first game. ... It was weird coaching. He said, 'Kurt, you're going to start. Jake, you're going to play.' And I didn't. He also said, 'You two don't have to win the game, but just make sure you don't lose it.'
"I looked at Kurt and said, 'I've never had somebody tell me that before.' It was interesting, to say the least."
Long way from Amsterdam
Teammates hadn't been sure who would win the job, either. Offensive guard Tom Nutten would eventually play nine years in the NFL. He spent many of them blocking for Warner in St. Louis as part of the "Greatest Show on Turf."
Said Nutten: "It was definitely a close competition in terms of athletic ability and talent. I know the rest of the offense felt very comfortable with either one at the helm. In terms of a team, it was a great problem to have. In terms of the quarterback who gets the shorter end of the straw, it kind of sucks."
Delhomme would later plead his case — unsuccessfully — to Luginbill in a passionate one-on-one meeting.
Even today, when Delhomme is asked about getting mad when he found out he wasn't the starter, he replied: "Well, I should have been!"
Then, more quietly, he said: "Kurt had the upper hand going into camp. I kind of found that out after the fact. But you know what? He made the most of it. He was outstanding."
And Warner was — although he had not been sure he would be the starter.
"If you just looked at it in black and white," Warner said, "you'd probably take a guy like Jake."
But Warner ate up the league in 1998. In front of home crowds in Amsterdam that averaged about 16,000 per game, Warner led NFL Europe in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns. Four months later, he made the St. Louis Rams as the third quarterback.
One year later, Warner became the Rams' starter and then, remarkably, the league and Super Bowl MVP as he led the Rams to a storybook championship. He has played the past four years in Arizona.
The funny thing is that Amsterdam didn't win the 1998 league title. The Admirals finished 7-3 and out of the playoffs.
Delhomme did get one start in 1998 when Warner was injured. And he failed, throwing several interceptions in a 14-10 loss.
Warner never went back to NFL Europe after 1998. Delhomme returned once more in 1999, this time in Frankfurt. There he started, won the league championship and began a slow but steady ascension to the Panthers' Super Bowl quarterback of 2003.
As for Amsterdam, Delhomme remains grateful for the experience.
But he still thinks he should have started.
Staff writer Ron Green Jr. contributed to this story.