Inside Kurt and Brenda Warner's Real-life Love Story That Inspired 'American Underdog'

Kurt and Brenda Warner detail their sweet 29-year love story, including their relationship ups and downs, as the new movie about their lives, American Underdog, is released

When Kurt and Brenda Warner first met, line dancing at a country-western bar in northern Iowa in the early '90s, neither was looking for nor expecting to find love.

Kurt was a struggling 21-year-old quarterback at the University of Northern Iowa who, he says, "sat on the bench for four years" as his NFL dreams seemed to be fading by the day. Brenda, then 25, was a newly-divorced single mom of two working her way through nursing school. She'd started line dancing with her mom, who'd insisted she needed to get out more.

"I did not want to meet a man," says Brenda, 54. "I was going to nursing school. I was discharged from the Marine Corps, a single mom, on food stamps. It was a tough time in my life."

Kurt and Brenda Warner
Cassidy Araiza

The universe, however, had other plans.

"Timing, fate, whatever you want to say, that dance ends with us partnered up," recalls Kurt, 50. "I asked her to keep dancing and that's really how this whole thing started, a chance meeting when she didn't want to go out, I didn't want to and somebody forced us to go out, and all of this came from it."

Theirs is a 29-year love story that took the couple from living in Brenda's parents' basement to Kurt's success as a Hall of Fame and Super Bowl-winning quarterback and raising seven kids, now ages 16 to 32.

"There were days that you wondered if you were going to endure it," says Kurt. "But I think the mindset of both of us had was to take things one day at a time. That helps you to ultimately appreciate all the blessings that would come our way."

St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner (R) celebrates with his wife Brenda Warner
SCOTT ROVAK/AFP via Getty Images

"I wouldn't believe it unless I lived it," says Brenda. "But from that moment that we met it really was meant to be."

After years of being told their story would make a great movie, the couple's real-life romance is front and center in the new drama American Underdog (in theaters Dec. 25), starring Zachary Levi as Kurt and Anna Paquin as Brenda.

A key fixture in their sweet story is their son Zach, now 32, who Brenda credits with making her see something special in Kurt. Before their line dancing encounter, Brenda was newly divorced from her first husband. The couple welcomed their son Zach in 1989, but when he was just 4 months old, his father accidentally dropped the baby in the bathtub — leaving Zach blind and with brain damage.

Brenda Warner 1985 – 18 years old- USMC boot camp

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"Every dream that you have just gets crushed, because now it's just survival," says Brenda, who was working in Marine intelligence at the time. "But in the Marines, I learned that you do what you have to do. Zach and I didn't know what our future was, but we were going to do this together."

Brenda took a hardship discharge from the Corps to care for Zach. While she was pregnant with her daughter Jesse, her husband cheated on her and they divorced before the baby's arrival, mere months before she met Kurt.

When Kurt showed up unexpectedly at a skeptical Brenda's door the day after their encounter (he'd gotten her address from a mutual friend), Zach, then 3, "grabbed my hand and pulled me into the house," recalls Kurt.

Kurt, Brenda and Zach Warner
Cassidy Araiza

"When I walked out and he was wrestling on the floor with Zach, the way he looked at my son with pure love, no judgment, no expectation, just loved him, that's all it took for me," Brenda says. "He fell in love with my kids before he fell in love with me. That's when I knew he was worthy of being in our lives, of our love."

Kurt and Brenda married in 1997 and one year later, Kurt's NFL dreams finally came true. After working odd jobs — like stocking shelves at a grocery store — and playing in the Arena Football League, he was invited to join the St. Louis Rams in 1998, and then promoted to starting quarterback the following year. He led the team to the Super Bowl in 2000, where he was also named Super Bowl MVP. He played another 11 seasons, with both the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals, before retiring from the league in 2010.

"One of the things I'm grateful for is that Brenda gave up her passions to allow me to chase mine," says Kurt, who now works for the NFL Network as an on-air analyst. "She had to put her career and her dreams on hold."

St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner gets ready to pass during first half action in Super Bowl XXXIV
JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

Brenda recently discovered a passion of her own, creating metal art and jewelry.

"When I was getting ready to turn 50, my mom was killed at 50 years old, and so it was just so heavy on me thinking she didn't get any more time than that," says Brenda (her parents were killed tragically in 1996 when a tornado leveled their Arkansas home). "And I thought, 'What would I do if I didn't care what anybody thought?' I realized that I always loved metal. I loved metal art. not having a clue how to make it."

She continues: "I went and watched somebody weld, went and bought all the equipment, and went home and taught myself. I love sharing it with people. It's something that I didn't know existed until this later part in my life."

Kurt and Brenda Warner family
Tor Hawley Creative

Brenda sells her art and jewelry online and all proceeds benefit the Warners' Treasure House organization. Treasure House is a residential facility near their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, that they opened in 2018 for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities — including Zach.

"We've got another chapter to write, and a big part of that will hopefully be opening Treasure Houses all over the world," says Kurt, who has been an active fundraiser. In the meantime, they are looking forward to alone time as a couple.

"One crazy thing about our journey, is that we've never been alone together from the day we met," says Kurt. "But we're close to being empty nesters, so we're looking forward to when we get to be together — and just be us."

American Underdog opens in theaters Dec. 25.

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