When it comes to being a sports fan, sports is more than just a game.
Often it is used as a metaphor on topics that go far beyond the field. One of the most common ones expressed is the idea of the underdog.
As much as people are interested in the megastars like Mike Vick and Peyton Manning, nothing gets a fan’s blood flowing more than a real good underdog story. This idea is not a hard one to realize, just look at how movies like “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” tug at a sports fans’ heart and make us yearn for these stories to appear in our reality.
These stories don’t often make their way into our lives, but every once in a while we get the chance to witness a true rags to riches story take place right before our eyes and we eat it up.
The poster child for this is recently retired quarterback Kurt Warner. His road to becoming an NFL star is as improbable as it is inspiring to everyone who hears it. It is truly amazing and may be something that we do not ever see again.
But we can get close.
NFL fans may be witnessing a rags-to-riches story 2.0 taking shape up in Buffalo, New York this season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is leading a team of misfits and castoffs and is taking the league by storm. Fitzpatrick has blazed his own path to the big-time that was nothing of the ordinary.
When looking at where their long roads to prominence started, both of these guy's roads begins from the first day they stepped onto campus.
Neither of these quarterbacks started out on a traditional path to becoming an NFL quarterback from day one. Warner attended Northern Iowa and Fitzpatrick made his way up to Harvard, not exactly football powerhouses.
The reason this is a big deal is because especially in Fitzpatrick's case, we get to know our quarterbacks while they are in college. College plays the role of a dress rehearsal for fans to see how good the players of the future are. Not garnering this exposure automatically gives a tag of inability to those who are flying under the radar.
Both of these players suffered from this lack of exposure and it played a key role in how their path in the pros would play out.
This is where the similarities stop mirroring each other on their way to the NFL.
Let's face it, Kurt Warner’s road to the NFL is the stuff of legends. It doesn’t seem like something that could actually happen, it sounds more like a cheesy Nicholas Sparks novel than NFL success story.
After playing out his eligibility at Northern Iowa he was brought into the Green Bay Packers camp before getting cut in the preseason. Out of work and not in football, this is when Warner’s story turned iconic, he started working at a grocery store stocking shelves for $5.50 an hour.
Unable to jump on with an NFL team, Warner then took his talents to the Arena Football League and signed with the Iowa Barnstormers. He ended up playing two seasons with them and was First Team All-Arena in both of them. He is remembered as one of the best players to ever compete in the league.
After this pit stop in Iowa, he was finally signed by the Rams and immediately sent over to Europe to play for NFL Europe’s Amsterdam Admirals. Since NFL Europe’s season was during the NFL’s offseason, he was able to come back and be the Rams’ third stringer for the 1998 season.
It is funny looking back, but can anyone out there guess who the two quarterbacks were that were above him on the depth chart that season?
I didn't think so. They were Tony Banks and Steve Bono.
The next season the team released both Banks and Bono and brought in free agent Trent Green to be the starter, which gave Warner a promotion to the backup role. It is in that preseason where Trent Green tore his knee up and put the city of St. Louis is a citywide panic because some guy named Kurt Warner was the team’s starter.
It was then where Rams’ coach Dick Vermeil stated "We'll rally around Kurt Warner and we will play good football" at a press conference after Green went down. It has since become one of the most remembered quotes in NFL history.
Starting in Week 1 of the 1999 season the Kurt Warner Era had officially begun.
Ryan Fitzpatrick’s road to the NFL did not have nearly the bumps in the road that Warner's had, but then again, so hasn't anyone else.
After high school in Arizona, Fitzpatrick packed his bags and headed for Harvard, where he was the Ivy League MVP in 2004. Unlike Warner, he was not completely under the radar after his college days were over.
Fitzpatrick accepted an invite to the 2005 NFL draft combine and was eventually drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round at the 250th pick overall.
Though they both started their careers with the same team in St. Louis, comparing their road maps to an NFL roster is like comparing Kim Kardashian to Rosie O’Donnell based on sex appeal, they couldn’t be more opposite if they tried.
Once in the NFL, success on the field came in different ways for these guys.
Warner was a backup for a year, then was given the opportunity to start his second season in the league. He took that opportunity and ran with it in a way that we have never seen before. He had seemingly come out of nowhere, even the Rams weren’t aware of the gold mine they had sitting on their bench. Sports Illustrated had Warner on the cover of their magazine in his first season with the caption “Who’s this guy?” No one knew who he was.
As we all know, he took the country by storm as he led the Rams to win the Super Bowl that year with the Greatest Show on Turf and they would go on to appear in another.
Fitzpatrick on the other hand got off to a rockier ride in his first few years as a professional.
Fitzpatrick made his NFL debut in Week 11 of his rookie year and pulled a miraculous comeback out of his backside when he led the Rams from 21 down at halftime to a win in overtime against the Houston Texans. That’s one hell of a way to kick off your career in the NFL, but the success was short lived. He was given the reigns and started the next few games but was eventually replaced by Martin and relegated to backup duties.
Eventually he was traded to the Bengals in 2007 where he was able to step in and play for an inured Carson Palmer. After two seasons in Cincinnati he made his way to Buffalo where he became the starting quarterback in the beginning of the 2010 season.
He has since found a home in Buffalo and has played a key part in their resurgence of late. 2010 saw him start 13 games for the Bills and he notched 3000 yards and 23 touchdowns, not bad for a seventh-round pick.
Both players took different routes to become their team's starter, but the actual route is not what is important. What is important is how they are perceived. Because of their past, both players were looked at as unlikely heroes for their franchises as they were put back on the track towards success in the NFL.
The turnaround the Rams had under Warner in his first year is something I would be willing to bet we would never see again. A backup quarterback leading a team that was 4-12 the year before to a Super Bowl victory is just something that will not happen again.
For that reason it is tough to compare Fitzpatrick and the Renaissance he is leading up in Buffalo to the one Warner orchestrated, but that is not to say it is not similar or impressive.
Buffalo is a franchise that has been in a dead zone for some time now. They have finished higher than third in their division just once in this millennium. They had turned into the NFL’s version of the Kansas City Royals, but now are making a legitimate claim to be the year's biggest surprise.
Their record last season of 4-12 won't make anyone think there was a turnaround underway with the Bills, but losing 10 games by one score or less under a new coach and quarterback was significant progress. They were losing games, but they were being competitive almost every time out there. This turnaround had its foundation set last season and is taking place in a much more natural sequence.
Though each of these players did or are in the midst of turning around a franchise, they both have taken very different routes in doing so.
This factor is their biggest common thread tying them to each other. As I mentioned in the opening slide, fans love the underdog. Whether it is Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Tom Brady or Ryan Fitzpatrick, fans eat this stuff up.
Fitzpatrick is the league's flavor of the month when it comes to this topic. The Bills are still in the infant stages of their comeback to prominence in this league and much like Warner did in 1999, Fitzpatrick is leading a team of nobodies up the power rankings.
He is gaining recognition by the day and in due time will be one of the more talked about quarterbacks in the league, not to mention one of the most liked.
Although Fitzpatrick is nowhere near getting a slot on "Dancing with the Stars," this guy from Harvard may be getting close with the way the 2011 season has kicked off for the Bills.
Warner's narrative has already been written, and it is an impressive one at that. But Fitzpatrick's is being published right before our eyes as I type this.
It is obvious that Fitzpatrick has yet to accomplish anything near what Warner did in his career. It is also premature to anoint Fitzy as even an elite quarterback at this point in his career, but it is not out of the realm of possibilities for what may be in store for his career.
Fitzpatrick took over a bad team and has worked wonders with them. He has lacked legitimate weapons and is still able to make a splash in the league. By using basic common sense it is easy to believe that Fitzpatrick is only going to improve as his situations get better around him.
Looking forward, if the Bills are able to surround him with solid playmakers and a decent defense, there is no reason to think he can’t be an upper echelon signal caller in this league. He has all the tools you would want in a quarterback: smart, makes good decisions, perseverance and has a team that believes in him.
FACT: Ryan Fitzpatrick is this era’s Kurt Warner, just with a little twist.
Obviously the ride Fitzgerald took to the NFL doesn’t compare to the rollercoaster ride that was Warner's, and I am not saying it does. I doubt there ever will be a story that does. But Fitzpatrick has his own story that people like. The back drop of playing at Harvard and leading a doom and gloom franchise back to relevance is one fans find intriguing.
Kurt Warner was the expectation, not the rule. You are not supposed to be able to step in from day one as a starter and bum rush the rest of the league on your way to a Super Bowl. It just doesn’t happen.
Instead, Fitzpatrick is doing it in a more traditional way. Being a quarterback who had his own long and winding road to the pros, he is now starting from the ground to reach the summits that Warner’s career reached.
He is a quiet, humble guy that you find yourself rooting for every week just because, well... you don't know why. He is just that type of player, he is easy to root for.
Too many aspects of these guys' back stories mirror one another. Being an underdog and beating long odds to find any amount of success in the NFL will make fans go crazy. It adds depth to what they are watching. Instead of simply watching a game, they are watching a living, breathing life lesson before their eyes.
Will he ever reach the milestones of Warner? I don’t know. Every era has their underdog symbol that make people think anything can happen, and right now that player is the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.