One of the greatest NFL stories had a storybook finish.
That's how Kurt Warner wanted it all along, and why the quarterback decided it was time to leave the Cardinals and the game, announcing his retirement Friday at the team's Tempe facility.
There were no tears, certainly no regret. The one-time grocery store bagger had an improbable rise in football, from the Arena league to NFL Europe to a Super Bowl title in St. Louis. That alone would have been a tale for the ages.
Warner needed more before he walked away, though. His career had sunk to depths with which he was disappointed. He needed a final chance from the Arizona Cardinals, and he needed the final three seasons that helped carve the path to say goodbye.
"It's a bookend to my career that I wanted," Warner said. "The hardest thing would have been leaving the game not being able to show people what I could still bring to the table. That's what these last three years have meant to me.
"These last three years helped me finish the story."
Warner completed a 12-year career – and five-season run in Arizona – with Hall of Fame credentials: Two MVP trophies, three Super Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl title, more than 32,000 passing yards and the knowledge he help resurrect two franchises with the Rams and Cards.
Warner will be eligible for the Hall of Fame after the 2015 season.
His candidacy will be talk for another day. The Cardinals had hoped Warner would be in the talk for 2016, since that would have meant he would have played one last season. But Warner said by midseason he "really felt that tugging, that pulling this would be my last season," and told coach Ken Whisenhunt on the plane flight back from New Orleans following the team's playoff loss he thought he was done.
Warner was willing to wait, in an effort to avoid an emotional decision. Whisenhunt made sure to give Warner all the information he could about what the Cards would look like in 2010, and did his best to let his quarterback know he wanted him to return.
Such pleas weren't going to work.
"I could have talked until I was blue in the face and I knew I wasn't going to have a lot of luck," Whisenhunt said. "It's always difficult when you have a player you have become close to, as I have with Kurt, say he not going to come back and play anymore. But that's this business. That's this league."
AT PEACE WITH THE DECISION
Warner, who has always felt the importance of his faith, thanked God first. Then he brought his family up for introductions and kisses. That was the only time Warner's voice caught in the emotion of the moment.
Mostly, though, Warner clearly was at peace with the choice to walk away from the sport.
With the announcement made on such short notice, most of Warner's teammates were out of town and unable to attend. But wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald made his feelings known via Twitter, tweeting "Sad 2 c Kurt leaving! Gr8 player but even better person. God has really blessed him w/ an amazing story & I wish him the best moving forward!"
Speaking after the season, wide receiver Steve Breaston seemed to realize Warner's return was unlikely.
"It's his decision," Breaston said. "I would love for him to come back but he's been playing for a number of years. Family comes first, family is important and you have to understand that, especially with Kurt. It's difficult to walk away from the game, but if you do it for your wife and kids, that's understandable.
"But me being the selfish person I am, I want him around."
Warner acknowledged the hardest part of the choice was leaving his teammates and coaches in a tough spot. He knew how much of an important role he had with the team and what his departure could mean.
"But at the same time, I had to weigh, 'Was I willing to bring everything this organization has expected of me for five years?' " Warner said. "Maybe I could fill that void physically, but mentally and emotionally, could I bring what I think this game deserves and my teammates deserve? That's where the decision was easier. I don't think I'm willing to do that again."
A SPOT IN THE RECORD BOOKS
In his career, Warner finished with 32,334 passing yards, 208 touchdown passes and 128 interceptions in just 125 games, with a career passing rating of 93.7 while playing for the Rams, Giants and Cardinals. He is the only player in NFL history to have thrown for at least 14,000 yards for two teams, and he and Fran Tarkenton are the only players to have thrown for at least 100 touchdowns for two teams.
Warner's name dots the NFL record book. He set the mark for highest completion percentage (92.3) in a game this season when he hit on 24 of 26 passes in a win in Jacksonville. He is second all-time in career completion percentage (65.5, compared to Chad Pennington's 66.1), fifth in passing rating (behind Steve Young, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Peyton Manning) and fourth in all-time 300-yard passing games with 52 (behind Dan Marino, Brett Favre and Manning).
He also tied Marino with the fewest games needed to reach 30,000 passing yards, with 114.
The Cards had hoped Warner had something left when they signed him to a one-year contract back in 2005 – "We talked about the idea he could take this team to the Super Bowl," president Michael Bidwill said – but it would have been impossible to predict the quarterback's renaissance in Arizona.
"Every now and then you get lucky and you realize you have something far more special than what was behind your original objectives going after a player," general manager Rod Graves said.
Warner's frequent discussion about the end of his career gave the organization enough warning signs, although Graves admitted that while the team isn't caught by surprise, "the actual verification he is gone and all of sudden, it's 'Wow.' The work really starts now."
Whisenhunt deferred most non-Warner questions – like about Matt Leinart's shot at starting – for another day, saying he prefer to keep the spotlight on his outgoing quarterback.
"When you lose a player like Kurt, it always has an impact," Whisenhunt said. "But our guys have been able to handle things and move forward and I am sure we will able to do that now."
Warner was scheduled to make $4 million in salary, and Warner is expected to surrender half of the $15 million signing bonus he received when he inked a two-year contract before the 2009 season. Graves declined to speak on the subject.
Money, however, seemed to be the least of Warner's concerns Friday. He could "exhale" now, free of the expectations of being an NFL player.
Warner had happily authored the final chapter of that book.
"That's the thing about my story," Warner said. "I wouldn't change a thing."