Carolina Panthers

Quarterbacks' road to the pros bumpy for former NFL Europe teammates

Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme has taken a long road to get to Charlotte. He'll cross paths with his former NFL Europe teammate Kurt Warner today when the Panthers face the Cardinals.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme has taken a long road to get to Charlotte. He'll cross paths with his former NFL Europe teammate Kurt Warner today when the Panthers face the Cardinals.

CHARLOTTE -- He knew from the time the coach gave them directions he wasn't going to be the guy.

Al Luginbill was looking for safe and prudent.

Kurt Warner was the married father of two fighting for a paycheck and a career.

Jake Delhomme was a just young kid half a world away from anything he knew, trying to figure out who he was and what he was doing there -- and that meant he was the odd man out.

Ten years ago this spring, Luginbill, the coach of the Amsterdam Admirals, had to pick a quarterback. It's not that he could have screwed it up, because he was picking between a pair of guys who'd defy the odds and play in Super Bowls -- one who'd be a two-time MVP with St. Louis and one who's looking like the comeback player of the year at the very least for the Carolina Panthers.

"They were different in terms of style, and abilities, but they did have something in common," Luginbill said last week. "They were both winners, both had that fire in their belly, and both knew how to get the team in the end zone."

Delhomme never got that chance in Amsterdam, partly because of Warner, partly because of Luginbill, but largely because of his own play. Today, the two quarterbacks will see each other again, when Warner brings his Arizona team to Bank of America Stadium to face Delhomme's Panthers -- their first on-field meeting since they were teammates.

Luginbill said the choice between the two back in 1998 was difficult, but ultimately came down to his feel for which one had the steadier hand.

They went through camp without a decision, until just before the opener of the spring season. So on April 4, 1998, in Dusseldorf, Germany, when Luginbill told Warner he'd start, Delhomme heard something that both confused him and answered his question.

"Before we played Rhein, we didn't know who the starter was," Delhomme said. "He (Luginbill) said 'Kurt, you're gonna start, Jake, you'll play.' I didn't play that day."

The reason why came next.

"He said, 'We don't need you guys to win the game, just don't lose it,'" the Panthers quarterback said, a mystified look on his face a decade later. "I had never been told that by any coach in my life. ... It was a little different situation.

"It sucked. There's no other way to put it. Looking back, I'm glad it happened. You grow up. It's not that I needed to grow up, it's just one of those deals."

Both of them were fighting their way through the hard-knock path to becoming an NFL quarterback. Warner was just farther down the trail.

Warner got his first NFL chance in Green Bay in 1994, then came three years of trying to get another. He worked as a volunteer assistant coach at Northern Iowa, and also stocked shelves at the local Hy-Vee supermarket. Then came three years in the Arena League, with the Iowa Barnstormers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, he was married, which brought along two kids. So the then-26-year-old knew when he got to Amsterdam his life as a football player was on the line.

"I think I was just more worried, because if I didn't (win the job) what that would mean for my career," Warner told the Arizona Republic last week. "Jake was probably the more talented guy, but I had more experience, and I think that was the decision they made at the time. So I got the job, thankfully. Jake was fortunate enough to get back and finally got his opportunity. But that was probably it for me. I was going back to the Rams, but the chances of getting a legitimate look having not played and having not won the starting job over in Europe, were slim to none.

"It was unfortunate because Jake was good enough to be a starter that year in the league. I just needed it a lot more than he did at the time."

Delhomme acknowledged that Warner was ahead of him at that point in terms of maturity.

"Oh 100 percent, absolutely," Delhomme said. "I went over there, I was the young guy, and Kurt was more focused. Not that I wasn't, not at all, but this was his chance, his one and only. I was still young and didn't know any better. Really, that's how it was."

But even though Warner had a bearing that coaches could trust, there was still something about Delhomme that spring that inspired others.

One of their teammates over there was guard Tom Nutten, a tough German-born mauler who'd go on to an eight-year career with the Rams, blocking for Warner on those white-hot offenses.

Nutten, now retired and living in Sarasota, Fla., said he laughs when he watches games now, because when he sees Warner and Delhomme, it's a little like being in a time machine.

"It's funny, because how you see them now is exactly how we looked at them then," Nutten said. "Kurt was older, more mature, had that classic quarterback style. Jake was a risk-taker at times, but he was so into the game. He was like a linebacker out there, and to this day, you still see that.

"Kurt would throw a touchdown and it was kind of, 'Been there, done that.' Even in practice, Jake would do something and he'd take off running, do a 40-yard dash so he could jump on somebody, he'd be so excited. As an offensive lineman, you kind of appreciated that, because you knew he was one of us."

Unfortunately for Delhomme, he only got one chance to prove it, and he flopped. Warner recalled a rib injury that knocked him out before a home game against Frankfurt, a 14-10 loss. Delhomme just shakes his head to this day remembering the game. His roommate, wide receiver Joe Douglass, betrayed him with a dropped touchdown. He didn't help his own cause, and he didn't get many chances the rest of the way because of it.

"I was crushed," Delhomme said. "Because it was my one opportunity, and I didn't play well. It was a crushing blow."

For the season, he was 15-of-47 passing for 247 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions. That 15.1 rating was worst in the league that year, leaving him behind luminaries such as Mark Grieb, Chris Dittoe and Wally Richardson.

Luginbill, now living in Arizona where he works as personnel advisor for the Denver Broncos, said the results affected Delhomme then the same way Panthers fans have come to know now.

"I'm sure he's not any different now," Luginbill said. "He's always been a very emotional person, it's what drives him. He believed coming in he should start. If he wasn't going to start, he thought he should have split time and play, but that's just not the way football is. He had an opportunity that day and wasn't able to capitalize on it. Later on, he did.

"But Jake got very mad at himself. He never pointed a finger at anyone else. You could tell it meant a lot to him to be good, he had that passion for the game, and as a coach, you love to see that."

Of course, love was also on Delhomme's mind, which complicated his overseas mission further.

Back in Louisiana, there was this girl named Keri Melancon he'd been dating since high school. In two more years, they'd be married, but now, they were limited to daily phone conversations. This was before every grade-schooler had a cell phone, so many of Delhomme's hours overseas were spent tethered to a pay phone. She visited for a week, but to hear him and friends tell of the time, it sounds like it was just enough to push the kid who grew up on a horse farm in Breaux Bridge, La., and never strayed far from it through a world-class case of homesickness.

"You got to remember, I had never been away from home -- ever," Delhomme said. "I was in New Orleans, but that was an hour and 45 minutes away.

"Leaving was awkward, and not only that, another country. It was different. You get used to it. But it made me appreciate the United States, that's for sure."

So while the culture shock of Amsterdam was significant -- though he laughed and said it was no crazier than Bourbon Street -- it was the football that was frustrating him so much.

He was a dejected mess, not knowing what was ahead of him.

That's when Joe Clark, then the Admirals' offensive coordinator, took Delhomme under his wing. The two remain close to this day, and Delhomme laughed and said the communication's always more frequent after rough games that good ones.

"He told me, 'Just go practice, practice like it was a game, just trust me,'" Delhomme recalled. "I was too young to understand it. After the last game that season, he told me on the plane ride home, I'd be in another place the next year. I went to Frankfurt to play with him.

"So he had a belief in me, he knew, he was trying to tell me, 'You'll get your chance.'"

Delhomme finally got his opportunity to play the following spring, and he led the Galaxy to a World Bowl title. He was the league's second-highest rated passer that spring (edging out a kid named Dameyune Craig, sent to Scotland by the Panthers), completing 136 of 210 passes for 1,410 yards, 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

But most importantly, that led to more a stable job in football, bouncing between the Saints' practice squad and active roster. In 1999, he'd get to take a snap in a real game again, starting the last two mop-up outings of the Mike Ditka era (including getting caught in run-up-the-score mode by George Seifert's Panthers in Charlotte in the final game).

Warner was a still a little ahead of him, leading the Rams to a thrilling Super Bowl win over Tennessee.

When he went to Europe in 1998, Delhomme didn't know what to make of the guy he was competing against.

Now, he knows that losing then set the stage for something bigger, and that what he thought he knew at the time didn't mean much.

"Here I am, backing up a 26-year-old Arena quarterback from the Iowa Barnstormers," Delhomme said. "How am I going to play in the NFL if I can't beat out an Arena quarterback? After watching the guy, he could kind of throw it. He was accurate. He had a quick release. This guy could play a little bit.

"What it did for me, it gave me great confidence whenever he takes St. Louis over and takes the NFL by storm. 'Hey, maybe I can play in this league, also.'"

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