A Hall-of-fame Husband, Seven Kids And A Newfound PurposeA Gritty Conversation With
Since 1996, Brenda Warner hasn’t enjoyed her birthday. Last year, when she turned fifty, she didn’t celebrate with a lavish blowout party thrown by her football Hall-of-Fame husband and seven children. Instead, she spent most of it alone, in her bedroom, quietly reflecting. “Fifty came on strong,” she says. “You know I share a birthday with my mother…not just the same month…the same exact day. I remember turning fifty thinking, ‘this isn’t about a big party. It’s about me hopefully becoming the woman she wasn’t allowed to become because she wasn’t given the time.’”
Most people know Warner as the outspoken wife of NFL Quarterback Kurt Warner. What they may not know is that Brenda was actually married once before. She was a Marine when her first husband, also in the military, accidentally dropped their new baby Zack while giving him a bath. Doctors told Brenda she’d be lucky if her son ever sat up or walked again. Two-and-a-half years later, eight-months pregnant with their second child, Brenda found out her husband was cheating. She packed up, moved in with her parents, divorced the man, ended up on food stamps, and started putting herself through nursing school. She met Kurt a year later, in an Iowa country and western bar, thanks to her mother, who thought Brenda needed a well-deserved night out. Kurt showed up the next day wanting to meet her children. They’ve been together ever since, sharing more than twenty years of marriage and adding five more children to their family.
Sadly, in 1996, after retiring to Arkansas, Brenda’s mother and father were both killed during a tornado that struck their small town. She was devastated. For the first time, the independent, mother-of-two Marine, was angry at God. Brenda talked about that fractured relationship during her three years on a speaking tour titled Women of Faith. During those years, she would frequently share the stage with her now 29-year-old son, Zack. While he did suffer brain damage and blindness, the boy that doctors thought would never sit up, is walking, talking, listening to music, changing lives, and is currently enrolled in a sustained residential community for adults with intellectual and learning disabilities, called Treasure House. Treasure House was Brenda’s idea. She and Kurt helped raise money, and put in a lot of their own, to build it. It opened this year, but is one of several initiatives she and Kurt have supported over the years with their First Things First Foundation. This past June, they finished another Warner trip to Disneyland with Make-A-Wish families from Iowa, St. Louis and Arizona. As they do every year, all seven of their own children were there to help volunteer.
At 51, Brenda Warner has found a new passion. She’s become a welder, a nod to her father, who spent years as a blue-collar worker at John Deere. Always a lover of metal art, Brenda now spends most of her time in her welding studio, a colorful and messy space that occupies two stalls of the Warner’s garage. “I just love it,” she shares. “It’s my happy place. I love coming out here and I just look forward to the next thing that comes to my mind that I know I have to make.” We asked Kurt about his wife’s new skill and he said, “For so long, she put everything on hold so I could chase my dream. She never had a chance to dive into anything that she could call her own and anything that she could gain that self-worth from. A lot of people would think, ’ah, I’m fifty, I never did it, I guess I’ll never get to do it. She said, ‘I’m fifty, I’ve never done it. Let’s do it! Let’s try something new. So now, there’s just a great sense of self-worth when she creates a piece and brings into the house. For me, that is the coolest part.”
Risen had the privilege of rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty with Brenda in her metal shop to talk welding, self-worth, faith and finding a new purpose.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Phoenix, Arizona
Risen Magazine: So here you are in welder’s gear, mohawk and all. You don’t look like someone who grew up on an Iowa farm.
Brenda Warner: [Laughs] I grew up on a farm. My dad worked the land for a rich business owner. I got to witness my dad getting up early and working the horses, cleaning the stalls, doing all the chores and then going to his factory job. He would come home dirty and tired. My mom would have dinner ready and cookies baked. You know, it was one of those simple lifestyles, but I got to witness two people who loved each other a lot and loved my sister and myself. They loved us so much. I had an incredible foundation of who I was and that I was loved. I’d get off the bus with my cowboy boots and head right to the barn and do chores with my dad until it got dark outside. I loved working with him. I loved being the son he never had. I’m just really grateful that I had a dad who showed me my value and my worth and just loved me to the end. It was a great upbringing.
RM: Let’s fast-forward a bit. After a rough marriage, you find yourself divorced, on food stamps, raising two kids, one with disabilities, and your mom drags you to a country bar. I like her already! What was that night about for your mom?
BW: I think she was seeing this young mom of two, struggling to just take care of her kids, and trying to find some good in her world when everything fell to pieces. That included my heart. I was going to nursing school, trying to better myself so I could get a job. I wanted to know more about taking care of Zack and I was trying to get back on my feet. I think she just saw that I was lonely and not willing to give the world another chance to show me the good. She just said, “Let’s go out and take some lessons.” We all love country music. I was raised on it. If you remember, country line dancing had just started and they would show music videos on TV, so it just seemed like something fun. I didn’t want anyone to hurt me again. That’s how she was able to get me back into the world and put myself back out there.
I’m justreally grateful thati had a dad who showedme my value and my worthand just loved me to the end. It was agreatupbringing.
RM: And that’s when you met Kurt. Was he a man of faith at that time? Where were you in your faith journey at that point?
BW: Well, it depends on what your idea of faith is. Kurt was religious. I wasn’t religious necessarily. I was more a believer of God and Jesus, not really of religion. So, it kind of bothered me that he was so ‘religious’, because that stuff doesn’t make sense to me. I thought, “I’ve got to burn that out of him. I’ve got to show him what a relationship with God looks like.” So that’s how we started dating, arguing about religion from day one, and me trying to convince him that there was so much more to God then what his religion told him.
RM: So, your faith was still strong through the cheating and the divorce?
BW: It was. Because it was more believing that God still loved me and that man had screwed up and hurt me. God didn’t do that, man did. At that point, I was still very much a strong believer that God was going to give me the strength to get through this and I would become a better person and eventually be able to stand on my own two feet again with His strength, not necessarily my strength.
RM: And Zack’s injury? What was your relationship with God like then?
BW: You know what? At the time, I honestly believed strongly that God was going to heal him. I was calling on all the Scriptures I had memorized; all the times I prayed for a miracle. I was still believing that God was going to heal him and Zack would be the same way he was before the injury. My faith was real strong when Zack got injured. It was more of an accident. The world we live in, accidents happen. God’s going to give me the strength to raise this boy. Now? I actually feel like I did get a miracle. It just didn’t look like the same miracle I had asked for, that Zack would be completely healed. But my son is a living miracle. He’s changing lives, like I want all my kids to do. He’s making a difference in this world, even if he’s living with disabilities.
RM: Then suddenly, you lose your parents. You get a phone call from your sister that a tornado has killed both of them. How do you even begin to process that?
BW: That was a whole different ballgame, because I felt like God could have saved them. God could have at least saved one of them. Zack was surviving. I was still breathing. But when you lose both parents in an instant? That was the big shaker and the relationship that I had with God was tested. When the bedroom door closed, I called out to God. The minute the door was closed. I called Him with honesty, with what my heart was feeling and what my head was saying. My prayers were real. I wasn’t hiding. I knew God could handle it. I just had to get out all of my anger. That’s when Kurt was watching and realized that religion wouldn’t have gotten him through this. He wanted that relationship that I had. He said to me, “What you have with your God – by going through this [with you] made me realize that is what I want too.” I was so angry at God.
RM: You’re thinking, like so many do in these situations, He could have controlled this; He could have kept this from happening… so, how did you get past that anger?
BW: You know, I think after getting it out and being honest, I was able to find moments that I could still call on God in a non-angry way. Honestly? It was when I would get ready to go to sleep at night. There’s a verse in the Old Testament about sweet sleep, and I would pray that God would give me sweet sleep and I believe God understood what I meant; that my parents would be in my dreams. That they’d be alive and they were in my dreams and it was wonderful. He gave me sweet sleep.
The hardest part was waking up the next morning as if your mind played a trick on you. You’d think they’re alive and then it hits you again that they’re not and you have to grieve again. But that sweet sleep was such a gift at the time when I was going through it. It softened my heart. If He cared enough to give me those dreams, He’ll care enough to pick me back up and move on and allow me to say honestly that I don’t know why they had to die. Someday maybe I’ll ask Him. For me right now, and still today, I’m okay with that. I know I can ask Him someday. I have seen some good come out of their deaths. I would still give up all that good to have them alive, but it doesn’t work that way.
RM: I’m guessing they’d love what you’re up to now. You’re a welder!
BW: Oh, I think they’d get a huge kick out of it. I’m a welder!
RM: How did this happen?
BW: You know what, I love metal, I love art. I was getting ready to turn fifty. And I thought, “I want to be who I want to be now and I don’t care what other people think.” I’m grateful I finally got there. It took me awhile obviously. I just wanted to learn and I taught myself. So that’s how it started and now it’s blossomed into this thing.
RM: You’ve always had a creative part to you. Where did the idea of welding even come from?
BW: Everywhere that I travel, I would always pick up metal art. I love the look of it. When I started thinking about all the scraps that are around and are rusted, all you have to do is find them, and bring them together and basically weld them into a piece of art; you can shine them and make them a whole new thing. And that’s been my life. I can see it in my life, just things happening. And maybe the world said no, or I didn’t think I could do it, and you bring everything together and you shine it and it starts over.
RM: So, did you just Google welding?
BW: [Laughs] I Googled melted steel and found welding. I’d never seen somebody weld in my entire life when I said, “I want to be a welder.” I called a friend who knew a welder and just watched them for two hours. They didn’t know who I was and didn’t know why I was there. They didn’t care. They were doing their work. I watched and I thought, I can do this. I went to the store down the road, bought everything I needed, brought it back to our two-stall garage and it’s become a new passion I’m grateful I have now.
RM: What was your family’s reaction?
BW: They usually say, “There goes mom again,” but I don’t mind that. I love that my kids see me try new things whether I fail or succeed. I love that. I want them to be more like that, where you just think, why not try it? And this has really filled me in a way. I know now they’re grateful I did it. They see me changing because of it.
RM: Lets’ be honest, is welding really a chance to get away from Kurt now that he’s home a lot more after retiring from the NFL?
BW: [Laughter] Maybe? It’s funny. I have a torch Kurt got me for Christmas. I didn’t know if maybe he wanted me to die [more laughter], but he bought me a torch. I didn’t touch it for months. I was scared to. Now I love it! It’s so much fun to see the power of that fire. There’s so much strength in the equipment that you can put two pieces of metal together and they’re never separated again; that’s power.
RM: Almost like a daughter wishing she was never separated from her parents. You do see some of the parallels between this particular art and your father and mother though, right?
BW: Absolutely. Dad worked in a factory. I still remember his steel-toed shoes, his metal lunchbox, grease in his fingernails and his cuticles, you can’t get that grease out. I don’t know if he ever welded. I’ve asked his older brother. He said, “I guarantee he knew how to weld.” That was my dad. He knew how to do a little bit of everything because he had to get by. On the flip side, my mom sewed. When I was learning how to quilt from my mom, she would say, “The sign of a good seamstress is when you turn over the fabric, the stitching should look as good on back as it does on the front.” I think of that when I weld. When you flip it over and look at the back, I want it to look as good as the front.
RM: Speaking of looking good, you look fantastic. But I know it hasn’t been easy, especially being in the public eye. When I first saw you, it was that iconic photo of you on the sidelines with spiky short grey hair. People called you Alice from the Brady Bunch. Now you’re rocking a platinum blonde mohawk.
BW: If I could have talked to my younger self and convinced myself to not care about peoples’ opinions so much I would have saved much energy and time [that was] spent trying to conform and not having the confidence to not conform. That’s why I think I did the short-spiked hair, because no one had that. But I took so much flack for it. It wrote on my soul. That’s a regret, that I allowed it to write on my soul; it really messed with me for many years. When I had the long blond hair, then I was more accepted. I was told how attractive I am, so much more. I’ll admit, that was great as I hadn’t been told that in my adult life. Then I just started getting closer to fifty. My mom was killed at fifty. As I approached it, it was hitting me that she wasn’t given more time, and I would spend a long time thinking, “I wonder what she would want me to know if she could tell me?” I would want her to say to me “just be you.” As I’m raising seven kids, all different, so very different, I want them to know that sooner than I did. Just be you and it’s enough.
RM: So, the mohawk?
BW: First of all, it’s not platinum blonde [laughs]. It’s my natural grey. This is actually my natural color. I get asked all the time, “what color does your stylist use to get it that white?” I guess God’s my stylist. I could probably ask Him later what color He uses [laughs]. But as I cut my hair, and started letting the gray be gray and embracing it, I just realized I felt more like me than I have ever felt in my entire adult life. I’m going to take that as a sign. If I feel more like me, then I’m supposed to be doing it and it’s okay. I get comments all the time that my hair is “cool” or “why did do you that?” which you know isn’t positive [laughs]. I’m sure I don’t hear all the negatives. But I’m okay with it now. I just wish I could have been okay with those comments earlier. By the way, the time I used to spend getting my hair colored? Oh my gosh. I now get that time back. I’m free to do anything I want to do with that time. [Laughs]
I would pray that god would give me sweet sleep and I believe Godunderstoodwhat I meant
RM: Is it strange to put yourself out there with your art? I know I was one of several friends who bugged you for months about putting your pieces up for sale!
BW: I know. It took some time. What is new to me is watching people react to the art. For so long, I kept it just to myself. I remember the first time I brought in my nailed cross. My faith is important to me and to our family. When I brought in this cross I welded with nails, my family looked at it and I remember thinking in that moment, “they’re touched by it. It means something to them.” So those are the moments I’ll never forget. But now I’m ready to share it with others and let them experience what it feels like when you see a piece of art and you connect with it.
RM: You’ve turned it into a business and people are now looking at and purchasing, items very personal to you. The way you are using the proceeds kind of brings us full circle too.
BW: I think it’s interesting that it goes right along with the time we really started building Treasure House, a residential facility for adults with intellectual disabilities. These amazing people are neglected and forgotten. They’re overlooked. People don’t realize how much they have to offer. It’s like welding. You find these discarded treasures and you bring them together and you create something and you see the beauty in it. Treasure House is now open. My son now lives there and other young adults are getting this full life and getting a new purpose on life. This artist thing is still weird to me, but I know I’m doing it for a reason now, because all of the proceeds got to Treasure House, so it all fits together. Everything makes more sense to me now.
RM: It seems like your mom and dad would love the fact that their daughter has become a welder.
BW: I hope so. But you know what? I think they would be prouder of who I am.