TAMPA, Fla. - "Are you Kurt Warner's mom?'' With her short, spiky hair and graying sideburns, Brenda Warner heard that question often enough from the most innocent sources, including the young hospital patients she would meet on visits. | NFL page
"No, honey, I'm not his mom,'' she would reply. "I'm his wife.''
That was a lifetime ago of bad hair and curious fashion choices, when the former Marine was thrust into the national spotlight without a clue of how to navigate her way through the demands of newfound fame.
When St. Louis sports radio commentators dared to criticize her quarterback husband, she took to the airwaves to defend her man. Before long, she'd become as big a media figure as Warner himself.
And just like that, she was gone, slipping out of the public eye about the same time Warner's career began to stall.
Now, almost 10 years after they first burst onto the national scene, the Warners are back for a third Super Bowl.
And the Brenda of now looks nothing like the Brenda of old.
Gone is the harsh, short hairstyle, and the bright blue sweater with the boa neckline. The petite mother of seven now has a golden Arizona tan and blonde hair that flows to the middle of her back.
"It's just hair,'' the 41-year-old said with a shrug. "People make such a big deal about how I look, but I've had nothing done. The only thing that's changed is my hair. And I have to have it colored every three weeks.''
She wore a trendy patterned dress and cropped cardigan Friday when she represented Warner at a news conference for the Walter Payton man of the year nominees, and cringed slightly when a reporter said, "I've got a question for Brenda.''
When the event ended, she tiptoed down the steps of the stage, doing her best to escape unnoticed.
"I don't hear anyone calling my name, so maybe I'm in the clear,'' she whispered to Warner's marketing agent.
It's not that Brenda Warner is suddenly uncomfortable with publicity, but her time in the St. Louis spotlight left her a bit gun-shy about opening herself to the world again.
"It got so big. I didn't mean for it to get so big. But what do you do? You can't stop it once it gets going,'' she said. "What I did right was be me. And I am still me, and you can either like it or not like it. But I am not a trophy wife and I live my life.
"But that can also burn me, because I put it all out there. So you live and learn.''
A deeply religious family of nine - Brenda Warner was a divorced mother of two living on food stamps when they met, and they've had five children in the 11 years they've been married - she believes their story is one that can inspire others.
But as much as she'd love to tout their community work or their First Things First foundation, Brenda proceeds with caution.
The Internet has been cruel to her over the years, with mocking commentary of her former look and criticism of her heavy involvement in Warner's career.
"You try to avoid it. But people will come up to you, people you are close to, and say, 'Did you see what they said about you?' "she said. "It's like they do it just to see your reaction. Kurt tells me to stay off the computer, but you can't avoid all of it.
"So I am more protected now. I've put up a few walls, and that works for my benefit, but I probably miss out on relationships because I have so many walls.''
Warner thinks his wife fell victim to the overnight sensation he created during the 1999 season when he graduated from the Arena Football League and NFL Europe to take the Rams to the Super Bowl. In the rush to learn everything about him, she was swept up in the chaos. (Contrary to the myth they met while he was stocking supermarket shelves, they actually met while doing the "barn dance'' at Wild E. Coyotes in Cedar Falls, Iowa.)
"I think the one thing that was neat about our story in '99 was that we did it together, and we did it as a family,'' Warner said. "We came on the scene and that was just a natural part of it. There was so much thrown out there early on, that everybody wanted to know everything about me or us, and so she gained the spotlight from that.''
Many were put off by the impression she made, and Brenda, to this day, is still changing minds. After Friday's news conference, a group of U.S. service men and women lingered to chat with the woman who spent almost five years as a Marine.
She charmed them all, then posed for photos.
"Wow. I never expected her to be like that,'' Staff Sgt. Larry Tedders said afterward. "What a friendly, wonderful woman. Just living life to the fullest and so generous with her time. That's not at all how I remembered the characterization of her from all those years ago.''
Warner insists she is the same woman.
"She's been my wife, and she's been mother to our children, and she's been doing what she does on a normal basis,'' he said.
That now includes help with their brood. Mom has long been the primary caregiver for the children, who range from a 19-year-old special needs son to 3-year-old twin girls. Warner persuaded her to get a nanny, and it's given her time to focus on new interests, including a newfound love of photography.
Like their mother, the children have no interest in football. Only three accepted an invitation to Sunday's game, and she expects her two boys to be in the stands playing video games while Dad tries to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
She'll be easy to spot: front-row seat, blonde, wearing red, cheering on her man.
"I'm a former cheerleader,'' she said. "I'm going to yell and scream and root for Kurt, and that's never going to change.''