When people ask St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner what it's like to be the lowest-paid starting quarterback in the NFL, he admits that he can't help but laugh out loud. How soon they forget that five years ago he was stocking shelves in an Iowa grocery store for $5.50 an hour.

These days, he's earning the league minimum for second-year players of $254,000, but there almost certainly will be a long-term, multi-million dollar contract in Warner's future.

Warner, 28, literally has come out of nowhere to lead the Rams to four straight victories, including Sunday's 42-20 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers, ending a franchise streak of 17 straight losses dating from 1990, when Warner was an unknown backup at Division I-AA Northern Iowa. His rise to the top of the NFL quarterback ratings--his 136.0 is 17 points higher than Washington's Brad Johnson--and a league-high 14 touchdown passes (two more than the Rams managed in 16 games last season) sounds like pure fiction, a too-good-to-be-true football version of "The Natural."

"I look back now and see all the steps that helped me get to this point and I know I could never have written that script without some help," Warner said this morning, less than 12 hours after he completed 20 of 23 passes for 323 yards and five touchdowns against the 49ers. "It's kind of amazing, I guess."

Warner's path to glory started with some very small steps. In college, he didn't start until his fifth-year senior season, then suffered a separated shoulder in his second game. Undrafted, he signed as a free agent with Green Bay in 1994, but by his own admission was not prepared mentally or physically to compete for an NFL job and was cut after training camp.

Still, even after going home and putting the soup cans in their proper place, Warner never gave up the dream. In 1995, he wound up playing for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League, almost was cut after several spotty games, then went on to lead the team to two championship game appearances in three seasons. In '97, he threw 93 touchdown passes in 17 games, earning the nickname "Houdini" while playing in the eight-on-eight format on fields not much larger than a hockey rink.

Despite his success in pinball football, Warner had few nibbles from NFL teams over those three years. The Chicago Bears were interested in trying him out in '97, but he put them off to marry Brenda, a single mother of two he had met while he was still in school. The workout was scheduled when he returned from a honeymoon in Jamaica, but during the trip he was bitten by either a scorpion or centipede, and his right elbow ballooned to the point where he couldn't throw a football. He canceled the workout, and the Bears never called again.

"I never had a doubt that I could play at this level," he said. "There were doubts that I'd get a chance to play here and prove it to people. But there was never any doubt in my own mind that I could do it. . . . In arena football, you tried to score every time you had the ball. The mentality I developed there helped a lot. Three or four touchdown passes in that league was nothing out of the ordinary. If you averaged five, you were doing pretty good. I had eight or nine in a few games."

The Rams gave Warner a tryout and signed him in 1998, with the proviso that he play in NFL Europe. He became the starter for the Amsterdam Admirals, and led the league in yardage, completions and touchdowns, then spent last season as the Rams' No. 3 quarterback behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono. He played in only one game at the end of the season, and the Rams put him on their expansion draft list to stock the new Cleveland Browns.

"I don't think they expected Cleveland to take me," Warner said. "I didn't want to go. I was a little worried because they had a quarterback coach [John Hufnagel] who'd coached in the Arena League. I knew he knew I could play. I just didn't want to go into a situation where I'd have to go compete with the No. 1 pick."

As it turned out, the Browns selected only one quarterback in the expansion draft, former Maryland man Scott Milanovich, who was cut on May 24. Meanwhile, the Rams had signed Trent Green away from the Redskins with a four-year, $16 million free agent deal to be the starter. But Green, after completing 87 percent of his preseason passes, suffered a season-ending knee injury against San Diego on Aug. 28, and Warner's life hasn't been the same since.

Suddenly, he had the ball to himself, and all of St. Louis held its collective breath.

"Everybody was scared about our quarterback except Kurt," said Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr. "Everyone was worried when Trent went down. You could see the oxygen sucked out of the place. The only one who never changed expression was Kurt. He just warmed up, went out and did his job."

Mike Martz, the Rams' offensive coordinator and former Redskins quarterback coach, said he wishes he could take credit for Warner's remarkable play, but "no one can. Kurt is just Kurt. Midway through the preseason, we felt he was still holding on to the ball a little longer then we liked. But he's also been a guy who has always responded well under pressure."

Said head coach Dick Vermeil, "I always had confidence in him. Now I have blind confidence in him. Gosh, when he throws an incomplete pass, I'm saying 'What's wrong with you?' I told him this morning, I don't know how long this can keep going, but I'm enjoying it."

Warner credits his inner peace and calm to his own strong religious faith, one that also has helped him deal with far more vexing crises than escaping a safety blitz. His wife Brenda, four years older than Warner, came into the marriage with two children, including her son, Zachary, who had suffered brain damage as an infant when her first husband accidentally dropped him after a bath.

Brenda was told that Zachary would probably die, and even if he lived, would never be able to function normally. The child was blind when Brenda took him home from the hospital, but eventually regained his sight. Now, at age 10, he still has some problems related to the injury. He has to memorize the layout of every room in his house and remembers people by the smell of their hair. But he has defied the doctors' pessimistic prognosis that he would never even be able to walk, talk or function normally.

When Warner and Brenda married in 1997 after a five-year relationship--he celebrated his second anniversary today--he adopted both children. They have added a third, 1-year-old Kade, and Warner said, "The biggest thing is that instead of one blessing, I got three blessings when I got married, with two amazing kids.

"I just think it gave me a better perspective on life. Instead of being a single guy, it helped me grow up quicker, take on responsibility and decide what was really important to me. A lot of guys just out of college don't understand what life is about. It helped me grow up."

So did another tragedy a year before the wedding. Brenda's parents had just moved to Arkansas after her father had retired. They had been in a new home for about two weeks when a tornado ripped through the area, demolishing the house and killing her mother, Jenny, and her father, Larry.

Again, Kurt Warner was there for Brenda and her children, and again, the family managed to get through it and move on with their lives.

"I think I know what's important, and it's not necessarily what's happening on the field," Warner said today. "There's more to me and more to life than what happens in football. On or off the field, I don't get anxious or uptight. I know things will work out. Through faith and what's happened to my family, I know there will be speed bumps along the way, and I know I'm going to hit those bumps. But right now, I'm enjoying the ride. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing."

WARNER'S WEEKS

Opponent Comp Att Yds TD Int

Ravens 28 44 309 3 2

Falcons 17 25 275 3 0

Bengals 17 21 310 3 0

49ers 20 23 323 5 1

CAPTION: Kurt Warner, with a league-high 136 quarterback rating, already has thrown 14 touchdown passes, two more than the 4-0 Rams managed all of last season. He threw five Sunday to rout the 49ers.