Danny Wuerffel and the fight for forgotten America
Former Heisman Trophy-Winning Quarterback is helping to rebuild America, one community at a time
ATLANTA — Inside a two-story periwinkle house in a blighted section of Atlanta, “Honey Bun” shoots up a tiny hand. Today is Bible drill at PAW Kids, a nonprofit for underprivileged children located in a deep recess of the city, a place adorned with billboards for 1-800 attorneys, graffiti-sprayed buildings and dilapidating pawnshops. Today, the children have arrived eagerly, shedding their backpacks in a colored clump on the front porch before encircling a large table inside, where Kool-Aid Jammers and Cheez Doodles are systematically spread. Standing over them, clutching a laminated sheet of paper, Latonya Gates-Boston calls out verses, one by one.
“Jesus wept,” Latonya asks.
“Ooh! Ooh!” shouts Honey Bun, stretching her arm toward the sky.
The children of PAW Kids come from broken homes, and often their stories are cringeworthy. Many of their parents cannot read. Some have parents who don’t want them. Others live in homes with no running water. Every afternoon, Latonya’s goal is to inject positivity and encouragement into the lives of these children, displacing bad for good, the rancidness of the world for the nectar of Jesus Christ.
Years ago in this same house, it is doubtful that many Bible verses were recited here. The house was once a den of iniquity, a drug and prostitution shack where holes in the floors were used for a dope drop and a stripper pole was installed in the very same room that Honey Bun now sits. Doubtful also was that a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback would ever darken the doors of this place, but today, Danny Wuerffel walks across the creaking floors and high-fives the children. In the realm of spiritual warfare, here, good seems to have won.
For the past decade, Wuerffel has been the Executive Director of Desire Street Ministries, a multi-city effort, now in 12 neighborhoods across the South, centered on transforming depressed, poverty-ravaged areas into robust communities. To that end, Desire Street partners with organizations like PAW Kids and individuals like Latonya to bring hope to a forgotten America.
Right off the bat, one might wonder why a man with such a football history and accolades as Wuerffel would forsake lucrative business opportunities in his post-NFL career to invest in the hardscrabble areas of America. In 2008, the former Florida Gator moved to — of all places, Atlanta — to grow Desire Street into a national ministry. To the world, this seems counterintuitive. Surely with the amount of fame and connections at Wuerffel’s disposal, he could have pursued avenues that were more personally beneficial, or ridden off into the sunset with a bundle of cash and nothing to do. But instead he has decided to pour his life into the lives of those to which the world has turned a blind eye, to the places where the Disease of Me has not positively infected.
Danny Wuerffel, the son of Air Force chaplain Lt. Col. Jon Wuerffel and his wife Lola, an organist and choir director, spent the formidable years of his youth touring America, his jagged crisscrossing of the Continental U.S., a cruel yet edifying reality of the military life. The Wuerffel family lived in Colorado, Nebraska, South Carolina and Spain before settling down in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, before Danny’s ninth grade year. Each move brought new opportunities and discouraging moments, young Danny passing through his friends’ lives briefly before leaving them to find new ones. “It helped me to see that there was a lot of different ways to think and live,” Wuerffel told SDS. “It’s not one is right or wrong, it’s just different. A lot of people that live in certain places their whole life get into thinking and living in a bit of a bubble. And just to see the world from different trajectories was super important.”
Jon invested in his son’s life by introducing him to activities that often required a certain degree of skill. Whether riding dirt bikes high in the Colorado mountains across the rugged terrain or playing a grueling game of racquetball, these exercises were critical to the development of Wuerffel’s agility, balance, reaction and hand-eye coordination.
Wuerffel started playing football in the seventh grade, but it wasn’t until he arrived in Florida that he witnessed the full intensity of the game. “It was a lot more intense than I ever experienced,” he said, speaking of football in the Sunshine State. “I was more of a basketball player in Colorado. And we got out there and there were big guys and they were smashing and it was crazy. I kicked a field goal through the uprights and threw a spiral. So all of a sudden I had 35 great friends on Day 2.”
By that time, Jon and Lola had instilled a set of core ideals into their son, the perfect trifecta of faith and family, academics and sports. In terms of faith, the Wuerffel’s strident Lutheran ancestry traced back to Germany, threading its way through paternal generations to his father. “Faith,” Wuerffel says, “has always been a part of my family’s heritage and lineage. Some people wonder if we are related to Martin Luther.”
Wuerffel sat in on his father’s sermons and listened to him read the Bible aloud to his family. Certain of divine existence, Wuerffel never wrestled with the questions, “Is God Present? Is He Real? Does He love me?” but instead wondered how faith might play out in his life.
“There was such a stability in my life that was grounded on faith,” he says.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the total package was Wuerffel’s academic proficiency. Regardless of geography, Wuerffel hit the books and was a top student, eventually graduating as Valedictorian of his class at Ft. Walton Beach High School.
By his junior season, a tide of attention began to flow in, as Wuerffel became the star quarterback in the Florida panhandle under the tutelage of coach Jimmy Ray Stephens. Letters poured in his junior year, and his first unofficial visit was to LSU. “I was just blown away,” Wuerffel says of his experience.
More would arrive. His first official visit was to Alabama in the fall of 1992 — “and I was ready to sign with Alabama right at the end of that weekend,” Wuerffel says. “Coach (Gene) Stallings was amazing. I have so much respect for him.”
Then Wuerffel took a trip to Tallahassee and, impressed with Bobby Bowden and FSU, was ready to sign. But there was one more school that factored into the mix, and a head ball coach who wasn’t about to let a quarterback the caliber of Danny Wuerffel slip through his fingers.
The Spurrier Years
A thick fog choked the skies over Niceville, Fla., as a plane carrying Steve Spurrier braced for a dangerous landing. The short flight from Gainesville was scheduled to land in Destin, but the fog diverted the plane to Niceville, 45 minutes away. Limping to the ground, the plane touched the airport tarmac shaken but unscathed. Having urgent business with their son, Spurrier loaded a rental car and drove to the home of Jon and Lola Wuerffel. Spurrier knew that if he was going to land this prospect, he’d have to deal with more than a little fog.
As it turns out, Spurrier’s recruiting tactics were a bit unorthodox. During the process, Wuerffel remembers Spurrier producing tapes of Florida quarterback Shane Matthews — a lanky, sun-tanned gunslinger originally from Pascagoula, Miss. The purpose of these exercises was not to boast the greatness of Matthews (many of the tapes were of games where Matthews didn’t play particularly well) but to plant a seed in the tenderfoot’s mind. “I just remember, ‘Yep, yep, if you would have been here, you would have hit that one! Oh yep! You wouldn’t have missed that one!'” Wuerffel says, his voice morphing into a Spurrier-like imitation. “He literally had me believing I may be better than Shane. And I get there as a freshman and I see (Matthews) and I’m like, ‘This guy’s awesome!'”
When Wuerffel arrived in Gainesville in the fall of 1992, Spurrier, in a short period of time, had already made waves as one of the bright offensive minds in college football, implementing his “Fun ‘N’ Gun” aerial blitzkrieg to the chagrin of defenses. Spurrier elected to redshirt Wuerffel his freshman season, and the young quarterback watched Matthews intently from the sidelines as Florida went 9-4 that season, losing to Alabama in the inaugural SEC Championship game 28-21 on a bitterly cold day in Birmingham. In only three years, Spurrier had notched a 28-8 record (19-3 in the SEC), won an SEC title and come within a touchdown of defeating eventual national champion Alabama in 1992.
If the early 1990s were a prelude to greatness, the halcyon years of the Steve Spurrier era occurred while Danny Wuerffel roamed campus. Since Matthews graduated that spring, it seemed natural that junior Terry Dean — though he had completed only 19 passes in two years — was the heir apparent. However, in only the second game of the 1993 season, a laborious contest versus a scrapping-and-clawing Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Dean found trouble.
After an early interception, Dean was yanked and young quarterback wearing No. 7 and displaying a wonky throwing motion was inserted to jumpstart the Gators’ offense. Although Wuerffel trotted onto the field with a mixture of hope and anxiousness in his gut, the initial results were far from idyllic: He threw an interception on his first play.
Spurrier invoked a quarterback roulette over the next few quarters, as Dean and Wuerffel pooled together for seven interceptions (Dean four and Wuerffel three). On one particular interception, a corner route, Wuerffel threw it to the spot, but the receiver cut the route flat and the ball sailed over his head. Wuerffel jogged back to the sideline expecting theatrics from his coach, and Spurrier consented by meeting him five yards onto the field.
“Well, Danny, it’s not your fault,” Spurrier said as Wuerffel breathed a sigh of relief. “Nope, it’s my fault,” Spurrier continued, “for putting you in there. You’re out!”
But Wuerffel soon got another chance. With Kentucky leading 20-17 with 1:14 left, the young quarterback went under center and methodically led the Gators on a drive punctuated by stubby passes and yard-chewing runs by Errict Rhett. With 8 seconds remaining, the ball rested at the Kentucky 28-yard-line. A visor-less Spurrier, munching on fingernails, contemplated a field goal to tie the game, but the riverboat gambler in him elected to run one more play.
Mick Hubert of the Sunshine Network made the call:
“Jack Jackson, Chris Doering wide right. Aubrey Hill, Harrison Houston go wide left. Third-and-10, 28-yard line. Wuerffel, dropping back to throw. Pumps and fires the ball over the middle. Doering’s got a touchdown! Doering’s got a touchdown! Oh my! Doering’s got a touchdown! The Gators have taken the lead! Oh unbelievable!”
Although Florida won 24-20, the quarterback position was far from cemented. Over the next 11 games, Dean and Wuerffel platooned at Spurrier’s cerebral behest. Winning nine in the process, including the SEC Championship and the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, the Gators’ only losses that year occurred at Auburn and to FSU at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
On the year, the stats were comparable: Wuerffel threw for 2,230 yards and 22 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, while Dean threw for 1,651 and 17 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
In 1994, the Gators went 10-2-1 and won their second consecutive SEC championship. Again, the two quarterbacks split time and posted comparable numbers. And though the Wuerrfel-Dean carousel somehow worked, it certainly was not ideal for either player.
“You really would love to be in a situation where you know you were the guy,” Wuerffel reflects. “So that was tough for us. I’m sure for (Terry).”
Wuerffel’s Time To Shine
Dean graduated in 1995 and left the keys to the kingdom to Wuerffel. Over the next two seasons, Wuerffel would hurl rainbows of rage (6,891 yards and 74 touchdowns), become Florida’s second Heisman Trophy winner (Spurrier was the first), and lead the Gators to their first national championship. His patented after-touchdown celebration, praying hands and a nod to the heavens, was not given for the sake of spectacle; he was not showing off — he earnestly gave credit and glory to God for his talent.
Spurrier’s mad-scientist-like mindset and offensive schema was but theory until he could assemble a group of talented pawns to execute his plan, and Wuerffel proved to be the perfect legionnaire for Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun methodology. For Wuerffel, the key to the offense was Spurrier’s savvy in tottering between razor-like precision and shoulder-shrugging flexibility. During practice, Spurrier demanded perfection and would drill relentlessly, hardily until the offense achieved it. “If you’re running a quarter route, you know exactly your split, you run inside at an angle up to five yards, get on the seam area, run up to about 14-15 yards, cut to the right, catch the ball at 22-24 yards, two yards from sideline, period. We’d do that over and over and over like robots,” Wuerffel told SDS. “And it’s like, ‘This guy’s insanely precise.'”
But the next moment, Spurrier would challenge them, inserting mind games between whistles to make sure his Gators were thinking. “He’d say, ‘Okay, alright. Well, they’re covering us this way, you’re going to be the bottle cap, turn left and hit him. How hard is that?'” Wuerffel said. “He had an incredible knack of understanding the concept of what the defense was doing and developing plays to attack defenses. That was the magic with him. His ability to predetermine what the defense was doing was huge. I think he was just ahead of everyone at that time. He had a knack of knowing when to take shots and when not to. It was just his innate ability as a play-caller.”
Wuerffel, mild-mannered and churchly but fierce, was the Gators’ undisputed leader, and with talented personnel at the receiver position (Doering, Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard, and later Jacquez Green) as a complement, the Gators became a juggernaut. “The speed, the athletic ability, you combine that with the patterns and the concepts we were doing, it was tough to defend,” Wuerffel said.
Reflectively, Florida is memorialized in college football lore for its aerial assault that struck fear into the hearts of opposing defenses, but Wuerffel credits the ability to run as an equally vital element to success. “People forget, we were 50/50, my whole time there, run-pass,” Wuerffel said. “Most historic teams would run the ball to set up the pass. We were the opposite. People were so intent in covering our passing that it created opportunities for us to run and we had some really good running backs. I think that gets missed a lot, the balance of the attack and the amount of yards rushing we had. That’s got to be a killer for the defense and you’re doing all you can to stop the pass and they just run the ball over on you. In the games that we lost, our run got stopped and without that ability to run, we struggled.”
In 1995, that sentiment proved to be true. That year, Florida went 12-1 and averaged 42.9 points per game. The Gators ran through the SEC schedule like water through a sieve, leaving the Tennessee (62), Auburn (49) and Georgia (52) defenses red-faced in the process (Spurrier, ever-cocksure, would delight in hanging “half a hundred” on the Bulldogs in Athens). The Gators’ only blemish was a 62-24 thrashing by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2. Huskers quarterback Tommy Frazier and running back Lawrence Phillips combined for 364 of Nebraska’s 629 yards, while the Gators mustered only 269 yards of total offense (-28 in the rushing department). “Nebraska’s just way better than us,” a morose Spurrier said in a postgame interview. “They just clobbered us. They outcoached us, they outplayed us … by far the best team I’ve played, I think, in six years at Florida.”
The next year, Spurrier and Wuerffel gained redemption. The Gators charged to 10-0 behind the arm of Wuerffel and the legs of running back Fred Taylor. A September meeting with Tennessee in Knoxville pitted Wuerffel against Peyton Manning, billed as the better pro prospect, before 107,608 fans. During the first half, Manning was intercepted four times and Florida led 35-0 at halftime when Vols fans began to empty the stadium. “I don’t know where all those Tennessee fans went. Maybe the Jeff Foxworthy Show was on,” quipped Florida linebacker James Bates in a postgame interview.
As for the Wuerffel-Manning gunfight, it was over quickly. “Their duel was over almost before it started,” wrote Andrew Bagnato for the Chicago Tribune. “Wuerffel had three touchdown passes before Manning had his fourth completion.”
Florida held on for a 35-29 win, its fourth in a row over the Volunteers.
And although many competitors would fuel off such comparisons, Wuerffel says he wasn’t affected by it. Wanting to keep his mind unsullied by the hype and criticism of journalists, Wuerffel had made a conscious decision before his senior season to avoid reading print media. As a result, he was able to mitigate the effectiveness of comparisons and detach himself from the propaganda. “I didn’t feed off of it,” Wuerffel said. “There was such a intentionality around Spurrier coaching you. Outside of that, there was not a lot of energy to be motivated.”
Further eliminating the clutter, Wuerffel employed a hyper-mature, businesslike mentality during road games — get in and get out — and immersed himself in the chess match on the field rather than town hotspots, his mental lens closing on the game in front of him while blocking out everything else. “I had a very focused experience,” Wuerffel said. “Sometimes I regret some of that. If I could go back now as a more mature person, I think I would enjoy more the emotional moments. The fans. I’d be more free to get caught up in it.”
By midseason, Wuerffel was considered the top quarterback in the country and the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. But a Nov. 30 meeting with Florida State in Tallahassee loomed menacingly at the tail end of the schedule. Before the game, the collective ‘Noles brain trust of Bobby Bowden and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews did their homework, and, gleaning from the Nebraska game, surmised that pressure was Wuerffel’s kryptonite. During the game, it arrived in droves, and Wuerffel spent much of the afternoon on the turf. (Announcer Keith Jackson: “He’s been hammered all day.”)
The Seminoles, loose as adders and unrestrained in their aggression, sacked the Florida quarterback six times and forced three interceptions. Penalties and late hits ran amok, as Bowden defended his troops — “we just hit till the echo (of the whistle),” Bowden told the Sun-Sentinel.
As Jackson’s staccato, silver-throated voice reigned over the day’s events, FSU running back Warrick Dunn scampered for 184 yards, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. After Florida State secured a 24-21 victory, Jackson himself had all but guaranteed that the Seminoles would meet Nebraska in the Nokia Sugar Bowl for the national championship. However, in a twist of fate, Texas upended Nebraska 37-27 in the Big 12 Championship game and Florida slid into the Sugar Bowl slot by chawing on Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in Birmingham, 45-30. There would be a rematch with FSU in New Orleans, but it wasn’t until Ohio State bested Arizona State in the Rose Bowl that the game was elevated to national championship status.
Danger in the Trophy Case
In a low-ceilinged room at the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, four finalists for the 1996 version of the Heisman Trophy Presentation sat tensely: Iowa State running back Troy Davis, Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer, Ohio State offensive tackle Orlando Pace and Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel. It was the 62nd presentation of the award, the former Heisman winners standing like gods behind the podium. After Wuerffel’s name was called (and famously mispronounced “Warr-FILL”), Wuerffel climbed onto the dais as Hail-Mary-bestower Doug Flutie offered a congratulatory shake.
“Welcome to the Club,” Flutie said.
Neat as a pin, dreamy, Wuerffel approached the podium wearing an olive suit and maroon dress shirt underneath. His speech, a confident-but-embarrassed, aw-shucks acceptance, was relatively succinct and not as polished. There were no notes. Nervously, Wuerffel ad libbed. “First and foremost, I just want to give all the glory and praise to God. He’s the rock upon which I stand, and publicly I’d like him to forgive me of my sins, for they are many,” Wuerffel said.
A brief silence seemed to underscore Wuerffel’s boldness about mentioning the Lord — and his own personal demerits — at such a non-religious occasion.
Gathering himself, he thanked Spurrier and his parents. He cracked a joke, lightening the mood. And then he finished with this statement: “It’s a blessing to play college football. But the biggest blessing of all, and I’m so thankful nothing can compare to the knowledge of knowing and having a loving and living relationship with Jesus. And I want to thank you guys so much. And God bless you.”
December had been good to Wuerffel. He had thrown six touchdowns against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and brought home a truckload of hardware: the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, the Davey O’Brien Award, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and the less-famous Draddy Award (given to the player with the best combination of academics, athletics and community service). Now his team was slated to play FSU on Jan. 2 for (maybe?) all the marbles.
But there was danger in the trophy case. Although Wuerffel was the kind of impeccable, morally-fastidious young man that fathers, far and wide, would want their daughter to date, as the accolades continued to mount and temptation was thrown at him from all angles, God began to deal with his pride.
In September of 1995, a gaggle of prying reporters had descended on the Florida campus to unearth the grime in Wuerffel’s spotless character. What they found was that he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t cuss, didn’t womanize, didn’t bar hop. What does he do wrong? The only lapse in Wuerffel’s character, the reporters surmised, was this severe foible: He was prone to bite his fingernails.
What the reporters could not discover, Wuerffel found himself. “When I got to college, I think I made a mistake, a subtle mistake that we all make,” Wuerffel reflects. “You kind of begin to equate being a good Christian with being a good person and good kid. In avoiding things you weren’t supposed to as a young Christian.”
After a couple of years in college, Wuerffel and a friend started a bible study that became a defining moment in his faith life. During this exercise, he began to dive deeper into the oceans of his soul for answers. Paring back the layers, Wuerffel began to realize the glaring extent of his sin. The good boy image he tried to project and the temptation for celebrity entitlement were but red herrings, and a much deeper flaw that spoke to Wuerffel’s actual motives was buried below crust and mantle. “Not living up to the standard of God isn’t just about what you do,” Wuerffel said. “It’s moving into your thoughts, what are you thinking. But really, even worse, is moving into your motives — is like why are you doing what you are doing? That’s where I began to feel broken. I was doing good work, but how much of it was from a heart filled with the Lord, or to do good things so I could feel like a good person? That was a humbling transformation for me.”
Wuerffel began to understand that the Christian life is a far nobler and challenging endeavor than the mere avoidance of sin; the Christian life involves the permeation of Christ into every part of a person’s being and the complete yielding of human will to this higher authority.
Galore with tempters, Wuerffel struggled in finding true discipleship in a devil-may-care, near-adultless world of college. Luckily, many individuals — people who were not awestruck with Danny’s fame — were demonstrating their torrential love, their tough-but-tender admonishment keeping the celebrity on an even-keel, humble when lured to self-aggrandizement. “So there was this rapid crazy increase in being a popular, well-known celebrity-ish young man, but at the same time wrestling with my own sin and really clinging to grace,” Wuerffel said. “There was a family there volunteering with Fellowship of Christian Athletes that quasi-adopted me. I remember throwing five or six touchdowns against Alabama one year and a day or two later I was at their table and I got up to leave and she was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘We’re going to play basketball.’ And she goes, ‘You clean up your plate like everyone else does in this house.’ It was such a reminder that there were people around me who weren’t caught up in this great football player.”
Wuerffel realized through scenarios such as these that he needed to work on his personal life as much or more than he worked on the game of football. This Pauline, press-on-toward-the-goal mindset helped him to navigate the wiles of secular life, and to continue on his apostolic journey as a famous football player, student and community servant.
The Big Easy
For Wuerffel, the most memorable games at Florida were the bookends. The first and the last. The moment he first rushed onto the field against Kentucky and the culmination of years of hard work into a national championship against Florida State.
Thinking about a national title and believing they could win were two different animals, and for Florida, belief began on the plane ride back from the pummeling by Nebraska. The players did not hang their heads in gloom; instead they turned ravenous, riding their angst to victory after victory until Florida State. Now with a rematch, they had renewed motivation.
Spurrier’s genius was found in the small tweaks of Round 2: keeping Warrick Dunn in check and moving Wuerffel to the shotgun to give him more time to throw. The last thing Spurrier wanted to see was his quarterback in the same unsightly bog as Round 1.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. Wuerffel zipped for 306 yards (Hilliard his preferred touchdown target) and Florida romped 52-20. “Now do you see why we didn’t want to play them again,” Bowden said forlornly after the game.
Spurrier wasn’t so glum. “Swannie, God has smiled on the Gators,” Spurrier told ABC sideline reporter Lynn Swann. “And Danny Wuerffel, he’s the best player to ever play college quarterback, I’ll tell you that.”
Plans materialized for Wuerffel to stay in New Orleans. Picked by the Saints in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL Draft, Wuerffel spent three years in the Big Easy as a backup quarterback behind Billy Joe Tolliver. In those three years, Wuerffel started 10 games and threw nine touchdowns. The Saints, led by a past-his-prime Mike Ditka, were awful.
Although Wuerffel’s playing career in New Orleans was less than desirable, a bright spot occurred: He discovered a very worthwhile program in Desire Street Ministries while looking to serve the New Orleans community. “I was looking for something in the city to be a part of — how can I be a part of a bigger thing that’s impacting lives?” Wuerffel recalls. “Providence led me to connect with Desire Street.”
Touring the impoverished sections of New Orleans and meeting the people who were fighting for its very survival, Wuerffel was hooked immediately. “I was broken by realizing the level of, not just poverty, but just to see a whole neighborhood and to realize that there are neighborhoods all over the country that if you happen to be born into the neighborhood, the opportunities for you to move forward are so limited, the odds are so stacked against you,” he said.
After the 1999 season, the Saints cleaned house. “They fired the coach, the players and the mascot,” Wuerffel says of the miasma.
Wuerffel was now available for free agency, his stock rising after a summer in Europe where he led the Rhein Fire to a league championship against the Scottish Claymores in the NFL Europe’s World Bowl. He eventually signed with the Green Bay Packers as a backup to Brett Favre.
One season in Green Bay, and Wuerffel was on to the Chicago Bears for a season. There, he was a backup to Jim Miller on a very good Bears team (13-3 regular season) led by coach Dick Jauron. Wuerffel did not complete a pass in Green Bay or Chicago, and in only five years, he had drifted down the slow grade from Heisman Trophy winner to journeyman quarterback.
In 2003, Wuerffel reunited with Spurrier during his disastrous stint as head coach of the Washington Redskins. But the Head Ball Coach, going to great lengths by inviting Wuerffel’s old pal Shane Matthews to the party, could not recreate the glory days of Gainesville, as Washington went 7-9 and 5-11 in consecutive seasons. But it was in Washington that Wuerffel got the most playing time during his NFL career, starting four games and throwing for 719 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. After the season, the Redskins, against Spurrier’s wishes, released Wuerffel.
Instead continuing his football career, Wuerffel chose retirement. He was 28. And unlike many who didn’t have a plan for their posthumous football life, No. 7 had Desire Street. “On a practical level, it’s crushing for most guys when they end their career,” Wuerffel said. “Statistics show that around 80 percent of guys, within a few years after their NFL career, are divorced, bankrupt, or unemployed. It’s a major transition. On a practical level, I went right into something that was energizing, engaging, had a team and a purpose. I was fortunate.”
Reflecting on his time in the NFL, Wuerffel harbors no regrets, though he was once criticized for his mediocre pro career. “Overall, I’m incredibly grateful,” Wuerffel said. “From the relationships, to the people, to Desire Street, I’m just super, super grateful. I got to be at the right place at the right time with the right people. My cup overrunneth with that.”
The Impact of Desire Street
It seems awfully appropriate that in his second life, Danny Wuerffel, once a gridiron hero, now works with real American heroes. Of course, these heroes are not of the TV variety, and sadly, you’ve probably never heard of them, either.
Desire Street comes alongside community leaders by providing support for the people of the ministry, not simply the ministry itself. Folks like LaTonya at PAW Kids, or Justina Dix with Summer Hill Community Ministries, or Brian Kelly with Common Ground Montgomery, or J.B. Watkins at St. Roch Community Church in New Orleans — people giving their lives to give back to others. They work in areas devastated by murder, drugs, prostitution and misery. Some of the people whom these leaders serve will emerge from this affliction and beat the odds; most will default into what the community models for them.
Regardless of one’s lot in life, Desire Street believes that every soul holds intrinsic value.
Which begs the question: What is the future for kids like Honey Bun?
Inside of PAW Kids, Latonya and Danny walk into a middle room, where stretched out against a wall is a large world map. “I’m really big on maps,” Latonya says glowingly. “I want my kids to be able see that the world is bigger than Grove Park. When they first got here, they couldn’t imagine it. And so, I’m really big on exposing my kids to things they thought they’d never be able to do.”
As a Desire Street partner, PAW Kids receives the necessary resources to be able to provide for these delightful but at-risk children. “It’s such a blessing to be able to pick up a phone and call someone,” Latonya says. “Someone who’s praying and walking through this thing with you, who’s calling to see if you’re OK. Do you need something? You just don’t find what Desire Street offers.”
There aren’t many like Wuerffel, either. While it’s true many athletes have their names attached to charities, foundations and even hospitals, few are as involved in the daily operations as Wuerffel.
“For over a decade, Danny has poured himself into impoverished communities and invested in urban ministry leaders, providing the resources and encouragement that are crucial for their survival,” said Jonathan Colehower, DSM’s Chairman of the board since 2013. “Danny’s remarkable humility and leadership allow him to connect a broad range of personalities and neighborhoods, bringing the absolute best support to areas where it is needed most. When urban ministers struggle with the everyday challenges inherent to their jobs, it is assuring to know that Danny and the leadership team at Desire Street stand ready to walk alongside them.”
Inner city America is a forgotten place, and Wuerffel notices it most in the children. Their eyes, once bright with hope and love, start to lose luster as they get older. The radiance of a 4- or 5-year-old — “you can almost see the image of God coming through these bright eyes and big smiles” — has begun to wane at 9 and 10. And by the ninth or 10th grade, there is nothing but emptiness in the frontiers, no sense of hope or opportunity, only a fog.
Through the years, Wuerffel has been profoundly saddened by this spectrum. “I think a lot of people in America have no concept of that reality that exists for a lot of people,” said Wuerffel, who moved to Atlanta to help open this chapter. “And so, it was really a combination of seeing the reality of that and feeling a heart for all the people that were there working and wanting to encourage them … and do what I can to keep them going.
“Which has ultimately led to our model now. We are a fully-orbed organization that supports people that live and work in inner city neighborhoods all over the South and we come alongside them so they can thrive and be sustainable.”
What is the future for kids like Honey Bun? If Danny Wuerffel has anything to say about it, it’s as bright as the Florida sunshine.
It’s hard to believe that more than 20 years have passed since Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy and national championship. Across the years, his once-hairsprayed coif has been traded for a sheared head, and he’s grown trimmer and handsomer as the years have gone by, his face chiseled as the trophy that bears his name. He is a family man, husband to Jessica and father to three children. His work and his audience have drastically changed, the world spotlight is off him, and quietly he’s faded into the background as the older, other Christian quarterback from the University of Florida.
Interestingly enough, as Wuerffel’s fame has receded, his labor has, perhaps, become all the more important. Wuerffel doesn’t seem to mind; he was never really a fan of the spotlight anyway. Instead, he prefers his light to shine for Jesus Christ, his faith to transmit into humble servitude in the forgotten recesses of America.
Because if anywhere, these are the places for which Jesus weeps.
A Final Thought
If you want to find the video of the 1996 Heisman Trophy presentation, you can discover it on YouTube, where a gauzy, 8-minute clip shows a production with nowhere near the pomp and circumstance of today’s Heisman galas. You’ll find a younger Chris Fowler, sans the grey; you’ll find Herbstreit and Corso, and some sweet 1990s graphics flashing across the screen.
And if you’ve ever wondered if the things you say matter, consider this. Below the video, a comment is posted: “This presentation was the only time I had ever heard about having a relationship with God. A few months later, when I decided to become a Christian instead of committing suicide, Danny’s acceptance speech is all I remembered when I prayed.”
WANT TO HELP?
The 7th Annual Desire Cup Tournament, the largest annual fundraiser for Desire Street Ministries will be held on Oct. 26th and 27th at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. The 2-day event highlights the storied rivalry between the Gators and Bulldogs, and begins on Thursday evening with a “Party with a Purpose” where you can rub shoulders with celebrities from both schools and beyond, including Coach Steve Spurrier, Coach Vince Dooley, and many more. Then Friday morning brings the golf tournament to true Ryder Cup fashion, pitting the Dawgs and Gators in a head-to-head competition with the winning school keeping the trophy until the following year. For more information, visit Desire Street’s webpage at www.desirestreet.org/desirecup, or contact Sara Pace at email@example.com.
In addition to freelancing, Al Blanton is the owner of 78 Magazine, based out of Jasper, Alabama. Al is a lawyer and former college basketball coach who discovered a passion for writing. Follow Al on Twitter @78online.