ATLANTA -- Sixteen years after winning the Heisman Trophy, he is striking his own pose. His faith is tucked tightly under one arm, never in danger of being dropped. The other arm is straight stiff, to fend off the constant challenges of life and to keep him from being sacked.
The legs, churning and moving, they never change direction, and haven’t since 2004, when Danny Wuerffel reached the fork in the football field. He was doing part-time ministry work in the bleakest part of New Orleans, the Desire Street neighborhood, while also trying to reassemble the splinters of a short NFL career that had been shattered when he was released by the Redskins.
“I was training to get back on another team,” he said. “Every morning I would drive down our street and I’d have to turn right to go train, and I would’ve had to turn left to go to Desire Street. It got harder and harder for me to turn right. My heart and passion was growing in the other direction.”
So Wuerffel declined offers to be a backup quarterback, and later turned down chances to coach, and ignored the urge to go mainstream, just to keep teenagers off drugs. And convince them to stay in school long enough to graduate. And help single mothers raise their babies. And mentor those without proper role models. And spend his entire day, and even some nights, in the kind of areas that often lead the 6 o’clock news.
“It wasn’t like all of a sudden I chose to do what I’m doing,” he said. “It was a result of a lot of different things shaping me, probably a lot longer than I’m aware of, that led me to this.”
His life, charmed in college, where a national championship and the Heisman made him a Florida folk hero, is devoted to a different kind of leadership. He was groomed for this, as the son of a minister whose congregation in Pensacola was mostly poor. So as a young quarterback in New Orleans shortly after being drafted in 1997, Wuerffel was instantly drawn to those who needed help even more than the Saints, who back then were paper-bagged by the home fans. His religion and conscience took him to the Desire Street Ministries, and it was a weird and contradictory sight to behold: A white, fairly famous football player deeply immersed in the complicated and sometimes chaotic lives of poor African-Americans who struggled daily. What began as seven years of volunteer work is now a full-blown career, with Wuerffel the CEO of a ministry that has gone regional in scope and reach.
Desire Street links underserved areas in Texas, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and also Atlanta, where Wuerffel is based after Katrina walloped the New Orleans headquarters. Part of his job is fund raising; having the Heisman platform doesn’t hurt when it comes to digging for dollars, but the real satisfaction and challenge lie in the field. That’s where Wuerffel sees, hears and even feels what it’s like to dwell at Ground Zero of the poverty level in the South.
His parents were thrilled when their son chose this way of life, but initially worried about his safety, as a stranger spending long hours in neighborhoods swollen with crime. They dreaded the late-night phone call with a frantic voice on the other end.
“He was smart about where to go,” said John Wuerffel. “And when the people there know who you are and why you’re there, they figure you’re on their side, that you’re playing their game. People trusted him. It didn’t take long. He’s a trusting person.”
Wuerffel wasn’t too concerned, even if he had reason to be. At the turn of the last decade, before many of the projects were torn down, Desire Street was notorious for its murder rate, helping to make New Orleans one of the most violent cities in the country. Yet, as much as he stood out, he never felt like a target. He said: “When I started hanging out at Desire Street, my sister and her husband were living in a gated community in Tampa and they had more things stolen than I did, with my car parked outside Desire Street every day.”
Wuerffel doesn’t downplay or minimize the grim issues of the neighborhood, either, because if Desire Street was a Norman Rockwell painting, there’d be no reason to be there. One of the young men Wuerffel was counseling once threw a particularly memorable birthday party, which drew Wuerffel’s curiosity.
“I asked him what was so special about turning 25, and he said, ever so matter-of-factly, `I never thought I’d live to be 25.’ This was amazing. That was one of the many situations that caused me to step back and realize the many struggles that people in our own country have.”
Away from Desire, he met a woman who made $600 a month working for Habitat for Humanity and whose dream car was a Dodge Neon. She had a heart for simplicity and serving, not a jones for a Benz and Bloomingdale’s. His kind of girl, in other words. Danny and Jessica now have three children aged nine and under, and the family lives modestly. They didn’t take a vow of poverty but let’s put it this way: Peyton Manning probably makes more in a month than they do in a year.
“When he needs a lawn mower,” said John Wuerffel, “he comes and borrows mine.”
When Katrina hit, the grand plans, the work, the vision, that all turned sideways. Wuerffel’s house, not far from Desire Street, was flooded to the roof. The building that housed the ministry was gone, too, forcing Wuerffel to pick up and move. Like many victims of the hurricane, he fled to Atlanta and decided to rebuild his home and relocate the headquarters there.
“It was like it was an attack on him or something,” said his father, “and he’s the last person who should be under attack.”
Two summers ago the Wuerffels made their annual pilgrimage to Montgomery, Ala., where they work the community and bunker down for a few nights in the toughest part of town. Wuerffel felt weak physically that week and began to wobble and stumble without being pushed. He saw a local doctor, took some tests, then returned to his temporary home, kissed his wife and kids and called it a night.
“The next morning around four or five, in the inner-city, someone was banging as hard as they could on my front door, which always makes you nervous,” Wuerffel said. “I open it up and it’s the doctor. He had driven across town in the middle of the night. He was in a panic. He said, `I came here to see if you were still breathing.’ ”
Wuerffel was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder that wages a war between the nervous and immune systems. Muscular weakness, constant fatigue and even slight paralysis follow, and in extreme cases, sufferers deal daily with breathing difficulties. And there’s no cure.
The physical limitations came as a shock to a former quarterback who threw for 10,875 yards and 114 touchdowns and lifted an entire college football program to glory. Suddenly his life detoured to a series of hospitalizations and MRIs and spinal taps. A sluggish recovery period greatly impacted his professional and personal life. There were stretches where Wuerffel struggled to finish simple tasks and chores. He couldn’t stand for very long, and as for breathing, it was like someone plugged his nostrils with putty. He needed help getting to the bathroom. He had precious little energy to deal with basic family functions.
A strange and wonderful thing happened right about this time. A man who devoted his life to helping those less fortunate was now being lifted by the very people he served. When word of his condition spread, community reaction was swift and suffocating. Neighborhood leaders and volunteers absorbed a portion of his workload. Parents prayed for him. Children sent him hand-made get well cards written on cardboard with crayon. Donors called. Appreciation poured in, from everywhere.
“I was blessed and encouraged by more people from the neighborhoods than I could ever count,” he said. “It was very supportive. I was loved.”
Even now, at 38, Wuerffel’s livelihood will be slow to return to normalcy, if ever. His days are more 16-hour than 24-hour, his pace three gears lower and it’s a grind at times. He’s still active and athletic but the racquetball games with his father are a little less intense. He can’t schedule appointments or events very late in the day in most cases. He just doesn’t have the juice, and if he does too much, he’ll develop headaches.
“It’s really hard on his family,” said John Wuerffel. “His kids want a bunch of attention. They want to play. They want to jump on him. He can’t do so much. He doesn’t always feel good. It’s hard to see a strong person taken down. He only has half a day.”
Actually, Wuerffel believes he’s fortunate. The real hardship, he said, is not having enough money to buy food or keep the home heated, and living with the constant threat of domestic violence, and dropping out of school with no real options, and dealing with racism and injustice. The real struggle is what many of the people he serves deal with in their normal lives.
You can imagine, then, that his take on everything is a bit different, based on what he sees daily on the job.
“You’ve got all sorts of family dynamics but there’s a lot of focus on broken families, inner city youths, single parent homes, places where kids are often talking about murders and rapes like it’s almost common, like there’s no stigma to it because it’s so common,” he said.
“There was once a fire in one of the apartment units and we saw a fireman go in and pull out three small children. One of the babies, we found out later, died from the smoke. There was a question whether the building had been up to code. There was a question about whether the fire department was on it as quickly as maybe they could have. A lot of questions were really hard to wrestle with. There was never resolution, there was never any answers. I think if anything like that had happened in our better neighborhoods, we would’ve asked questions and demanded answers and wondered if things could be better. It sure seemed to me like there are people in our country who don’t have a voice.”
As sad as some of the tales are, Wuerffel said it would be a mistake for anyone to write off these communities as a complete waste, as though they lack their own vision of hope.
“People see or assume there’s nothing but all brokenness, all darkness, all distress and don’t take the time to see that, while many of these things are true, there are amazing assets, people and stories. There’s challenge but there’s also beauty. I continue to be amazed by the people who live in very tangible and practical and in some cases risky ways. The people who serve these communities, like I do, go into it feeling like they have so much to offer. Very often you also find out you have so much to gain. It’s in the mutual exchange of these relationships that beautiful things can happen.”
He doesn’t dwell on a six-year NFL career that produced more interceptions than touchdowns and never came close to matching his time at Florida, or refusing chances to return to the game in some capacity. He never changed anyone’s life by throwing a touchdown pass, anyway. He cringes when attention finds him these days, explaining that other volunteers spend longer hours in tougher neighborhoods, which may be true, but none have a Heisman. His faith led him here and he’s more than fine with that. He doesn’t see it as a sacrifice.
“That’s an interesting word because it usually connotates giving up something that you really wanted, so therefore what might be a sacrifice to one person might not be to another,” he said. “There were a lot of opportunities where I could’ve made more money, other things that could’ve been a lot easier, and other things that would take up a lot less time. If I had five different lives then I would’ve considered those but you only have one life to live and one life to give, so you should be thoughtful about where to invest your life. For me, looking at the story of my life, it’s evident that Desire Street is what the Lord wanted me to do.”
Getting enough donations to improve communities and finding the energy to overcome his ailment are battling him a lot harder than Florida State ever did. Those, along with the never-ending mission to keep kids off the street and in school, often seem like problems that follow one troubled generation to the next. Wuerffel is constantly running on a social and medical treadmill that’s missing the shutoff button. Not that he’s complaining or looking to pull the plug.
“Often it’s the most difficult things in life that turn out to be the most instrumental,” he said. “The awful things that have happened, like Katrina and Guillain–Barre, they’re all part of my story, part of who I am, along with winning my Heisman. If I were to somehow be able to go back and change those things, then there’s the chance I’d end up a shallow person.”
Football is never too far away, though. Wuerffel will watch the Heisman ceremony with great interest Saturday, to see if Manti Te’o can become the first full-time defensive player to win the trophy, or if Johnny Manziel can be the first freshman winner. He remembers when he and some local kids were running around in the rec center. Someone found a football and threw it to Wuerffel. He waved for one of the kids to go long and, well, let’s just say the spiral was nicer and tighter than any they saw before or since.
“Hey man, you ever play football?” one of them asked.
Just a little, Wuerffel said.
“It’s fun to know you’re connecting in ways other than being an athlete,” he said.
He’ll go days and weeks without being recognized as the country’s most outstanding player and a national champion. Many of the kids he’s around weren’t even born in 1996, when he owned college football.
To them, he’s a local leader and minister of the poor, which he doesn’t mind. Because, after all, that’s who he is, what he does. That’s his calling, and unlike the bronzed trophy, stuck in a permanent pose, he’s not running away.