Wuerffel Still The Greatest Gator Of All

It was December, 1991, and Fort Walton Beach had just hammered St. Thomas Aquinas for the state championship at The Swamp behind the future of Florida football. Standing outside the locker room, Jimmy Ray Stephens hugged an old friend and talked about what had just happened. He made no attempt to wipe away the tears that became overflowing rivers as gravity pulled them down his face.

"You won't believe what just happened in there," said Stephens, coach of that state championship team.

Even then I'd been around a long time so state championship locker room celebrations were nothing new. Kids win. Kids celebrate. The story's pretty much the same no matter the year, no matter the sport. But, I wasn't prepared for the story Jimmy Ray told me.

"We get in the locker room and we pray like we always do," said Stephens. "Only Danny Wuerffel spends most of the prayer talking about how great Aquinas was and thanking God that we got a chance to play such a great team, and then when he says amen, he sings Amazing Grace. There wasn't a dry eye in the whole place."

For the next few minutes, he didn't talk much about football. He talked about how Danny Wuerffel was the kind of young man that would make a real mark in this world, maybe not in football, but in something.

"He's the kind of kid that has this gift to change people's lives," Stephens said. "I've never been around anyone like him and I don't know if I'll ever be around another one like Danny."

The more Jimmy Ray talked about Danny that afternoon, the more I became convinced that the University of Florida's quarterback of the future had just made his debut at The Swamp. In the years that have passed since that first encounter, I find that I'm always amazed at the things Danny does but I'm never really surprised.

I'm amazed because if there is a way to touch the lives of others, to make the people around him better, Danny Wuerffel will find a way to do it. The national championship in 1996 and the Heisman Trophy? I'm not going to say I ever expected those things back when he signed his scholarship to play for Steve Spurrier and the Gators back in February of 1992, but I can't say that anything he did at Florida really surprised me.

His first off several NFL gigs was with the New Orleans Saints. On the field NFL successes were few, but it was there in New Orleans that he found his meaning and purpose for life. He discovered Desire Street, a notorious neighborhood best known for having the highest of everything that's bad --- the highest crime rate in the country; the highest murder rate in the country; the highest dropout rate; the highest percentage of teenage pregnancy; the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases; the highest rate of citizens falling below the poverty line … you name it and it's bad, Desire Street had it.

Most people would look at the Desire Street neighborhood as a frightening place that should be avoided at all costs. When Danny Wuerffel saw it, first his heart broke and then his heart felt God's tug. This was the place where he would let God's unconditional love flow through him so he could do what he's always done --- change lives --- on an even greater scale.

If you look at the stats, you can say Danny's NFL career was a huge disappointment. There's only one stat that really matters, however. NFL paychecks are pretty large and he banked the bulk of the NFL money which enabled him to go full-time into what he knew God wanted him to do, which was impacting lives in the Desire Street neighborhood.

A ministry was born. Programs were begun. A school was started. Hope took root and a neighborhood was being transformed. And then Hurricane Katrina came roaring through, wiping out most of New Orleans including 90 percent of the Ninth Ward where Desire Street is located. What the treacherous winds didn't rip apart and blow away, the floods that ravaged the city when the levies broke washed away and ruined.

Danny got out of New Orleans with the wife, kids and dog just ahead of the storm. Like so many thousands of others, the Wuerffels lost everything except the few things they packed in their car when they evacuated the city.

That's where this chapter of the story begins. In the days after Katrina, while the nation was reacting in horror in the aftermath of the greatest natural disaster the country has ever seen and debating whether or not New Orleans could ever recover, Danny Wuerffel was spending 18 hours of every day trying to locate the kids who had been attending Desire Street Academy. They were scattered in shelters all over the country but Wuerffel had a plan to find them and bring them back to a re-located Desire Street Academy.

He found a temporary home for the school in Niceville, just up the road from his parents' home in Destin. What happened next you might call a miracle but if you're familiar with how Danny Wuerffel impacts and changes lives, you might just say it's amazing but not a real surprise.

"As we learned more about their situations, they didn't have very good places to live," said Wuerffel Friday evening prior to his induction into the University of Florida Hall of Fame. "Kids were living in small houses with 37 people … with 24 people … so the housing was an issue and where they would go to school was an issue. We got our staff together and they were committed to trying to pull off what the time was an almost unimaginable feat --- recreate a school and turn it into a boarding school in less than a month. It's amazing how it worked out."

Amazing? Yes. Surprising? No.

And, just because heaven and earth moved to re-start the school in Niceville doesn't mean there weren't some tough problems to deal with. In typical Wuerffel fashion, the problems were seen as bumps in the road, temporary impediments not long term obstacles.

"It's been a great opportunity for us to continue working in the lives of these kids especially with the intense trauma that they have faced and issues that they're dealing with," he said. "It's not been an easy year. There have been a lot of difficult things to deal with --- kids who have never been out of the city of New Orleans --- so it's been a …it's not been an easy year … there has been been a tough adjustment for several of them. We're very blessed to continue the work and we're looking forward to do what's next."

There are 85 kids at Desire Street Academy's temporary home in Niceville. School ends on May 19 but when it reconvenes for next school year, it will be in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where property has been purchased and work has begun for a bigger, better boarding school that will even take in kids from at risk neighborhoods in Baton Rouge as well as New Orleans.

While the school gets a new start in Baton Rouge, Desire Street Ministries will be part of the rebuilding of the old Desire Street neighborhood. There's not much left of it now but there are plans to take what was once the worst neighborhood in America and make it a shining example of what can happen when one man's vision is taken to heart by others.

"With some of the recent releases from FEMA and flood maps, it looks like we'll be able to help redevelop the Desire neighborhood into a better place than it was," he said.

With the round-the-clock activity it took to locate the kids from Desire Street Academy and re-start the school in Niceville, it was weeks before the Wuerffels could go back to the city and see what was left of their home. They drove in shock through the Ninth Ward and then they went through other neighborhoods on the way to the place they used to call home.

"It was really bizarre," he said. "One neighborhood would look okay and you would be driving through and you could tell some things had happened but for the most part you could recognize it. Then you would drive across a bridge into another neighborhood and it was like a bomb went off.

"Everything … colors, trees all over the place … houses in the middle of the road … cars in the tops of trees … and then going through our house was just nasty …sewage water up to here for several weeks so just everything was ruined and rancid. It was definitely a tough time for all of us involved but it's also been --- in a lot of ways that are hard to explain --- a blessing. It's done a lot of good things as well."

Standing there at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Friday night, a place where he created the memories of a lifetime for the entire Gator Nation, Danny Wuerffel was able to put not only the past year but his entire football career in perspective. Football, he now understands, was his vehicle to take him to the places he needed to be and to open doors.

"I love the game of football and I have been so blessed to be part of that football world but even as I was doing it there was a sense that it was a part of life and certainly when you go through tragedies like this you tend to re-organize your priorities," he said. "Going through this tragedy has made me so thankful to have gone through the football world, especially the Gator world because of the way the Gator nation has stepped up to support us in so many ways. Having been through this football life, it's created opportunities for me to help other people so I'm even more so grateful for it."

The Gator Nation that embraced Danny Wuerffel the football player opened its hearts and its wallets to Danny Wuerffel the servant that keeps on serving. The athletic department at UF donated $50,000 and Gators from every walk of life started sending in checks.

"I can't tell you how many thousands of individuals are writing $10 and $25 dollar checks," he said. "That's been incredibly encouraging in every way you can imagine. When things are down, people are there for you."

People are there for Danny Wuerffel because this greatest Gator of them all has always been an inspiration to the entire Gator Nation. He took Florida football to unprecedented heights. Name the award he won it on the field and in the classroom. Now that he's moved on with his life, he answers to a higher calling and continues to do it with a heart that has always remained humble and filled with grace.

Friday night as he reflected on the years since he first became a Gator to this moment when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame, he shook his head, almost in disbelief.

"My whole career at Florida feels like a dream sometimes and I wonder if it really happened," he said. "Maybe this can help me realize it really did happen."

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