We recently sat down to talk with former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, Danny Wuerffel, about his perspective on leadership and faith.
For fans of the Florida Gators, Danny was a hero on all fronts. He was the most decorated player in UF history, winning more awards and setting more records than any quarterback in Florida, SEC, or NCAA history. He led them to their first national title in 1996 and won the Heisman Trophy and the Walter Camp Award. He was named the SEC National Offensive Player of the Year. In addition, he was named the GTE Academic All-American of the Year.
While his accomplishments on the field and in the classroom are easily acknowledged, it is his role as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ that has made the most enduring impact. He was a mentor to other athletes and is famous for his community outreach. The Wuerffel Trophy, named in his honor, is given to the college player who best combines athletics, academics, and community service. One of Danny’s young protégés, Tim Tebow, was a recipient of the trophy during his junior year.
Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1997, Danny was in town when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Through the tragedy, Danny joined the cleanup efforts of Desire Street Ministries(DSM), located in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. His volunteer efforts instilled a personal interest in the mission of the urban ministry. After retiring from the NFL, Danny became the director of DSM.
Although he would agree that he has been blessed, he has faced his share of trials. In 2011, Danny was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre´ Syndrome, a disorder that turns the body’s immune system against the nervous system and can cause extreme pain and bouts of paralysis. While the disease has no known cause or cure, he is slowly regaining his strength and mobility, while learning to cope with the disease. Despite all of this, his passion and faith have never been more engaged.
With the remarkable career and success that you’ve had on the field, you could have pursued more “worldly” interests, but you’ve chosen Desire Street Ministries. Why did you make this choice?
As you get older, you realize that you only have one life to live; as a Christian, you realize that you only have one life to give back to God. In the beginning, my hopes and dreams were to be the first quarterback to help lead New Orleans to the Super Bowl. I wanted to help heal and rejuvenate the city through football, but the Lord had a different plan.
The first day I visited DSM, I didn’t want to quit the NFL; seven years of investment in the kids and families of the Ninth Ward made the difference. There came a point where the decision to turn left at the intersection leading to DSM became more appealing than the right turn to the practice field. Each morning, it got harder to choose. Once I made the decision to “turn left,” I retired from football and started working full time at DSM. I’ve never looked back on that decision.
Can you tell us about Desire Street Ministries?
We are a ministry focused on ministering to other ministries. An intermediary or capacity-building ministry, our primary focus is to identify inner-city ministry leaders dreaming of change within their impoverished neighborhoods. DSM is developing a system of support that helps develop thriving and sustainable ministries through long-term partnerships. Over a five-year period, our vision is to develop twelve ministries in the Southeast and then, Lord willing, see how we can grow from there.
Neighborhood revitalization is not for the weak at heart. What does a typical day on the job look like for you?
Living in a distressed or impoverished neighborhood leads to all sorts of crises: knocks on the door late at night; kids being abused and needing an advocate; people needing help getting jobs and places to stay. On the contrary, the often overlooked beauty of the challenge is the tightly knit families that look out for each other in the midst of these neighborhoods.
In addition to the real-world problems of DSM, we run an organization that needs financial support. We have to deal with incredible losses of resources while wondering if we’re going to survive next week and knowing that we can’t quit, because so many people are depending on us. There are a lot of challenges in our ministry.
In football, success is clearly defined by the score board. How do you define success?
That’s a great question! The 30,000 foot answer is that I keep going back to the thought that God cares more about faithfulness than being successful. I grasped this concept while playing football.
"I realized that I had to take the snap, throw the pass, get knocked down, pull grass out of my helmet, and look up not knowing if it was a touchdown or an interception. I couldn’t control it, but I had to be faithful each step of the way."Danny Wuerffel
Ironically, when I retired and got into ministry, I struggled harder with the concept, because I felt that if I failed, the consequences would be felt in the lives of the people to whom I ministered. On a 30,000 foot level, I need to be faithful each day and leave the results to the Lord. He will determine my success.
Your impact on the lives of the people of New Orleans will be felt for generations. Is there a person that has had a significant impact on the direction of your life?
There have been several. I realize that I am who I am by God’s grace and by the pouring in of other people in my life. The Lord blessed me with a drive and a work ethic, but even those were cultivated by other people. Some days it seems that all I have contributed to my life was an attempt to mess things up! Two people have made a significant impact upon my life: Jimmy Ray Stephens, my high school football coach, and Pete Robertson, a college mentor.
Coach Stephens helped me to become a man of character and hard work, to push beyond comfort, and to think of long term goals. Through one-on-one Bible studies with my college mentor, I became aware of the depth of my sin and my need for grace. He helped me realize that a vocation was an opportunity to be a part of the Kingdom, whether it was a lawyer, an athlete, or a minister.
You were recently diagnosed with Guillain-Barre´ syndrome. How have you been able to stay positive through this difficult diagnosis? Are you still undergoing treatments?
No, I am no longer undergoing treatments. Other than a lingering fatigue that continues to improve, I’m fairly recovered. During these last fifteen months, I have been through some of the worst moments of my life, but also some of the best. Strangely, the actual physical struggle of pain, discomfort, and a hyper-limited ability wasn’t the hardest part—learning to live a limited life has been most challenging. It’s like trying to drive at 85mph, cranking it to 100mph when I need it, but realizing that even maintaining 30mph threatens to blow up the car!
Early on in the recovery process, I committed myself to not waste time. I purposefully chose to not distract myself with menial things, but rather to deal with the difficult emotions and pain as they arose. The Lord revealed such depths of pride and pretense in my heart! I found that many of the wonderful things I do for other people are deeply motivated by my own selfish needs. There is a lot to say for digging deep into motives and facing the shadowy part of yourself.
My life, faith, and ministry have drastically changed this year. I have learned that it takes more faith to trust God when life is falling apart. By developing an authentic relationship with God, I have been abundantly blessed.
Story of Impact
Bill Gunter, a former University of Florida player, is a living testament to Danny Wuerffel’s investment in eternity.
As a UF athlete, Bill felt the calling of God into a ministry-driven role, but had no idea how he could afford seminary after years of undergraduate education. “On May 20, 1997, I finally wrote in my journal that I was finished,” said Bill Gunter. “I was so tired of praying for an answer and asked God to take away the desire if it was beyond my reach. I knew that He could provide the finances for seminary, but I was so tired of waiting.”
That same day, Danny appeared with a life-changing announcement. “He was driving to Gainsville and asked to stop by,” said Bill. “He said I could stop praying for seminary finances. He said he would take care of everything. And, he did.” Soon after, Bill enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and completed his ministerial training.
Today, Bill Gunter is the pastor of Redeemer Community Church in New Port Richey, Florida, a direct result of the selfless sacrifice of Danny Wuerffel.