By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
News reached Danny Wuerffel a couple of weeks ago that he had been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
It could have been easy for Danny to take it in stride, almost expect the honor. After all, the former University of Florida quarterback and 1996 Heisman Trophy winner who led the Gators to their first national championship that season, is regarded as one of the best players in SEC history.
His 114 career touchdown passes from ’93 to ’96 ranks first in the SEC, 25 more than a pretty fair flinger named Peyton Manning.
Yet Danny was truly humbled by his latest award. At age 38 he lives his life by four credos, one of which is “you’re not that important.”
This became clear to him a few years ago when he attended the annual Heisman Trophy ceremony with other past Heisman winners. The event is also one-stop shop for autograph seekers, and Danny recalls one kid who would not be denied.
“He followed me into the bathroom and stood by the door,” Danny says. “I thought he was someone being used by a memorabilia collector to get my autograph and sell it. One of the ways you know it’s not going to be sold is if you personalize it, because then the autograph loses value.
“So I said, `Who do you want me to make this out to, young man?’ He just looked me. I got this guy, he’s trying to make money pilfering my great name. I said again, `Who do want me to make this out to?’ He just stood there and I said, `Son, I can’t sign this unless you can tell me who to make it out to.’
He said, `Sir, I don’t know who you are. But I saw you in that room with Tim Tebow. Could you get his autograph for me?’ ”
That story is both funny and ironic. Danny was Tebow’s role model growing up in Jacksonville before Tebow was a 2007 Heisman Trophy winning QB who helped the Gators win national titles in 2006 and 2008.
Danny was a perfectionist son of an Air Force chaplain who lived in six cities by the time he was 16 years old. He completed 68 percent of his passes in high school where he led Fort Walton Beach (Fla.) High to the state championship. Then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose “Fun-n-Gun” passing offenses was already blowing up SEC scoreboards, had to have him.
In Danny’s second college game in 1993, he threw a 28-yard game-winning TD pass to Chris Doering as time expired in a victory at Kentucky. By the end of his career, Danny had played on four SEC championship teams, passed for just under 11,000 yards and his 163.56 passing efficiency rating was the best ever in college football at the time. He’s the only player in SEC history to win back-to-back MVP awards in the league championship game, capped by 401 yards and six TDs in the 45-30 ’96 title contest victory over Alabama.
Along the way, Danny may have been the only QB to ever be coached by Spurrier who calmly handled the relentless perfectionist attitude of the former 1966 Florida Heisman Trophy winning quarterback.
Danny says he’ll never forget one of his first plays in game action under Spurrier.
“We were running a corner route,” Danny recalls, “and we would run it pretty precise compared to other teams. Our receiver angles out about 22 or 23 yards, and catches the ball two yards from the sideline. It was very timing oriented. You throw before the receiver breaks. It has to be timed and executed well.
“So on one of my first plays, I threw it and the receiver broke flatter than he was supposed to, and the ball sails over his head. The pass is intercepted by the cover two deep safety.
“I knew it would be intimidating to go back to that sideline with Steve Spurrier waiting. I wondered what he saw. Did he see the receiver cut it short? Did he think it was a bad throw? How was he going to react?
“He was bending down to pick up his visor after he threw it. I get to the sideline and he says, `Danny, it’s not your fault.’ I let out this sigh and he said, `It’s MY fault for putting YOU in there!’ ”
Even as Danny gained more experience and success, trotting to the sideline after a Gators’ possession and facing Spurrier still kept him a bit on edge, like in a 1995 showdown against Georgia.
Before that game, Danny missed receiver after receiver in warmups. Spurrier wanted to know what was wrong with him.
“I was trying to recall every fundamental I learned from all my coaches,” Danny says. “I remember going in the locker room before the game, getting on my knees and saying, `Lord, I can’t do this on my own.’
“The first drive of the game, I throw a pass that should have been intercepted, and Ike Hilliard caught it for a touchdown. The second drive I was back to pass, the defensive end broke free, I scrambled left and when I was almost to the sideline I knew I had to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone because I didn’t have a receiver open.
“Right when I threw, the end grabbed me, spun me and my pass floated back across the middle of the field toward a sea of red Georgia defenders. I remember lying there thinking, `I’m going to have to maybe make a tackle. And I’m going to have to go back to the sideline and face Steve Spurrier.’
“I got up off the ground and (Florida receiver) Chris Doering was in the end zone with the ball for a touchdown. I didn’t even know he was in the game.
“I go to the sideline, still discombabulated. Spurrier was looking downfield, which was usually a good thing. He said, `Danny, that was a perfect pass inches above defenders in the only place Chris could catch it. But here’s my question. How did you see him? You’re running right, he’s running left. You never even looked back. At the last second, you spun around and made this perfect throw. How did you see it?’
“So I stood there, tried to muster up as much integrity as I could at the time and say, `Coach, you taught me to have peripheral vision.’
Yet more than any QB Spurrier ever coached, Danny simply had a focus and an unflappable coolness under pressure that made him consistently deliver in the clutch. He and Spurrier almost operated as one. Spurrier was able to change plays from the sideline using hand signals and Danny flawlessly handled the audibles.
The fact Danny ran Spurrier’s system to perfection even made Spurrier overlook Danny’s less-than-ideal throwing motion.
“Danny was the best I ever had at running the show,” Spurrier said a few years ago. “He’d never lose confidence in situations when a game looked out of reach for us. He taught me patience.”
Danny may have hoped he’d play for a mild-mannered coach once he got to the NFL in 1997, but no such luck. He was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, which was coached by fiery Mike Ditka.
Because the Saints’ offense was the lowest scoring in the NFl that season, barely averaging two touchdowns game, it often looked like it needed a search party to find the end zone. Danny finally got his first pro start in the eighth game of his rookie season against the Carolina Panthers in the Louisiana Superdome.
There was a good pregame vibe in the air.
The last game Danny had started in the Superdome was ninth months before. In the final game of his college career, he threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns to lead Florida to a 52-20 Sugar Bowl beatdown of Florida State to capture the Gators’ first national championship.
Also, Danny earned a starting shot vs. Carolina by rallying the Saints to two fourth-quarter touchdowns the week before in a 23-17 loss to Atlanta.
But Danny’s first pro start wasn’t as magical. He got battered around most of the afternoon by a relentless Panthers’ pass rush to the point where he thought he was blinded on his last play of a 13-0 loss.
“I drop to pass looking right and what I didn’t see was a linebacker beating our left offensive tackle right off the snap,” Danny says. “Right as I came off looking at my first receiver and turning toward the middle of the field looking for my second receiver, their linebacker came in low at Mach speed, accelerated and leaped through the air at me headfirst like a spear.
“So as I turned, the crown of his helmet hit me right in the temple. These days, it would be a $50,000 fine and an automatic ejection, but back then it was considered a great hit.
“The impact of the collision bounced him off me and I spun away. But when I straightened up to see a receiver, it was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything. I blinked to try and see something, but I couldn’t. Next thing I knew, somebody else hit me, I got sacked and I was on the ground.
“I was scared taking a hit like that. So I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and it was still pitch black. I thought I was blind, but what had happened when that first guy hit me, my helmet spun all the way around my head to where the facemask was at the back.
“I said after the game I thought for a second I had died. One of our linemen asked me, `Did you see a light?’ I said, ‘I did. It wasn’t so much coming at me as it was moving.’ He said, `Well, that was just your earhole going by your eyes.’
“At that point, I might have realized I wasn’t in New Orleans just to play football.”
Danny’s strong Christian faith, which had always served him well playing for demanding, tart-tongued coaches such as Spurrier and Ditka, led him in a different direction while in New Orleans.
He became acquainted with Desire Street Ministries, which served one of the most poverty-stricken, crime-infested neighborhoods in America. After six years in the NFL, the last three playing a season each with the Packers, Bears and Redskins, he retired and never looked back.
Because the more he worked with DSM, he knew that’s where he was truly needed, becoming the executive director.
“I got a chance to be involved in a lot of different capacities,” Danny says. “I did some youth work, ended up starting a school, a church and a little medical clinic. We did a lot of things together with people who lived in the community.”
The ministry was having a real impact until Hurricane Katrina blew across New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, breaking levees and flooding much of the city.
“My wife and I lost everything in our home, it was underwater for about a month,” Danny says. “The ministry was underwater, kids were scattered.
“But one of the things I learned from Coach Spurrier is you’ve got to be flexible. He felt that way if one of his plays worked or didn’t work. You can’t get attached to your plan, especially when life can be tough.”
Danny eventually re-located the ministry to Atlanta, but the organization has never forgotten its original mission to serve the folks of Desire Street.
“Eventually, we recovered,” Danny says. “We re-launched two churches, a community development corporation, and we’re building a multi-purpose center back in New Orleans. And since we moved to Atlanta, we’re starting to work with other inner-city ministries all through the South.”
About two years ago, Danny was visiting a ministry in Montgomery and living with a family in the inner city when he tried to roll out of bed one summer morning.
“I almost fell over, my knees just about gave out,” Danny recalls. “I thought that was weird. I kept getting weaker. I made it downstairs, but I almost fell again.
“The next morning when I woke up, my hands were weak, they were starting to get numb. I’m usually not one to run off to the hospital quickly, but this was different. So I went and saw a physician and took some tests.”
The next morning at 5 a.m., there was someone pounding on the front door where Danny was staying. It was the doctor and he explained his unlikely, frantic visit before sunrise.
“He said, `I came to see if you were breathing’,” Danny recalls. “I said, `What?’ He said, `I think you have Guillain–Barré syndrome, and if you’re not careful this paralysis can go so quickly it can shut down your respiratory system. You can die from this.’ I said, `I don’t have that.’
“So the doctor takes me in the kitchen, I sit on a table and he hits me on my knee to see if my reflexes would cause me to snap my knee forward. He hit my knee with all types of objects and it was just dead.”
Danny underwent more medical tests, such as a spinal tap where a needle in stuck in the spine to withdraw fluid.
“There’s no margin of error in this procedure,” Danny says. “So when these two doctors are about to do this and I’m laying facedown on my stomach, one of the doctors says, `Son, we want to confess something to you. I’m an Alabama fan and he’s an Auburn fan.’ ”
The original diagnosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome was confirmed. Danny began his fight to recover, a battle he’s winning more and more each day. Over the last 16 months, his enemy has been fatigue.
“I just can’t do as much or go as fast I used to, or as much as I’d like,” Danny says. “When you’re used to going 100 miles an hour when you’re 20 to 30 years old, it’s very frustrating. But as difficult as this has been, it has also been one of the most significant times in my life.”
Danny found peace and a gentle reminder of how to live life by reading a book that’s about different cultures and religions initiating and transforming children into men.
He took four points of the book to heart. Collectively, they have helped him fight the disease with no complaint.
“The first point was something my Dad used to say all the time,” Danny says. “I used to hate it when he said it back then and I still hate it today. He’d say, `Life is tough.’
“As football players, it’s grinded into us that life is tough, because playing the game is not easy. There’s going to be pain, there’s going to be injuries. But in our culture, we expect life to be easy. When things get hard, it’s like an unwelcome visitor.
“Life will always be tough. There’s toughness in every phase on the road of life, from the time you get out of school, to your first job, getting married, having kids, getting old, getting sick.
“The second point is `life is not about you.’ If we’re really honest about the way we live our lives, the way we spend our time, the way we spend our money and our talents, in so many ways it’s about us. It’s not supposed to be about you.
“The third point is `you’re not that important.’ At the end of the day, none of us is more important than the next person. In life when we understand that, it’s amazing what can happen.
“The fourth and last point is `we’re not in control.’ We tend to think we steer our own ship. But when I was laying down and couldn’t get up (because of his illness), I had to accept the place where I was and realizing that perhaps was the greatest challenge for me in my life.”