One day in September 1995, during an off week early in the college football season, a gang of about 10 intrepid reporters who cover the Florida football team decided to investigate the apparently unflawed character of Danny Wuerffel, the Gators' quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate. "He was too good to be true," says Robbie Andreu, the beat writer for The Gainesville Sun. "He seemingly had no flaws. We were kidding around about it when someone said, 'Let's find the other side of Danny Wuerffel.' "
Interrogating Wuerffel's coaches, teammates and friends, the reporters found nothing but more squeak in his clean. They learned that he never cut class. He did not throw his golf clubs. He did not swear. "I don't think he's ever said 'hell' or 'damn,' " said Gators coach Steve Spurrier. Using tobacco, smokeless or not, was unthinkable for Wuerffel. Nor had anyone ever caught him hanging at any of the local pubs or attending beer bashes, a sport in which Florida contends every year for the Division I title. He did not drink. Or chase women. Nor had anyone ever seen him lose his temper or in any other way blow his cool—on the field or off. "Don't know if anyone here has seen him mad," said Spurrier, the ol' yeller himself. "I've never heard him yell at a lineman for missing a block or at a receiver for dropping a pass."
Wuerffel rode a bicycle around campus, toting a bag with schoolbooks and a Bible inside, and he talked to God twice a day. At night, before retiring, he prayed on his knees.
Alas, the impromptu investigation was looking dead in the Swamp when Wuerffel's favorite receiver, Chris Doering, suddenly blurted, "I've got something on him." The reporters leaned forward, pencils poised. "He chews his fingernails!" Doering announced. This was not quite the eighth deadly sin, but the reporters wrote about it good-naturedly the next day, and the whole episode might have been forgotten had Wuerffel not taken it so to heart. In July, 10 months later, Andreu and two colleagues stopped the quarterback on campus to ask why he had declined to accept Playboy magazine's award as the 1996 National Scholar Athlete of the Year (studying public relations, Wuerffel had a 4.0 grade-point average in the spring semester and a 3.75 GPA overall), which included a trip to a swanky Phoenix resort for a photo shoot, as well as a $5,000 gift in Wuerffel's name to Florida's scholarship fund.
Wuerffel was explaining why he could not accept the award—he speaks frequently at churches and schools, and he believes his appearance in a skin magazine would undermine his work as a role model and "confuse" those who look up to him—when he paused in mid-sentence and flashed 10 perfectly manicured nails. "Did you notice?" he asked, grinning. "It was tough, but I stopped chewin' my fingernails!"
So he was, at least for the record, essentially unflawed again. And five games into the 1996 season, the 6'2", 209-pound senior is, at least statistically, as near to being flawless as any collegiate passer who ever played the game. After 41 games over nearly 3½ seasons, Wuerffel has 586 completions in 946 pass attempts (62%) for 8,637 yards, and he has an NCAA career passing efficiency rating of 163.14, the best in Division I-A history. Wuerffel is first among career NCAA leaders in touchdown/ pass-completion ratio, throwing a TD for every 6.58 complete passes, and in touchdown/pass-attempt ratio, tossing a score in every 10.63 attempts.
No one has figured more prominently than Wuerffel in the Gators' three straight SEC championships. And in their third game this season, against Tennessee on Sept. 21, he launched Florida toward a possible fourth consecutive conference title when he threw for four touchdowns in the first half and led the Gators to a 35-29 victory. Tennessee's Peyton Manning had come into that game as the early Heisman favorite, even though Wuerffel finished third in the voting last year, behind two graduating seniors. But in the first half against Florida, Manning threw four interceptions, two of which led eventually to Wuerffel TD passes. By day's end not only was Wuerffel favored to win the Heisman, but, with Arizona State's 19-0 upset of Nebraska, he was also suddenly leading the No. 1 team in the nation.
Not that the ranking or the personal accolades have had any discernible effect on Wuerffel, whose rock-ribbed composure under fire have made him a stabilizing force among the Gators and the perfect counterpoint to Spurrier, whose in-your-face outbursts on the sidelines have been known to undo less secure, more excitable players. "Danny has a way of sifting through the yelling and getting to what the coach is trying to say," says Doering, who is now with the Indianapolis Colts. "It's a blowing-off-steam thing for the coach, and Danny can sit there and take it and not get rattled by it."
Wuerffel's poise and football instincts stem from an upbringing steeped in religion and keen athletic competition. He is the son of an Air Force chaplain, Lt. Col. Jon Wuerffel, and his wife, Lola, a former schoolteacher who assisted Jon as an organist and choir director wherever the service sent them. So Danny and his older sister, Sara, grew up in places such as Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Torrejón, Spain; and Colorado Springs. Their home was full of laughter, about which Jon was something of an expert. He studied marriage and family life for his Ph.D. at Nebraska and did his dissertation on the relationship between humor and a family's strength. ("Healthy humor, the kind that does not bite and tear people down, predominates in strong families," he wrote. "Weaker families use less humor, and it's digging and more sarcastic")
Danny grew up listening to his father not only make jokes but also preach sermons and read from the Bible. The Wuerffels' lives were not, however, confined to religion. Jon was the Air Force masters (over 40) racquetball champion in 1986, and he taught his son the game. And while living at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Jon and Danny spent hours riding dirt bikes through the Rocky Mountains, racing full-bore around and over perilous rocks, gullies and fallen trees. This sharpened Danny's hand-eye coordination, he says, and helped prepare him, as much as anything else, for life in the fast-collapsing pockets of a football game.