IT WAS JUST A
STORM CLOUD THE FIRST TIME HE SAW IT, A SIMPLE SPLOTCH OF WHITE ON A television
weather map. Danny Wuerffel's life had seemingly been so charmed up until then
that it was as if his life story had been lifted from the pages of a Frank
Merriwell tale in Tip Top Weekly. The son of an Air Force chaplain, he was a
devoutly Christian supplicant whose greatest vice was a tendency to chew his
fingernails (a habit he later broke, of course). As the quarterback at Florida
from 1993 through '96, he had led the Gators to four SEC titles, as well as
their first national title, and won the Heisman Trophy. Selected by the Saints
in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL draft, his pro career had petered
out—mostly due to a lack of both height and arm strength—after seven journeyman
seasons with four teams. But that didn't disappoint him so much. It merely gave
him the chance to answer a higher calling, to work full time with Desire Street
Ministries, a Christian inner-city outreach and education center based in New
Orleans with which he had been involved since his rookie year.
And now there was
this white splotch.
On Aug. 26, 2005,
Hurricane Katrina entered the Gulf of Mexico after smashing her way through
South Florida. Picking up steam as she moved over the water, she then turned to
the northwest, growing in intensity to Category 5 status and bearing down on
New Orleans. Though Wuerffel didn't know it at the time, it was the first day
of the longest year of his life.
his first hurricane scare in the Big Easy. A resident since his rookie year
with the Saints, he had been on hand for Georges in 1998, Isidore in 2002 and
Ivan in 2004. He knew the drill. In advance of Ivan he and his wife, Jessica,
had taken the precaution of evacuating, seeking shelter at the home of a friend
in Natchez, Miss.
But as each storm
bypassed New Orleans, shifting course or losing strength before hitting the
city, a sense of complacency set in. By the late summer of 2005 the warnings of
public-safety officials had begun to ring hollow to Danny and Jessica. Here we
go again. Nevertheless, on Aug. 27, along with their 21-month-old son, Jonah,
and their dog, Chester, the couple dutifully struck out for Natchez in their
small SUV. For Ivan they had left town with both of their cars loaded with
household possessions. This time, certain that they would be returning in two
or three days, the Wuerffels brought just a few essentials with them, including
four changes of clothes, two pillows, some vital documents, two Bibles and a
few family pictures. "We were highly underpacked," he says. "It was
all just a nuisance."
He had no idea
how profoundly that "nuisance" would change his life and the lives of
so many others. Right now Wuerffel is as far away from football as he has ever
been in his 32 years. Just as Katrina ravaged the Crescent City, submerging
much of it beneath the Mississippi River Delta and depleting it of more than
half its population, so, too, did the storm smash Wuerffel's world to pieces.
The floodwaters claimed his home and almost everything in it, and they very
nearly destroyed the ministry to which he had recently devoted his life. The
heartbeat of the Desire Street operation was its boys' academy, an oasis of
structure and sanity in the middle of the city's poorest neighborhood. After
Katrina, with the school's 36,000-square-foot facility completely flooded and
its 190 students scattered all over the southeastern United States, Wuerffel
wasn't even sure if Desire was going to continue. But he would spend the next
year of his life making sure that it would, an endeavor that has been both rich
with reward and tinged with pain.
first come to Desire Street in 1997, after one of the ministry's board members
had contacted him by letter. Started in 1990 by the Reverend Mo Leverett, a
onetime punter at Division I-AA Tennessee- Chattanooga, and his wife, Ellen,
Desire Street Ministries had grown from a small community church into a
sprawling community center. In addition to the academy (which encompassed
grades seven through 12), the ministry offered tutoring services, helping more
than 100 kids get into college, a full health clinic staffed by doctors from
Children's Hospital and summer sleepaway camps for kids. The whole operation
was funded entirely with charitable donations. Wuerffel admits to being
"shocked" on his first visit by the condition of the neighborhood, but
he was also blown away by Leverett and his ministry. He began showing up
regularly to hang out with the kids, and no matter where the NFL took him, he
kept coming back. "His level of commitment impressed everybody," says
Leverett. "He ceased to be a celebrity pretty quickly and became just
away everything Leverett had built. Wuerffel, who had taken the job as the
ministry's chief fund-raiser in 2004, suddenly found himself working one branch
of a phone tree from his parents' house in Destin, Fla. Along with Leverett and
Desire principal Al Jones, he tried to find volunteers in Florida, Louisiana,
Mississippi and Texas who could search relief centers for academy students. The
tactic was surprisingly effective: Within a month Desire had made contact with
more than 100 of its boys. "We had people walking through these places
holding up signs that said IF YOU'RE FROM DESIRE STREET, CALL THIS NUMBER,"
says Jones. "I think we even found somebody up in Kansas City."
made a few other strategic calls. The flood had wreaked havoc with the banks in
New Orleans, so there was no access to any of the accounts Desire maintained
with them, leaving the ministry unable to come up with the roughly $300,000 it
would need to sustain itself in the short run. "In this job every need you
have is a capital need," says Wuerffel. Steve Spurrier, his coach with the
Gators, promptly made a donation, as did former teammates from college and the
pros. Mike Ditka, the man who drafted Wuerffel, made an offering. A former
Florida State quarterback donated $100,000. And Florida chipped in $50,000 in
proceeds from the pay-per-view broadcast of its Sept. 10 home game against
Louisiana Tech. Wuerffel's alma mater also agreed to lease one of its 4-H camps
to Desire, a 35-acre facility located in Niceville—just a deep out from
Destin—named Camp Timpoochee. On Oct. 3, about a month after it had ceased to
exist, Desire Street Academy reopened, with 81 of its former students ready to
go back to school. "So many of our kids didn't have any place to go,"
says Wuerffel. "We had to provide for all their needs."
impressed everybody at Desire Street. "We're so blessed to have him,"
says Jones. A public relations major in Gainesville, Wuerffel says he had
thought about coaching when his career was over, but in the end he knew he
wanted to be part of something bigger, "something that was bigger than my
life. There's no question that this is where I'm supposed to be."