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Wuerffel adjusts to life beyond sports


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Wuerffel adjusts to life beyond sports


NEW ORLEANS - He'd just made a decision that could end his career as an NFL quarterback, but anyone who'd expect to find Danny Wuerffel wearing a woe-is-me look doesn't know Danny Wuerffel.

On this weekday, Wuerffel is engaged in basketball with an armpit-high defender in his face, and he's wearing the grin that fans are used to seeing caged in a face mask following a touchdown pass.

"I think it's safer to play quarterback," he says as he mops his face with his T-shirt while taking a breather in the gym at Desire Street Ministries, where he volunteers. "This is just fun. Who wouldn't want to just play some basketball?"

Several blocks away stand the few remaining buildings of the Desire public housing project - a reminder that this neighborhood once had the reputation as one of the most dangerous in the country.

Most of the buildings are gone, but the poverty remains.

The patch of green around the new facilities that are home to the ministry and to Desire Street Academy is a symbol of home-grown hope.

Wuerffel was chairman of the capital campaign that helped raise the $3 million to build the facility that's also home to the school.

He occasionally teaches a Bible study there, is on the board of directors and often shows up just to hang out, grab some lunch in the school cafeteria and shoot hoops with the kids. But don't try to crown him with a halo. He'll duck.

Try to put him on a pedestal, he'll politely kick it over. The real heroes, he says, are the staff who are there every day and who live in the neighborhood they are now serving.

Since it's not a ministry that relies on celebrities, you won't see his name mentioned on the ministries' Web site or see his picture hanging by the front door.

"I almost feel like I'm supplemental help," he says.

Yet the ministries are an important reason why, after playing with three other NFL teams since being drafted by the Saints in 1997, New Orleans has remained his home.

And this city along the Mississippi is where he's contemplating major changes in his life and career. By early December he and his wife, Jessica, expect to become parents for the first time, with him serving as coach in the labor room.

"Danny, what were you thinking?" he says, giving a dead-on impersonation of coach Steve Spurrier, who won't be his role model in birth coaching.

"I don't need a visor or whistle, just a lot of love and support," he says with a grin of his upcoming coaching assignment.

In August, over the objection of Spurrier, Wuerffel was cut by the Washington Redskins. In late October it looked as if he'd get another shot to team up with the Ol' Ball Coach, but that ended with Wuerffel turning down a contract.

Being at home for his baby's birth was a major factor in that decision, and the news was a relief for Jessica.

"I want to be at home with my hospital and my doctor and my nursery and (where) all the things are known and familiar," says Jessica.

Her husband fits in that known and familiar category. But as a person who has packed up and moved 13 times in four years of marriage, she knows the realities of life in the NFL.

"There's still a lot of ball to be played, and there's still a chance he could go somewhere," she says.

The official due date is Dec. 3. Jessica believes it will come earlier. Whether it's a boy or girl will be one of the surprises that day.

"She didn't want to know, and I did want to know, and since she's carrying all the load, she got to make the decision," Wuerffel says.

The fact that the two found each other could be seen as a sign of divine intervention. Danny was in New Orleans playing for the Saints, Jessica was in the domestic version of the Peace Corps, working with Habitat for Humanity in Fort Walton Beach.

She'd grown up in Northern Ohio, gone to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and never paid much attention to college football.

"I was one of those persons who kept buying the Browns' paraphernalia when they were in Baltimore and weren't the Browns," she said.

So, when she arrived in Fort Walton, she was confronted by signs that read "Home of Danny Wuerffel" but had no idea who he was.

A friend told her he was "a really strong Christian who's in the NFL." Before they'd actually met, she says she'd prayed for him; why, she's not exactly sure.

Praying for specific strangers wasn't something she normally did, except for a time when she was in college.

"I used to sit with my roommate once a week and pray for my future husband. I didn't know who it was," she says.

When a friend offered to introduce her to Wuerffel, she was expecting a large hulking lineman.

"When I saw him, I thought, wow! That's pretty nice," she says.

They were introduced at an autograph signing session, and they got better acquainted the next day at a Wuerffel family gathering.

"I realized he had so much more depth, and he was such a more noble, caring, loving and godly person than from just what I'd heard," she says. The relationship grew by long-distance phone calls. Both are Christians, deeply devoted to their faith. She's a social work major, interested in working with the poor. He was volunteering at Desire Street in New Orleans. They also shared another trait.

"Most of my friends in college said I was one of the tightest people they knew with money," he says.

"My wife is someone who lived on $600 a month before we married and had a desire to be with and work among the poor," he adds.

So when he popped the question, he wrapped the engagement ring in Jessica's dream car - a Dodge Neon, which was topped with a large bow.

While other pro athletes wrap themselves in Hummers and Escalades, the little white 1999 Neon with 39,000 miles on the odometer is still the only car the Wuerffels actually own.

Danny does have the use of a Chevy Tahoe for making a commercial, but they aren't trying to impress anyone with their fancy wheels.

They own a small home in New Orleans and live simply. A buck-wild night on the town might mean catching a movie, going to a bookstore or grabbing a bite to eat with friends.

In an interview, Wuerffel is pleasant, polite and gracious, doing his best to answer questions.

His good friend in New Orleans, Mo Leverett, would add another quality, although he says he often keeps it under wraps with the media.

Leverett is director of Desire Street Ministries, and they met when Wuerffel came to the Saints. He remembers a golf outing just after they met.

"He's so funny. He's a very funny guy. There are few people who can make me laugh. I tend to be a fairly serious person. But he drew out that side of me. I just laughed my head off the whole time," he says.

But Leverett says that is a side reporters and the TV cameras may not see.

"He's lived that and he knows just how shark-infested those waters are," Leverett says. "He's not on guard all the time. The only place I've seen him clam up is around the media."

Jason Odom, Wuerffel's Gator teammate and college roommate, says those who know him best know Wuerffel's wit. He remembers Wuerffel's parody of a "Saturday Night Live" routine, cracking people up with "Deep Thoughts With Danny Wuerffel."

Odom also describes Wuerffel's skill at keeping an absolute straight face when pulling somebody's leg.

One example involved Odom's wife, former UF basketball player Linda Clark, who'd told Wuerffel about pain she was experiencing in her hand and wrist.

Without missing a beat, Wuerffel launched into an earnest description of a fictitious disease he called Tharthrovitus, and how her symptoms seemed to be an exact match. He recommended seeking medical attention immediately.

"I had my head buried trying not to laugh," Odom says. "We only let her suffer for 10 or 15 minutes before we let the cat out of the bag."

"To this day if you ask Linda 'What's Tharthrovitus?' she'll start laughing," Odom added.

He describes Danny as a likable guy, and says the person who people know from his public persona is the same person in private.

"Not only in football but in the game of life, he's one of those guys you can truly count on," Odom says.

"He's very funny and very playful," adds Jessica. "He has a side of him that really loves life."

While the Wuerffels share many things in common, they have some complementary differences.

"Danny is extremely good at seeing the big picture, and he weighs his words very carefully, and he thinks about the best way to say things," she says. "I am so specific and detailed. You know how they say, 'You can't see the forest for the trees' - I don't even see the trees, I see the veins on the back of the leaves."

And right now the big picture is where Danny Wuerffel is focusing. He's still working out hard four days a week, running, throwing and lifting weights, in case of a call from the NFL. He also knows that call may not come.

"I feel like there's been a couple different off-seasons over the past three or four years where we really didn't know if we'd play again, so I have faced the possibility that football may be over," he says. "I feel really blessed; I feel God has opened so many doors and put so many things in front of me that are equally exciting, that if it's over, I think I'll be comfortable with that."

There is no panic. Another of the blessings he's counting is the income tucked away, enough that the two, and soon to be three can live comfortably for quite a while.

"In the last three months, I've been offered a handful of jobs, a couple of which would pay me as much as I was making in the NFL if I'd chosen them," he says. "We feel very comfortable financially."

The baby was a major factor, but not the only issue that blocked a return to the Redskins. Did it sour him on the process?

"No . . . and yes," he says, declining to get into more detail.

Wuerffel says he loves the game of football and the camaraderie, but the business of football, even when it's going well, isn't easy, and the constant turnover of teammates makes it tough to build longtime friendships.

He recalls a team pep talk from one coach before a final preseason game that included two basic points.

"The only way you win is if you trust the guy next to you, if you believe in one another," was the first point, an appeal to that foxhole survival mentality.

That was immediately followed by, "Some of you guys think you're going to make this team 'cause you're better than the guys here. Oh, don't get comfortable, 'cause we'll cut you in a heartbeat and bring in somebody from another team."

"I don't know if anybody caught the irony in those two points being next to each other," Wuerffel says. "But I think it's a great example of what the NFL is like."

Chris Doering, a friend and former Gator and Redskins teammate who now plays with the Pittsburgh Steelers, says Wuerffel was teased a lot for a lack of coolness when it came to his wardrobe - the outfit for accepting the Heisman Trophy a prime example.

But when it comes to coolness of head in making decisions, Doering says, Wuerffel is the best. He says the way he handled the negotiations with Washington, and his eventual decision to stay put, took both a cool head and courage.

Wuerffel is taking some seminary courses. But whether as a pastor, a missionary, a business executive, even in politics, he says he can faithfully serve God in a number of areas, and he's looking them over. While he adds the caveat "never to say never," coaching isn't on the list.

"If I had five lives to live I would invest one in coaching, probably for sure," he says. "But when you have one life to live, and as a Christian I think it's one life to give, you have to choose it carefully."

Coaching, he says, is one of the professions, "that if you're going to do it right you have to do it right."

"I think there are other things I'd rather invest my time in," he says. "My biggest desire is to do what I feel that God would want me to do."

One quality that Wuerffel will bring to whatever career he chooses is a competitive spirit. Leverett says people who've seen Wuerffel meekly taking the tongue lashings from Spurrier may have the wrong idea about his friend. The two play tennis and golf frequently.

"He's the most competitive person I've ever met in my life," Leverett says. "He hates to lose, and in golf he's having to lose a lot."

That competitive nature, Wuerffel says, fits well with his faith.

"Being a Christian requires me to be the best at whatever it is that I do," he said.

Where he'll be giving his best is also a decision yet to be made. He still has a fondness for Gainesville, loves how he can get from one side of town to the other so quickly. He likes the small-town feel, even if it isn't all that small.

"We both certainly have our hearts in Florida in a lot of ways," Wuerffel said. "It's a good chance at some point we'll be back there, but we just really felt for the time being the Lord would want to have us here (in New Orleans), and we enjoy it because we feel we're supposed to be here."

Says Doering: "Danny can do whatever he wants, especially here in the state of Florida."

Odom, who was with the Tampa Bay Bucs for five years before a back injury forced him out of the game in 2001, says he's talked with Wuerffel about the future. Odom says Wuerffel is talented and gifted in a lot of things.

"We both know that football has been our passion for years, but it's not how we value our lives," Odom said.

The biggest and most immediate new job Wuerffel will face is fatherhood. He said maybe he's nave, but he doesn't have the pre-baby jitters.

"I probably should if I knew what was coming," he said with a laugh. "If my sleep is interrupted, I have a different disposition and I'm a little nervous about that."

Jessica is confident he'll be up to the task. She got a preview at a recent family gathering when she came in and found Danny entertaining his young nephew Owen with a song.

"I have a new audience," he told her as she stepped into the room.

She believes she might have the edge when the baby is tiny, and Danny will be better as the newest Wuerffel grows to be a toddler.

"So, I think we're going to be a pretty good team," she said.

Gary Kirkland writes for The Gainesville Sun. He can be reached at 352-338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com.

Wuerffel's CD benefits ministry

The holiday CD "Heaven & Nature Sings" that features Danny Wuerffel, his friends, family and former Gator teammates will again be on sale in Gainesville. It will be available at all campus Gator shops, TCBY shops and Chesapeake Bagel Bakery's Millhopper Shopping Center location. The cost of the CD is $14.95. All proceeds from the project benefit Desire Street Ministries, P.O. Box 26966, New Orleans, LA 70186-6966.

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