In Danny Wuerffel, the star quarterback had an example of both religious and athletic devotion.
By MICHEAL FLAHERTY AND NATHAN WHITAKER (wall street journal, 1/13/12)
Have you heard about the quarterback who won the Heisman trophy and led his University of Florida Gators to a national championship? The multisport athlete, Florida’s USA Today Football Player of the Year as a high-schooler? The son of a pastor who always put his faith before football, even while playing in the National Football League?
Of course we’re talking about Danny Wuerffel, who has served as a powerful role model for a certain Denver Broncos quarterback currently making news.
Mr. Wuerffel and Tim Tebow didn’t know each other well growing up 13 years apart, but Mr. Tebow’s parents made it a point to introduce the two more than a decade ago, while Mr. Wuerffel was still playing at Florida. Both players’ families understood that football provided a platform that could be used to talk about the most important thing in their life—their faith. Their attitudes mirrored that of C.S. Lewis, who reasoned that “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Mr. Wuerffel was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1997 and played three years for the team. One day during that tenure he took a wrong turn leaving the city’s Superdome and drove near the Desire Street Housing Project in the Upper Ninth Ward. Built on a garbage dump, the area was considered one of the worst in the nation for crime, drugs and poverty.
Several days later, he heard of something that would forever change his life: A family was chased from a burning house while the fire department showed up far too late in that seemingly forgotten neighborhood. The family’s youngest child eventually died from smoke inhalation. Mr. Wuerffel began volunteering with Desire Street Ministries, which tries to improve the lives of families in the area by revitalizing neighborhoods—providing assistance to residents, tutoring children, supporting parents and schools.
After his tenure with the Saints, Mr. Wuerffel played for the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins. When the Redskins looked to re-sign him in 2003, he walked away. He and his wife, Jessica, found God calling them back to the Ninth Ward and into full-time ministry with Desire Street.
They say they were inspired by a passage from the book of Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” The Wuerffels felt this would be better accomplished through full-time ministry with underprivileged youth in New Orleans than by signing a million-dollar contract to play football.
But Mr. Wuerffel remained a fan, particularly of the Florida Gators and their dynamic new quarterback, Tim Tebow. He was especially taken with Mr. Tebow’s work at his own father’s orphanage in the Philippines and in prison ministries in the U.S. Mr. Wuerffel also held great respect for the way Mr. Tebow handled the spotlight, always crediting God with his success, and always surrendering his disappointments to Him as well.
During one game, Mr. Wuerffel found himself on the Gator sidelines at Florida Field, watching Mr. Tebow against the rival LSU Tigers. As a Florida player returned a kickoff, the stadium went silent when an LSU player made a bone-crushing tackle on the return-man. Players on the Gator sideline were shocked to see Mr. Wuerffel jumping up and down in the middle of the Florida sideline, clapping and cheering on the player from LSU.
The player was Deangelo Peterson, one of the kids to come out of the Desire Street Ministries program in the Ninth Ward. Mr. Tebow probably didn’t see any divided loyalties with Mr. Wuerffel’s outburst. Faith and the friendships it creates transcend even the bitterest of worldly rivalries. As Mr. Wuerffel says, “When you care about someone, you don’t care what jersey they’re wearing.”
Such mentoring by Christian men is one of the most inspiring and least understood stories in sports. Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy has been lauded—and criticized—for his work with individuals like Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback jailed for running a dog-fighting ring. Yet Mr. Dungy, the author of a book on mentoring, realizes that he gets just as much benefit from the experience. As the Proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
This week all eyes will be on Tim Tebow in the AFC divisional playoffs. Few will be watching Danny Wuerffel, though, as he continues to fight for the disenfranchised in pockets of poverty in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. But the crowds are irrelevant: Both men have always played for an audience of One.
Mr. Flaherty is the president and cofounder of Walden Media. Mr. Whitaker, the co-founder of Impact For Living ministries, is co-author of Tim Tebow’s autobiography, “Through My Eyes” (HarperCollins, 2011).