Heisman winner seeing Gospel transform inner cities

Communications Staff — March 27, 2009

Though he won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 while playing quarterback at the University of Florida, Danny Wuerffel was blind-sided many times by blitzing defensive ends and linebackers.

But nothing in football prepared him for the blow his heart received from a scene that played out as he drove past a squalid and decaying New Orleans housing project one afternoon on his way to football practice as a member of the New Orleans Saints.

Wuerffel assumed that the dilapidated building in his field of vision would soon be torn down because it appeared to be fit only for destruction. But as he looked, a small girl emerged from a front door, carrying a baby doll. That house of horrors was her home. Never had a 300-pound defensive end hit Wuerffel with such visceral force.

“This building should have been torn down decades earlier,” Wuerffel said. “But this little girl was living there. It broke my heart because I knew this just wasn’t right. The Lord opened my eyes that day to see something that was going on in my own back yard, something I had seen a hundred times, but hadn’t really ever seen. That’s where it began.”

From 1993-1996, Wuerffel started at quarterback at the University of Florida. In 1996, his Heisman season, he led the Gators to a national title. Wuerffel was drafted by the New Orleans Saints and played seven years in the NFL before retiring after the 2002 season to work full-time
with Desire Street Ministries in New Orleans.

The seed of desire for inner-city ministry was sown in the football great that afternoon as he rode past one of America’s most dangerous and despair-ridden housing projects. Wuerffel recounted his testimony and his ongoing work with Desire Street Ministries March 24 at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in a presentation sponsored by the Dehoney Center for Urban Ministry.

Soon after seeing the young girl in the slum, Wuerffel sought out Desire Street Ministries, located in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, one of the most dangerous and down-and-out neighborhoods in the country. Desire Street Ministries proclaims the Gospel among the poor of the inner city and also works for economic and educational renewal among the inner city poor.

“I remember the first time I went down to this neighborhood; I was blown away by the dire poverty, the injustice, the violence, the lack of education — everything about this neighborhood broke my heart,” Wuerffel said.

“I had heard of and seen places like this from a long way off in Third-World countries, but what hit me was this was right down the road from the Superdome where the Florida Gators won the national championship, where I was playing professional football. In a sense, this was in my own backyard and I wasn’t even aware of it.”

Wuerffel began volunteering for Desire Street while playing for the Saints and continued to live in New Orleans while playing for Green Bay and Washington late in his career. When he returned to work full-time at Desire Street, Wuerffel and his wife moved into the Ninth Ward, choosing to live among the people they sought to serve in spite of the obvious dangers that haunted the neighborhood.

“The thing I really began to see God’s heart for such a place as the Ninth Ward of New Orleans,” Wuerffel said. “As we begin to open the Scriptures, there are a number of themes that we miss until our attention is called to it, and I am convinced with all my heart that God has a special place in his heart for the poor, for those without a voice, for the orphans, for the widows, for the disenfranchised.

“It is in every book of Scripture, every genre, beginning to end. It is very important to God and it is very important to Him that His people care about it as well.

While there were lots of things I could do with my life as I began to retire, as I began to see my life and how it intersected with Desire Street, I knew that God had a heart for the poor and He wanted me to as well.”

Desire Street Ministries planted a church in New Orleans and in 2002 began Desire Street Academy, but the ministry all fell into serious jeopardy in August of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore, putting much of New Orleans under water.

The storm surge destroyed the Wuerffel’s home, immersing it in water up to the roof. It also claimed Desire Street’s headquarters, the academy and a church plant.

In the days following the historic storm, Wuerffel and the Desire Street staff labored intensively to find a new headquarters for Desire Street Ministries and its academy. The church fell victim to Katrina.

The academy reopened for the 2005-2006 school years as a boarding school in Niceville, Fla. The next year the school moved to its current home in Baton Rouge, where it has become the foundation of an outreach to the inner city of Louisiana’s capitol city.

The ministry relocated its headquarters to metro Atlanta, where Wuerffel, his wife and three children live today. In 2006, Wuerffel was appointed executive director of the ministry when founder Mo Leverett resigned. Desire Street today has partner ministries in four cities in the Southeast.

Wuerffel, who is the son of a minister, said he would not trade his work at Desire Street Ministries for a place in Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I look at all that a great quarterback like Peyton Manning has accomplished and I think it’s great,” Wuerffel said, “and I’m happy for Peyton. But I wouldn’t trade places with him. It has been a tremendous blessing to watch God transform so many people in these difficult places by His grace.”

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