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PHILANTHROPY

Boardroom Q&A with Heisman Trophy Winner Danny Wuerffel

Everybody’s life has value and dignity,” the Florida Gator great tells Boardroom. “One of my goals is to try to take my life story and leverage that for good.”

25 years ago, Danny Wuerffel was college football’s preeminent gunslinger. As the centerpiece of Steve Spurrier’s pass-happy “Fun ‘n Gun” offense at Florida, he became the school’s second Heisman Trophy winner — naturally, the Ol’ Ball Coach was the first — and led the team to its first-ever national championship.

But if you’re asking about his career’s proudest achievements, don’t expect the decorated Gator to talk all day about football.

After being drafted by the Saints in 1997, Wuerffel became involved with New Orleans’ Desire Street Ministries, a fateful convergence that began what is now a quarter-century of philanthropy and community service meant to lift up the most under-served and overlooked among us.

Ahead of Florida’s annual rivalry game with Tennessee Saturday, Boardroom caught up with the QB to discuss his ongoing efforts with Desire Street, his iconic ’96 season with the Gators, and the unlikely story of a very special autographed football.

The following is our conversation with Danny Wuerffel conducted over Zoom and lightly edited for length and clarity.

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SAM DUNN: What are the emotions that wash over you when you see the return of big games with fans in the stands? We’ve already seen some wild finishes.

DANNY WUERFFEL: The electricity of college football is really unique. I played several years in the NFL, and most of the NFL stadiums never reached level of intensity of the Swamp in a big game, for sure. Just the excitement — I think it’s even more so because it wasn’t there last year. Now, they came back with a roar. Sometimes, you lose something and you appreciate it a little bit more.

SD: Unfortunately, at the same time, the city of New Orleans that’s so near and dear to you has been dealing with a lot of adversity. How are your people doing and how is the ongoing recovery effort?

DW: We were there and lived through Katrina. [Aug. 29] was actually the anniversary of Katrina, and that brought up a lot of memories — losing our house, the city being flooded, and so forth.

Fortunately, this time, the levees didn’t break. There wasn’t that devastating flooding in the city. The power grid was bad, and they’re slowly getting that back together. The worst damage was in the more rural areas in southern Louisiana.

Desire Street was able to help facilitate some connections between people that had resources — food, water, clothing, gift cards — and the organizations on the ground. It’s one of the blessings when there’s a tragedy: People see the needs, so they’re more inclined to help someone.

SD: How did you first get acquainted with Desire Street when you played for the Saints, and how have you stayed involved?

DW: The ministry was started in 1990, long before I was there. But when I was drafted by the Saints, I was wanting to be involved in something to help in the city, and I got directed that way.

At first, I was just blown away by the level of poverty that was so close to the Superdome. Right down the street. In my mind, the idea of poverty at [those] levels was across the ocean and somewhere else. It was just really difficult to see. To find an organization that was trying against all odds to make a difference in a really tough neighborhood was very inspiring for me.

I just volunteered, I helped, I fell in love with the people, the stories, and started to see kids that were having their life trajectory changed because they were learning to read better and getting a chance to go to college.

It was really inspiring for me. And when Katrina hit, it really forced us to think about how to help [in] other places.

That’s led to where we are today at Desire Street. The next iteration is [that] now, our headquarters are in Atlanta, and we find heroic leaders that live in neighborhoods all over. Primarily in the southeast, they’re doing great work with youth and families and neighborhoods, but they just don’t have the resources and support to be effective.

Everyone jokes that NFL stands for “not for long,” but if you want to go work in an inner-city and under-resourced neighborhood, the chances of staying there working very long are very slim. Most people burn out quickly, so Desire Streets supports leaders in under-resourced neighborhoods, and we’re seeing countless neighborhoods impacted.

Right now, we’re on a five-year plan to develop 20 thriving and sustainable neighborhoods by 2025.

SD: Tell me about the Desire Cup and how it came to be.

DW: One of my goals is to try to take my life story and leverage that for good. We had a really great friend encourage us to create a top-tier golf event, and we did it around the Florida-Georgia game so we can garner the excitement of that rivalry.

We bring in celebrities and coaches from both schools, and then fans sign up to come and play and compete. We add up all these scores and we had a winner for the Cup each year, either Florida or Georgia. And often — not always, but often — whoever won the Desire Cup also won the football game. So we like to say [that] if you really want to make a difference, you’ve got to come to this event.

Photo courtesy of the Wuerffel Foundation

It’s been a real fun time. We have a lot of engaging banter. Laura Rutledge from ESPN is our MC this year, [Steve] Spurrier and [Vince] Dooley are always there. We’ve had [Tim] Tebow, Herschel [Walker], and Emmitt [Smith] in the past, and we’ve got surprise celebrities showing up this year. A lot of fun for a great cause.

SD: I imagine part of Steve Spurrier’s golf persona is verifiable and part of it is mythology.

DW: Most people know he’s an incredible golfer. We’ve played in a lot of events together, but we’d never played against each other in a golf round until just a few months ago. Probably the smartest thing that I’ve ever done was wait until he was in his mid-70s with arthritis so I can have a chance to compete with him.

He’s competitive in everything he does. It’s delightful to see him at this stage of his life — most of his life, he was very busy, always coaching, and now he’s sort of got some time. He’s real fun to be around.

SD: Can you confirm that your Heisman trophy is on display at Spurrier’s restaurant in Gainesville?

DW: I can confirm that it’s supposed to be there. I really hope it’s there, because it’s not in my house anymore.

Wuerffel with Steve Spurrier (right) and wife Jerri Spurrier at the Desire Cup (Photo courtesy of the Wuerffel Foundation)

SD: What sets the Florida-Georgia rivalry apart from a lot of others?

DW: How many single games have their own hall of fame? Historically, Coach Spurrier must have had some bad experiences with Georgia, because whenever we played them, you knew he was serious. You could just tell.

The fact that it’s not a home game or an away game, it’s unique. It’s Jacksonville. It’s the way that they divide the stadium up. For so many years, it’s a huge game with SEC East implications and, in some cases, the national title conversation.

SD: It’s been 25 years since Florida football’s first-ever national championship, and you got that Heisman out of it as well. Who and what do you remember most?

DW: We were No. 1, we were undefeated, we were destroying teams. Everything was going our way — and we hit a big hiccup, a punch in the gut, when we played Florida State [and lost 24-21]. To lose the last game of the regular season almost makes it impossible to win a national title. We dropped from No. 1 to No. 5.

That’s how life feels like sometimes. Things are going your way; next thing you know, you’ve been gut-punched, you get a medical diagnosis, you lose a job, all sorts of things can happen. And that’s a really important time in life.

You get knocked down, and that’s the moment of truth. And certainly, you don’t always get to come back and win whatever championship it is. Things don’t always work out.

But I think that process of getting back up is the most important thing. And at least that year, it worked out for us.

SD: Who are the teams that you’ve got your eye on this season?

DW: It sure seems like Alabama is in a league of their own. I think they should just bump up to the NFL and leave the rest of the college teams to play together, because they’re looking so good.

There’s a lot of good teams. There’ve been some upsets already. You don’t know who’s going to adjust and get better, but it’s been fun, the electricity. Offenses are spreading the ball around. I think the level of play at the quarterback position continues to get better and better.

I have a theory on that: I think younger high school quarterbacks are getting better training and coaching than they used to get. There’s more data. There’s more YouTube coaches. You can learn more about how to throw effectively now than when I was younger.

SD: Student-athletes are able to profit off their name, image, and likeness now. How do you think you would have approached the NIL landscape as a player?

DW: That’s an interesting question. It wasn’t even a thought for any of us back then. I generally have some concerns [about] how that would affect you not just positively, but negatively. Any time you’re young and you get to be well-known, that creates a lot of challenges you may not be ready for. It may have helped me out in the pocketbook, but it may have stunted some of my growth as a human being.

But I generally think this is a good thing.

The part of it that worries me is how it plays into recruiting — how some kids in high school will decide where they’re going based on how much money they think is going to be a part of that decision. It’s going to need some more oversight in the future.

SD: I want to know more about the story behind the football you auctioned off for Desire Street.

DW: One of the marquee items that we auction every year is a football, but it’s unique in that it’s signed not by Heisman Trophy winners, but by a bunch of kids from an under-resourced neighborhood in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. They signed it and gave it to me as a gift years ago.

I got back from one of our events where we auctioned off a football [signed by] me and Herschel [Walker]. It got $10,000, and I walked into my office and I saw this ball. I thought, why is one ball worth $10,000 in this other ball worth nothing? That doesn’t seem right. We all say we believe that everybody’s life has value and dignity, but we don’t actually live that way.

So the next year, I took a chance and told this story. I auctioned off this ball with these kids’ signatures on it. I went for $10,000, and they donated it back. When we did it again, it went for $20,000 and they donated it back. And well, now it’s at $200,000 total, which is the most expensive football in history, and it just tells an incredible story.

We’ll do that again this year, and perhaps one day it’ll hit a quarter-million or half-million or a million and continue to scream this message that everybody’s life matters and everybody has worth. It’s just some incredible stuff.