Former Gators quarterback and Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel recently joined local radio host John Crossman on The Crossman Conversation to discuss his life after football.
Wuerffel played at UF under coach Steve Spurrier from 1993 to 1996, earning First-Team All-American honors twice and the 1996 Heisman Trophy. In 2013, he became the seventh Gator to earn induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Today, Wuerffel is investing in the future as the executive director of Desire Street Ministries, a 33-year-old nonprofit based in Atlanta. The organization is devoted to partnering with local leaders “to develop thriving and sustainable urban ministries.”
Below are excerpts—edited for length and clarity—of Crossman’s conversation with Wuerffel. You can listen to the full conversation online.
Q: Give us a general overview of Desire Street. How are things going in the ministry in the work you're doing?
A: We work in under resourced neighborhoods, primarily in the southeast United States. We started in one neighborhood in New Orleans on Desire Street, so that's where the name came from. We did a lot of work in after-school programs, started a church, started doing housing, and we started helping businesses. We had a very holistic approach to what was on and off one of the worst ranked neighborhoods in the country in the Ninth Ward.
Now, what we do is we find leaders that are trying to do similar work in other neighborhoods. We found that there's amazing leaders that are heroic people doing great work, but they don't have the resources, they don't have the training, they don't have the support. In most cases, they burn out within five years.
To use a football analogy, I was a decently talented high school athlete that got a chance to play for one of the best coaches ever, and I was a quarterback. That was because I had someone that invested in me and a great program surrounding me.
So, what we do at Desire Street is we try to be that resource to partner with leaders for four to five years. It's a long-term partnership, we help them develop their leadership, we help provide guidance and coaching and training, we do retreats. We have 30 leaders coming to a retreat [this] week with their spouses, and we’ve got some neat things in store. Currently, we're in the middle of a five-year plan to develop 20 neighborhoods by 2025.
Q: Danny, you taught me that the old-school version of ministry would show up at a house at a lower-income place and bring Christmas gifts for the kids. If the dad was at home, he would walk out the back, because it was really kind of emasculating to him. It made him feel like he was not providing enough. In this desire to help people, we can be damaging. Can you just unpack that a little bit for us?
A: You know, it’s interesting when you think about helping other people. The first step in the big equation is getting beyond yourself, realizing life's not about you, and that you do want to invest your time, your money, your talents to help someone else.
Then, step two is to also recognize what the challenge and the need is, and what's the best response. If there's a hurricane, people have no place to live, and nothing to eat or drink. Giving people water and getting them as much as they need is very appropriate because it's an emergency situation.
In other situations, just helping two people develop the opportunities and different things is more appropriate. In the situation you just described, we've found that if it's an organization, rather than just buying presents, and delivering them to kids that need them can be very challenging for parents, because it's just another reminder to their kids that they're not providing.
So, a lot of our organizations do a Christmas store where they take in all the donations of all these toys, and then they create a store of it for very reduced pricing. Then, the parents can go in and purchase the gift, wrap them, and give them to their own kid. It's just a way of creating dignity and value, as opposed to just giving handouts that often lead to some of the things you described.
Q: When you think about your life, what defines you? What do you want people to know and think of you?
A: There are these two words that really connect for me: service and unity. You know, living life not just for yourself on the service part, but that unity part is really becoming more compelling for me. I mean you could go serve somebody and not like them, you could think you're better than them, and you can think your position, theology, or politics is far superior and look down on people.
To me, there's such a spirit of division in our country, and even to the core of faith, and it is just sad. The racial stuff that's happening and the way people are responding to that on both sides is so disappointing to me. So, just really trying to create space where people move towards unity, even after there's been difficulty in relationships, I think is such an important thing.
I would say that the caveat would be that at the end of the day, these nice things that you're saying about me that I hope my wife and kids would not laugh at, but they would be think “you know my dad.” I would hope that they would think that I’m trying to be that, even when I’m there and grumpy.