Those who believe that nice guys finish last never met Danny Wuerffel.
Wuerffel was a talented prep star who also set records at the University of Florida.
He then won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 along with a national championship.
Along the way, Wuerffel’s faith kept him on the straight and narrow. Even his opponents respected him.
No Redskins player has worn No. 7 since Theismann retired, though Danny Wuerffel almost did, with Steve Spurrier's blessing.
“I sort of believe you shouldn’t retire numbers,” Spurrier said after Wuerffel wore No. 7 during a minicamp session. pic.twitter.com/HUsZgQ8sTt
— Scott Allen (@ScottSAllen) April 30, 2019
Although his NFL career didn’t pan out, Wuerffel has spent the past few decades in ministry helping the less fortunate in New Orleans.
This is the inspiring story of Danny Wuerffel.
A Nomadic Childhood
Daniel Carl Wuerffel was born on May 27, 1974, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
His father, Lt. Col. Jon Wuerffel, was a chaplain in the Air Force, which meant that the family moved wherever he was stationed.
Throughout his youth, Wuerffel lived in such places as Spain, Nebraska, South Carolina, Colorado, and Florida.
When he wasn’t learning lessons from the Good Book, Wuerffel and his father would ride dirt bikes and play racquetball.
Here at Fort Walton Beach, Fla., today. Home to Heisman winner and 4x SEC champ Danny Wuerffel. pic.twitter.com/nmaMquMlTJ
— Keith Niebuhr (@On3Keith) April 19, 2017
Wuerffel claims those sports helped him become a talented quarterback.
“You learn to focus and concentrate when a million things go by at once,” Wuerffel said. “You don’t have time to make decisions on a dirt bike. You are forced to react, and you have to react right—like in a football game. I think that’s why I play better with adrenaline, when things are going fast, and I have to react quickly.”
By the time he was ready to enter high school, the family moved back to Florida so Wuerffel could attend Fort Walton Beach High School.
Wuerffel Leads the Vikings
All the years of participating in activities involving good hand-eye coordination paid off for Wuerffel.
He became a quarterback and led the Vikings to a winning record.
In 1991, Fort Walton High won the Class 4A state championship after an undefeated season.
Here's the cover of the Daily News football preview edition in 1991, featuring Danny Wuerffel of Fort Walton Beach. pic.twitter.com/tUDQZFDU
— Brandon Walker (@BFW) August 13, 2012
For his leadership that year, Wuerffel was named MVP of the All-Florida Team for USA Today and he was also voted a SuperPrep All-American.
He was then ranked as the top prep recruit in the state of Florida.
For good measure, Wuerffel also played on the Vikings’ basketball and track teams. He was also Fort Walton’s class valedictorian and president of its chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Wuerffel Chooses the Gators
In high school, Wuerffel passed for 5,442 yards and 49 touchdowns, and scores of colleges visited to vie for his services.
It was perfect that there was a school just down the road that thrived on throwing the pigskin.
To say that coach Steve Spurrier was enamored with Wuerffel’s arm would be an understatement.
“The ol’ ball coach” was a former Florida Gators quarterback and Heisman winner who played in the NFL.
Spurrier became the Gators’ head coach in 1990 and immediately started passing the ball as much as possible.
During his first three years leading the program, Spurrier had Shane Matthews as his signal caller.
Matthews became an SEC Player of the Year and an All-American under Spurrier.
As Matthews was whipping passes for the Gators during his senior year in 1992, Spurrier was hot on the recruiting trail looking for the next big arm.
Greatest Gator of All Time
~ Final Four ~
RT – Steve Spurrier (1)
FAV – Danny Wuerffel (1) pic.twitter.com/6amJ325H3K
— Florida Gators 🐊🐊 (@FlorldaGators) March 4, 2015
He didn’t have to look too far to find the recruit he liked best.
“There was something clearly unique about Steve Spurrier as an offensive coach,” said Wuerffel. “I remember when he recruited me, you could just look at the data. He would just show you the statistics. It was clear he was creating offensive firepower in the passing game.”
Florida was also winning a lot and had just played in two bowl games after the 1991 and 1992 seasons.
Wuerffel didn’t overthink his options and committed to the University of Florida.
The Wuerffel Legend Begins
Wuerffel was a redshirt freshman in 1993 and backing up quarterback Terry Dean in Spurrier’s “Fun ‘N Gun” offense.
During the first game of the season, Dean and the offense just “barely squeaked by” Arkansas State, 44-6.
However, one week later, Dean had a horrible time against the Kentucky Wildcats’ defense and tossed four interceptions.
Spurrier finally had enough when the Gators were losing, 17-9, in the third quarter. He put Wuerffel in.
The freshman responded with three picks of his own and was yanked before he begged Spurrier to let him back into the contest.
Eventually, Wuerffel got into a groove and passed for a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Then, with under 90 seconds remaining, he drove the Gators downfield and found receiver Chris Doering for the game-winning score.
Danny Wuerffel's game-winning touchdown pass to Chris Doering to beat Kentucky. "Doering's got a touchdown!" (1993) pic.twitter.com/T120BzLjdM
— t (@tyceUF) May 15, 2017
After the Kentucky game, Wuerffel and Dean regularly alternated starts and led the team to an 11-2 record, an SEC title, and a 41-7 beatdown of West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.
As a freshman, Wuerffel passed for 2,230 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
Wuerffel and Dean Lead Florida to Another SEC Championship
After a very solid freshman year, Wuerffel was excited to pick up where he left off in 1994.
Playing on Spurrier’s offense was the best thing that could have happened to Wuerffel, especially given his shortcomings as a quarterback.
“… to go play for him, to learn how he would think about how to attack a defense, to be kind of guided by him, it was an unbelievable experience,” said Wuerffel. “I think the way my brain works, not have a very strong arm, but a very accurate one, could make good, quick decisions, and it was just a perfect fit. Having a chance to play for him impacted the trajectory of my entire life.”
During the ’94 season, Wuerffel and Dean split time again. They led Florida to another SEC Championship after a 10-2-1 season.
Because he competed with Dean, Wuerffel’s numbers fell off compared to 1993. He ended his sophomore year with 1,754 yards, 18 touchdowns, and nine picks.
Wuerffel Breaks Loose
After the 1994 season, Dean graduated and Wuerffel had the starting spot all to himself in 1995.
Florida was ready to push for a national title and had the horses to do it.
Along with Wuerffel, the Gators boasted a receiving core that included Doering, Reidel Anthony, and Jacquez Green as well as running back Fred Taylor.
Wuerffel and his mates kicked the year off right with huge wins over Houston and Kentucky.
In the third week of the 1995 season, the Gators hosted the University of Tennessee and quarterback Peyton Manning.
The matchup between the two signal callers left media members salivating, and sure enough, the game was a battle.
Early in the contest, Wuerffel threw an end zone pick. Then he was blasted by a Vols player in the second quarter and fumbled the ball, which led to an earful from Spurrier.
“You’re smarter than that,” yelled Spurrier. “Why are you running around where they can knock it out of your hands? I coached you better than that!”
Instead of getting upset, Wuerffel was cool and collected.
“Don’t worry about it, Coach. We’ll come back. Stay calm. We can do this,” he said.
At that point, Tennessee was leading 30-14.
That didn’t matter to Wuerffel. Slowly but surely, he passed his way back into Spurrier’s good graces.
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) September 16, 2017
As a national audience looked on, Wuerffel stuck a dagger in the Vols’ hearts as he passed for six touchdowns (an SEC single-game record) and ran for a seventh score.
The final result was a 62-37 win and nationwide respect for Florida.
“When things aren’t going well, when things are going to hell, everyone looks to Dan,” said Bart Edmiston, the Gators’ place-kicker. “He’s the calm in the middle of the hurricane.”
Leading by Example
For the remainder of 1995, Wuerffel led Florida to an undefeated regular season and a third straight SEC championship before getting walloped by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, 62-24.
He was named first-team All-SEC, first-team All-American, and SEC Player of the Year after throwing for 3,266 yards, 35 touchdowns (tops in the nation and an SEC single-season record), and only 10 interceptions.
That made for an astounding 178.4 quarterback rating, an NCAA record.
During awards season, Wuerffel won the Sammy Baugh Trophy and the Davey O’Brien Award.
Now that he was gaining national attention, the American public noticed that up or down, thin or flush, Wuerffel always had the same demeanor.
He didn’t get mad, didn’t swear, and hardly raised an eyebrow if Spurrier got cranky with him.
“Don’t know if anyone here has seen him mad,” said Spurrier, the ol’ yeller himself. “I’ve never heard him yell at a lineman for missing a block or at a receiver for dropping a pass.”
Wuerffel was raised to look to God for his strength. He always believed good things would happen.
He was often seen on the field putting his hands together as if praying, which was something Wuerffel did at least twice daily.
7 days left until gators football season…. 1996 Heisman Trophy winner – Danny Wuerffel pic.twitter.com/bYZp78IOai
— Damon Dominguez (@GatorWoodCrafts) August 17, 2019
All the conversations with God appeared to help his patience. Spurrier was known to blow when his players didn’t do something right.
That wasn’t a big deal to Wuerffel, however.
“I don’t get emotionally aroused or upset at him,” the quarterback said of his coach. “I’ve always said I’d rather play for a coach who demands perfection than one who accepts mediocrity. Coach Spurrier will push you, and he will rejoice with you when you’re done. I’m grateful that God blessed me with a demeanor that is calm.”
In turn, Spurrier admitted that Wuerffel’s character helped calm him several times.
“Just because something bad happens, it doesn’t mean we can’t win the game,” Spurrier said. “Be patient. And maintaining a positive outlook is something Danny has done for all of us.”
Having a positive outlook would come in handy for the Gators in 1996.
Florida’s 1995 national title hopes were dashed when the Cornhuskers crushed them in the Fiesta Bowl.
Wuerffel and Spurier were determined to win it all in ‘96.
“We knew that a national championship that season was the only thing that would take away that feeling of getting embarrassed by Nebraska,” former Gators receiver Ike Hilliard said.
Spurrier made sure to keep the gas pedal down and Florida played like its hair was on fire.
In the season’s third game, Wuerffel and Peyton Manning met again.
This time it was the Gators that jumped out to a huge lead, 35-0, before Manning made it respectable for a 35-29 loss.
By mid-November, Florida was undefeated and Wuerffel was racking up huge numbers on his way to 3,625 passing yards, 39 touchdowns (best in the NCAA), and 13 picks for a 170.6 quarterback rating.
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) May 7, 2013
However, on November 30, the Gators’ dream of an undefeated season ended when rival Florida State beat them, 24-21.
The Seminoles pounded Wuerffel numerous times, and Spurrier was incensed when he observed several late hits.
“I think they hit Danny 34 times after he’d thrown the ball, and the officials only called two or three roughing the passer penalties,” Spurrier said.
As usual, Wuerffel didn’t get upset with the lack of calls.
“Certainly, a few of those hits were late. Some of them got called, and some of them didn’t,” Wuerffel said.
A week later, Florida beat Alabama in the SEC Championship game for its fourth consecutive SEC title.
Little did the Gators know they would get another crack at FSU.
With their national championship hopes on life support, the Gators got some good news.
Mighty Nebraska had been upset by unranked Texas in the Big-12 Championship game.
In a stroke of luck, Florida and Florida State would meet again in the Sugar Bowl.
Before that happened, Wuerffel received a pile of awards.
They included being named All-American, All-SEC, SEC Player of the Year, and winning the Davey O’Brien Award for the second time.
Wuerffel also received the Maxwell, Walter Camp, and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Awards and the Draddy Trophy for his playing performance, community work, and academics.
Then, Wuerffel joined Spurrier as the only two Gators (at the time) to win the Heisman Trophy.
Steve Spurrier is only person to win Heisman Trophy (1966) & coach Heisman-winning player (Danny Wuerffel, 1996). pic.twitter.com/cZUHqt9sOs
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 13, 2015
Playboy magazine named Wuerffel their National Scholar-Athlete of the Year, but he declined to accept the award due to his religious beliefs.
“That’s not the type of person I am or would like to portray myself as,” Wuerffel remarked.
A National Title
On January 2, 1997, Florida faced their in-state rivals in the Sugar Bowl, and Spurrier was jacked.
Before the game, he warned the officials to look for late hits by the ‘Noles. He told his players, even Wuerffel, to fight back if FSU got too pushy.
“He told us, ‘If they hit you late, hit ’em back. If they cuss you, cuss back at them,'” said former linebacker James Bates.
Spurrier then pointed a finger at Wuerffel.
“‘Now, Danny, what are you going to do if they hit you late? Ask them to please not do that again?'” Bates recalled with a laugh.
Sufficiently fired up, the Gators beat the Seminoles soundly, 52-20, behind Wuerffel’s four touchdowns (including one rushing).
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) January 3, 2017
The victory gave Florida its first-ever national title and sent Wuerffel out as a champion.
During his storied career, Wuerffel passed for 10,875 yards, 114 touchdowns, 42 interceptions, and a 163.6 passer rating and he also had eight rushing scores.
Wuerffel set several SEC and NCAA records in college.
His passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passer rating were the best in SEC history at the time and his touchdown mark was the second most in NCAA history.
Additionally, 9.74% of Wuerffel’s passes went for touchdowns, which was also tops in NCAA history.
In 2013, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Ditka and the Saints Select Wuerffel
In 1996, the New Orleans Saints finished 3-13 for the second time in four years.
The organization went through two coaches that season, and it had been seven years since the franchise last made the playoffs.
Owner Tom Benson decided to shake things up a bit. He hired former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka as his new head coach in 1997.
After leaving Chicago in early 1993, Ditka spent the next few years working in television as an analyst.
The lure to return to football and coach a team again was too much to pass up and Ditka accepted Benson’s offer.
As part of his contract, Ditka also had control over personnel matters. Thus, with the 99th overall selection in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL Draft, he picked Wuerffel.
The local and national media couldn’t help themselves and proclaimed it was only fitting that Wuerffel, a religious person, would be chosen by a team named the Saints.
He was expected to compete with Billy Joe Hobert, Doug Nussmeier, and former 1994 first-round pick Heath Shuler, whom the Saints had traded for in the offseason.
“It’ll be a competitive situation,” Wuerffel said. “I have a lot of expectations but will just go in and be prepared to do everything I can to contribute.”
During his rookie season, Wuerffel started only two games and threw for 518 yards, four touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He was also sacked 18 times.
9-27-1998, in a quarterback matchup of Peyton Manning vs Danny Wuerffel, the Saints beat the Colts in overtime 19-13 in Peyton's 1st matchup against his Dad's old team. Manning was picked 3x. Wuerffel threw 2 TDs, including the OT winner to @CamCleeland. @DannyWuerffel pic.twitter.com/Nkn7nvRxtB
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) September 28, 2020
Following New Orleans’s 6-10 record in ‘97, Ditka could only coax the team to another 6-10 year in 1998.
Wuerffel started four times and had 695 passing yards, five touchdowns, and five picks, and was sacked 23 times.
New Orleans Releases Wuerffel
During the 1999 NFL Draft, Ditka made a controversial decision to trade all of his draft picks to the Washington Redskins in exchange for the ‘Skins fifth overall pick.
With that selection, Ditka drafted Texas running back Ricky Williams and then golfed for the rest of the day.
16 years ago today, Mike Ditka & the Saints went ALL-IN.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) April 17, 2015
Even a player with Williams’s skills couldn’t help the Saints in 1999, however. The team only produced three victories.
Wuerffel was essentially buried on the quarterback depth chart and saw action in four games, which led to three interceptions and 191 passing yards.
At the conclusion of the season, the Saints released him.
Spurrier Signs Wuerffel
The knock on Wuerffel among NFL teams was that he didn’t have the arm strength or the mobility to be an effective pro quarterback.
However, in the spring of 2000, he suited up for the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe. Wuerffel led the franchise to a championship and received the MVP award of the World Bowl.
— NFL Europe Cards (@NFLECards) April 30, 2019
In 2000, Wuerffel backed up Brett Favre and Matt Hasselbeck in Green Bay. Then he sat on the bench behind Jim Miller and former Gator, Shane Matthews, in Chicago in 2001.
Wuerffel saw no action either year. It looked like it was the end of his career.
Danny Wuerffel pic.twitter.com/P6lENzC2sh
— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) November 1, 2020
Then, before the 2002 season, Spurrier was lured away from Florida by Redskins owner Dan Snyder.
The Houston Texans had recently selected Wuerffel in the 2002 expansion draft, but Spurrier signed him away a week later.
Since he had no NFL coaching experience, Spurrier then asked Wuerffel what happened next.
“So, do you have to come on up here and sign something?”
“Well, no, Coach,” Wuerffel answered sheepishly. “I’m under contract, and since I was traded, my contract just rolls over.”
“All right then!” Spurrier chirped. “See you at minicamp.”
Spurrier then signed other former Gators including Matthews, Doering, Jacquez Green, and Reidel Anthony.
In the coach’s mind, the fact that these high-flying, strong-armed, former Florida players weren’t lighting it up in the NFL was baffling.
“Why hasn’t Danny Wuerffel made it in this league?” asked Spurrier. “I don’t know. That’s what I told Mr. Snyder and [vice president of football operations] Joe Mendes. I only know how he played in our system, and he was a very good player. Same with Reidel. We’ll see if they can do it again.”
Wuerffel was only too happy to be playing for Spurrier again.
“One thing I’ve learned about the NFL is you’ve got to play for somebody who believes in you, or you don’t have a chance,” he said. “People have been asking me for five years, ‘Would Coach Spurrier’s offense work in the NFL?’ Coach doesn’t have an offense. He adapts to the defense every week.”
Wuerffel Rides the Pine
As the 2002 Redskins training camp was nearing completion, Spurrier was still aghast as to why Wuerffel was not a starting NFL quarterback.
“I watched Danny play for four years at Florida,” Spurrier said, “and he won every year, and he became the highest-rated quarterback in the history of college football. Unless someone has passed him, I figure he still is. Everyone mentions his arm strength. From what I see, his passes seem to get there.”
Spurrier didn’t start Wuerffel to begin the season, but by the time Week 12 arrived, Washington was 4-5 and in need of a jolt.
Matthews, Wuerffel, and Patrick Ramsey had all seen playing time, but Wuerffel hadn’t had a solid chance to prove himself yet.
That’s when Spurrier turned to his former star before playing the St. Louis Rams.
“He’s our quarterback, his game and away we go,” said Spurrier. “When you got a group of quarterbacks who, maybe there’s not a lot of difference in how they play, to me you have to give them all a chance,” Spurrier added. “Danny really has not had a chance this year.”
Washington beat the Rams that day, then lost three of its last five games to finish 7-9.
In 2002, Wuerffel started four times and passed for a career-high 719 yards, three touchdowns, and six interceptions.
Following the 2002 season, the Redskins released Wuerffel. No other team signed him in 2003.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Wuerffel retired in early 2004.
In six seasons of NFL football, he started 10 times and passed for 2,123 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions.
Danny Wuerffel's college stardom and 1996 heisman trophy translated to 12 NFL passing td's for the 4th round pick pic.twitter.com/Gyhm2X5vfp
— obscure athletes (@obscurityweekly) August 20, 2015
Unfortunately, Wuerffel became yet another in a long line of college passing aces to fizzle in the pros.
Typically called a “system quarterback” (especially in college) Wuerffel’s lack of NFL success has been compared to the likes of Andre Ware, David Klingler, Heath Shuler, Ryan Leaf, and fellow former Gators signal caller Tim Tebow.
Desire Street Ministries
While he was playing for the Saints, Wuerffel became a volunteer with Desire Street Ministries.
The ministry is dedicated to helping impoverished communities become revitalized by providing resources to urban leaders.
Once he retired from the game, Wuerffel returned to work full-time for Desire Street and put his sports and faith experience into action.
"Even in the toughest moments, God does some of His greatest work."
Former Heisman Trophy winner and Executive Director of Desire Street Ministries, Danny Wuerffel expressed the hardships you go through in ministry work but the reward is much greater. #LC2019 #IgniteCreativity pic.twitter.com/QDDn0OD4BS
— LCEF (@LCEF_) November 23, 2019
Not even a scary bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome in 2011 could slow him down and Wuerffel continues to work tirelessly for the ministry.
“We work with leaders all over the Southeast,” Wuerffel told Sporting News in 2018. “We had training the other day for 50 leaders. We’ve had about 10 neighborhoods where we had a deep five-year commitment dive. It’s going really well all the way from Dallas to Orlando.”
Since 2005, Wuerffel has also been honored every year in his hometown of Fort Walton.
Wuerffel has been married to his wife, Jessica, since 1999, and the couple has three children.