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Heisman winner burdened for inner cities

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Though he won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 as a quarterback for the University of Florida, Danny Wuerffel was blindsided many times by blitzing defensive ends and linebackers.

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

Wuerffel assumed that the dilapidated building was fit only for destruction. But as he looked, a small girl carrying a baby doll emerged from a front door. 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 backyard, something I had seen a hundred times, but hadn’t really ever seen. That’s where it began.”

The seed of desire for inner-city ministry was sown in Wuerffel that afternoon. He recounted his testimony and his ongoing work with Desire Street Ministries at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in a March 24 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 country’s most dangerous and down-and-out neighborhoods. Desire Street Ministries proclaims the Gospel among the inner-city poor and works for their economic and educational renewal.

“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.”

From 1993-96, Wuerffel was the University of Florida’s starting quarterback, leading the Gators to a national title during 1996, his Heisman season. He 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.

Wuerffel began volunteering with Desire Street Ministries while playing for the Saints, and he continued to live in New Orleans while playing for Green Bay and Washington later in his career. When he returned to work full-time at Desire Street Ministries, 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 [is] 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 fell into serious jeopardy when Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore in August 2005, putting much of New Orleans under water.

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

In the days following the historic storm, Wuerffel and the Desire Street staff labored to find a new headquarters for the ministry and its academy. The church, however, joined the ranks of Katrina’s victims.

The academy reopened for the 2005-06 school year 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 capital city.

The ministry, meanwhile, 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 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.”
Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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