Once a hero on football field, Danny Wuerffel helps change lives

Danny Wuerffel (center) plays flag football with kids in Atlanta. In college, Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy as quarterback for the Gators. He went on to play for the New Orleans Saints and several other teams in the NFL. CONTRIBUTED

This week, the Buckhead Rotary Club gave Danny Wuerffel its coveted humanitarian award.

It’s named for the late Rev. Robert Johnson and given annually to a non-Rotarian who exemplifies the organization’s motto “service above self.”

Wuerffel, they say, is working to rebuild America, one community at a time.

Listening to his story the other day, you won’t get any argument from me, but I sensed his work is even bigger than that.

Listening to him, I remember Lazarus, the poor man in Jesus’ parable who starved outside the rich man’s home, and am convinced that in this building of America, the former NFL player and Heisman Trophy winner is really building people, who, like Lazarus, are suffering from the shameful inequities that exist in society.

Don’t know who I’m talking about? Dare to look across the divide, across a landscape torn by bipartisanship, blame and bickering and see the hungry, the homeless, the brokenhearted.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As executive director of the nonprofit Desire Street Ministries, Wuerffel sees them every day.

That might not have been possible had he not grown up the son of a Lutheran minister, who, he said, instilled in him the “central and often diminished theme of the Scripture to take care of the poor, the least of these.”

“I’ve always for some reason been a fan of the underdog,” Wuerffel told me minutes before accepting his award, “and any expression of faith that isn’t mindful of those who are hurting or suffering injustice is not complete.”

Hence his work with Desire Street Ministries, founded in 1990 ironically situated on Desire Street in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

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Wuerffel, now a 45-year-old father of three, had just been drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1997 when he heard about the work the ministry was doing in the Desire neighborhood, home of the second-largest public housing project in the country and what HUD officials often cited as the worst in the country in which to live.

“When I went to New Orleans, I envisioned my purpose obviously to play football and to find something to be involved in,” said Wuerffel, a former quarterback for the Gators. “There were several ironic, unique coincidences that led me to reach out to Desire Street and go visit.

“Several different people, unrelated, told me about this really cool organization working in a really tough part of town. After I received a letter out of the blue from someone I didn’t know that included a brochure about a Desire Street, I knew I needed to check it out.”

Danny Wuerffel receives The Rev. Robert Ross Johnson Humanitarian Award from Jim Breedlove on Monday in Buckhead. CONTRIBUTED

Seven years later in 2004, when he retired from the NFL, Wuerffel joined the Desire staff full time as the development director and associate athletic director.

He had been on staff for only a year when Hurricane Katrina hit, destroying his personal home and the Desire Street offices.

Undaunted, he signed on to become the nonprofit’s executive director and moved its headquarters to Atlanta, where Desire Street has expanded its reach to more than 25 underresourced neighborhoods across the Southeast.

“What I’m excited about is we don’t go start and run new programs,” Wuerffel said. “We find leaders already in neighborhoods who have great vision and talent and help them see their visions come true. We’re really a support for other heroes.”

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According to LaTonya Gates-Boston, that’s an understatement.

“Danny has hidden himself in our success,” Gates-Boston said. “He won’t ever admit it, but he’s the real hero.”

Gates-Boston is founder and executive director of the nonprofit PAWKids.

Among the people Danny Wuerffel has helped is LaTonya Gates-Boston, founder and executive director of PAWKids in Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED

When she met Wuerffel seven years ago, all she had was a desire to help provide children and their families with resources they need to thrive.

“I didn’t even have a 501(c)(3),” she said, referring to a tax status for nonprofits.

By the time she was done telling her story and what she wanted to do, Gates-Boston said Wuerffel had just four words.

“I believe in you,” he told her.

As he has done over and over again, Wuerffel helped Gates-Boston develop a board of directors and a strategic plan for her nonprofit. Five years later, she said PAWKids owns two buildings and has an operating budget of $438,000.

Wuerffel insists he’s just the person supporting and catching the heroes when they fall, much like Superman when he swoops down to stop Lois Lane from falling from a building.

Don't worry, I've got you, he tells Lane.

Who's got you? she replies.

Well around here and across the Southeast, Wuerffel, of course.

Late last year, Rotarian Jim Breedlove showed up at his Desire Street office to let him know the Rotary Club had noticed.

This week, before a crowd of nearly 150 people, they recognized him as their humanitarian of the year.

“I was honored,” Wuerffel said.

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