Former Florida Gators quarterback and 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2013 on Dec. 10 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, NY.
Wuerffel, who was first up for induction in 2012 but not chosen on his first ballot, is the seventh Florida player and 10th representative of the Gators (three coaches) to earn induction into the prestigious group. He joins defensive end Dale Van Sickel (1975), QB Steve Spurrier (1986), DE Jack Youngblood (1992), running back Emmitt Smith (2006), linebacker Wilber Marshall (2008) and wide receiver Carlos Alvarez (2011) as players in the career-defining club. Coaches Charlie Bachman (1978), Ray Graves (1990) and Doug Dickey (2003) are also members.
The winner of seven awards in 1996, the Davey O’Brien Award in 1995, two SEC Player of the Year honors and two first-team All-American nods, Wuerffel threw for an astounding 10,875 yards and 114 touchdowns in his four-year career at Florida, both of which remain school records. He also led the Gators to the program’s first national championship and four-straight SEC titles.
In 1995, his efficiency rating of 178.4 set a single-season collegiate record. In his Heisman year of 1996, Wuerffel led the nation with an SEC-record 39 touchdowns while setting another SEC record with 3,625 yards and registering a 170.6 efficiency rating, making him the first quarterback to ever post a rating of 170+ in consecutive seasons.
At the conclusion of his collegiate career, Wuerffel held four national records, 12 conference records and 32 school records.
He was enshrined in the Gators’ Ring of Honor in 2006 and is also immortalized in a bronze statue outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
In a recent interview with OnlyGators.com, he revealed that he will return to The Swamp on Sept. 21 for the Tennessee game as he will be honored on the field for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Now the executive director of Desire Street Ministries, which works to revitalize impoverished neighborhoods through spiritual and community development, and on his way to a full recovery from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease that he was first stricken with in 2011, Wuerffel discussed his illness, Florida football and more in a 30-minute exclusive conversation earlier this month.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: It has been a while since we last spoke. Let’s hear some good news about your recovery and how are you feeling these days.
DANNY WUERFFEL: “I’m happy to report that I’m feeling very blessed and fortunate. I think I’m probably in the 90-95 percent range from where I was before. Actually, Guillain-Barre is usually something that comes, attacks your body and then you get over it to whatever degree you recover. Rarely do you have ongoing symptoms or another bout with it. In the world of difficult health issues, this is often one of the kinder ones to struggle through because I know a lot of friends that have ongoing, chronic struggles that really have no end in sight. So I feel very fortunate.”
AS: Will it get to the point that you return to 100 percent or will there always be bits and pieces of the illness that you will have to manage through for the rest of your life?
DW: “I feel pretty normal. I feel like I have my strength and can exercise and do most of the things I want to do. I’m just a few years older, too, so you’re always more and more limited as you get older. I feel really fortunate. The first several months, my body was very impaired. And then probably for the next year or so I was very limited with energy and stamina. But I really, really am blessed to be where I am today.”
AS: Can you keep up with the kids now?
DW: “I still can’t keep up with them, but I don’t think I ever could have.”
AS: On a much brighter topic, how did you find out about your induction to the College Football Hall of Fame? Did someone from the organization call you or did you speak with someone from Florida?
DW: “I got a call from one of the guys that works with the National Football Foundation and they called me probably 4-5 days prior to the announcement because they wanted to see if I could get to New York to participate in the announcement. I was in New Orleans working on a project in the Ninth Ward and that’s when I got the call. And then I went to new York a few days later.”
AS: I’m sure a lot of people have been in contact with you since the announcement.
DW: “Oh yeah. I was reaaly encouraged and blessed by all the different folks that reached out to me. Coach [Steve] Spurrier reached out, Jeremy Foley, coach [Will] Muschamp and just many, many others, which was part of what made it even more special for me. Just the people that are in different ways celebrating with me at this time in my life, whether it be by text, planning to come to the banquet in December or anything. It’s just a neat experience that I feel like I get to share with a lot of people.”
AS: You’re being inducted with some big names and a lot of quarterbacks, guys like Vinny Testaverde, Tommy Frazier, Orlando Pace and Ron Dane. Obviously you’ve won numerous awards and received plenty of praise throughout your career but what does it say that you’re being inducted in a class with this much prestige and recognition?
DW: “It’s just an honor when you look at all the different people that are eligible for something like this and then the few names that get the opportunity to be inducted. This year is a special class. It seems like there are a lot of players that not only excelled in college but many others at the NFL level to where their names are just so recognizable. It’s cool. It’s an honor. I got to be in New York with Tedy Bruschi, who I am a fan of. I got to watch him play and watch his story for a lot of years. It’s a very neat thing.”
AS: You had mentioned to me previously that the Gators will be honoring you on the field when they take on the Volunteers. Who contacted you about that opportunity and what will that moment be like for you?
DW: “It’s part of what the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame…it’s part of the process. They come to a home game and honor you there. I think part of what’s neat about this is it really is like all of us at Florida celebrate that one of us are getting inducted into the hall of fame. I think it’s an opportunity at a game with all of our fans to celebrate and be excited and hopefully proud. Tennessee has always been an important game but any home game would have been special for this to happen for me.”
AS: How does this honor stack up with some of the major moments and accomplishments in your career?
DW: “I think what’s unique about this, the thing that stands out is the timing. A lot of the other awards were either near or shortly after I was playing. At this time in my life, especially after being sick and having a lot of time to reflect, it’s a little bit different. I don’t know that I would have been able to appreciate this as much 5-10 years ago as I do now. I’m at a time in my life where I can reflect back and part of that is reflecting on people and relationships that were important. This helps me think back to many wonderful memories and people, and then when many of those people are still part of my life to celebrate it now, it just makes it very special and unique.”
AS: You were involved in a quarterback competition at Florida, so it must have brought back some memories reading about what Jeff Driskel went through last season. How tough is it, whether you begin the season as a starter or back-up, to deal with a competition at that position, knowing that all eyes are on you and you’re expected to be the leader of the team?
DW: “There are instances where I think that competition and push is important. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you focused. In reality, that’s the case often at many positions over the course of a season. On the other hand, I think as a quarterback, there’s something powerful in being ‘the guy,’ knowing your coaches and your teammates believe in you and you can lead, you can take a few risks. I remember hearing the stories of Brett Favre in Green Bay, the first year when he broke the record for most interceptions. They were thinking about putting in another quarterback and the general manager said, ‘Nope. We’re going to win here, and we’re going to win with Brett Favre.’ He was the guy. You can take more risks and you can get more comfortable and hopefully develop into not just a quarterback but the leader that you can be.”
AS: How do you think Driskel performed as a first-year starter? Did you see any type of progression that caught your eye even though he struggled through some games in the latter half of the season?
DW: “I think really there was a point, coming out of the Texas A&M game, where there’s just so much improvement in my mind watching him play the quarterback position, going into the Tennessee game and seeing him step into the pocket, make quicker decisions and get the ball out. That’s something that seemed to really improve throughout the course of the year but there were certainly some tough games at the end. My hope is that some of those things, a year later, are more ingrained, more stable.
“I know for me, every year that I played seemed like the game got slower. By that I mean, as a freshman you take a snap, next thing you know the play’s over and you’re not really sure what happened. By the time I was a senior, you see everything before you get to the line of scrimmage. You’re anticipating what people are doing. You’re dropping back. You’re making decisions. You’re turning and throwing and a lot more comfortable. That’s really hard to develop except by playing and playing in that environment. Hoping that those things that he improved on last year will continue and he’ll be in a great position to have a great year.”
AS: Driskel certainly took the brunt of the criticism for last year’s offense. While there is the old adage that the quarterback usually gets both too much credit and too much criticism, do you feel that is generally an unfair principle?
DW: “When you’re the quarterback, like you said, you usually get more of the blame than you deserve when things go wrong and conversely you get more praise than you deserve when things go right. Through all my years as a football player, I feel like I’ve been both sides of that. Fortunately from my college career, I was on the good side and got a lot more credit than I deserved – hence the hall of fame induction and all that kind of stuff. That’s just part of the nature of it. That’s just part of the deal.”
AS: What do you think of Coach Muschamp based on what you’ve seen from him on the field and know about him personally over the last two seasons?
DW: “I’ve been really grateful and am impressed with where we are now. Last year’s season, just the number of victories we got with the team that we had was just really, really exciting to see that happen. He’s very, obviously, passionate and intense as a coach. I think he’s very business-like. I think building a strong, dominating defense is the first step to being great, and I think we’re on our way to that. I think we’re looking for improvement from the offense this year, of course, but I think we’ll be a better team.”
AS: Certainly Coach Spurrier is more jovial by comparison but do you see a lot of similarities between him and Coach Muschamp, perhaps in regards to their coaching style or how passionate they are about the game?
DW: “Oh, yeah. Coach Spurrier and Coach Muschamp are two of the most competitive people I know. Both have a history of being intense and animated on the sidelines. And they’re both winners. That’s the key. I think and hope that Coach Muschamp, being a young head coach, that he’ll have the same sort of success Spurrier had. That would be super.”
AS: Do you keep tabs on what Coach Spurrier is doing at South Carolina? Are you impressed by his success with that program?
DW: “It’s really amazing to me to see a program like South Carolina, which has always been decent, for the last few years has been outstanding while playing in one of the most unbearable leagues in all of their sports in the SEC. To be able to not only improve and compete but win and have the success that he’s had year after year and get better at that school is very impressive but not very surprising to me.”
AS: I’m sure you were aware there would be an obligatory Tim Tebow question. Rather than talk about his play on the field, I’m curious to hear what you think about him keeping a lower profile recently while a member of the New England Patriots. Is that difficult for someone like him – you are obviously very similar – who is passionate both about charity and religion?
DW: “I’m really happy for him having this opportunity. Even before this came about, I felt like New England for a lot of reasons would be a great place for him to go. I was thrilled for him when I got the news, just thrilled for him. One, that he’s getting another opportunity; two, that it’s at New England. I think the frenzy of attention just follows him. There’s not much he can do about it. It’s probably a relief in many was to be at a place with a program that does not promote that, encourages you to work hard and keep a low profile. My guess is it would be a nice break because he’s not on the front page of USA Today every day. He’ll still be on the news wherever he is, that’s for sure.”
AS: How are things going with Desire Street Ministries? Did you being forced to take a back seat with your illness effect the productiveness during your absence?
DW: “We’re working on building some more structures and programs in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and on Desire street. While we are excited about all the different cities where we’re working and impacting thousands of lives in inner cities, we’re still committed to see Desire Street, where we came from, have the best chance to be impacted as well. We’re real excited about the possibilities there. I would compare when I got sick, as it relates to Desire Street, sort of like a staring quarterback getting hurt. It’s difficult not to be there and it creates a lot of more work and stress for others. But at the same time, other people need to step up. What really happened, inevitably as a result, was several other people on our staff have really developed and stepped forward in leadership. Our board got stronger and more active. I think we’re a healthier, more efficient and effective organization because of it.”
AS: Most people that visit New Orleans are obviously fixated on the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, which seems to be back to normal by now. How is the rest of New Orleans doing now eight full years after Hurricane Katrina?
DW: “Well the French Quarter was largely spared, so there wasn’t even a whole lot of renewal that needed to happen there. Different neighborhoods really depend on a lot of factors. The neighborhoods where people had more resources have come back a lot quicker. Other neighborhoods have gotten more support and help and have come back sooner than others. Unfortunately the Ninth Ward, where Desire Street is, is often one of the forgotten parts of the city. It’s been lagging behind, and we’re trying to help. But it’s tough. There’s so many needs and there are certain parts of the city where if you drive by, you might think the hurricane wasn’t too long ago. But there are other parts that have done a phenomenal job of recovering and doing well.”