GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It was never a question of “if” for Danny Wuerffel, only when.
Still, when Wuerffel was passed over last year in his first year of eligibility for the College Football Hall of Fame, some of Wuerffel’s most ardent supporters questioned whether the election committee knew much about, well, college football.
Wuerffel not only won the 1996 Heisman Trophy, he led the Gators to their first national championship that season. He won four consecutive Southeastern Conference championships. His 114 career touchdown passes still rank as the SEC record more than 16 years after Wuerffel walked off the Superdome field that night in January 1997 a national champion.
And then there is the fact that Wuerffel is the son of a minister, made good grades and stayed out of trouble and, when his NFL career concluded, devoted his post-football life to transforming inner cities through his role as executive director of Desire Street Ministries.
The National Football Foundation’s selection criteria in electing members to the College Football Hall of Fame include an edict that states “while each nominee’s football achievements in college are of prime consideration, his post-football record as a citizen is also weighed. He must have proven himself worthy as a citizen, carrying the ideals of football forward into his relations with his community and fellow man.”
There is no way Wuerffel flunks that test. He remains one of the most popular ambassadors for UF’s athletic department and the University of Florida community for the way he lives his life.
Wuerffel remains as modest today as the teenager who arrived in 1993 from Fort Walton Beach, not sure what to expect as a quarterback in Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun offense.
He never expected to be in New York’s Times Square 20 years later as one of the 14 newest inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday. But there he was, joining fellow inductee Tedy Bruschi in representing this year’s class.
The induction ceremony takes place in December at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Wuerffel recalled the moment when he took his first steps toward his latest honor. It started with a last-second touchdown pass to win at Kentucky in the second game of the 1993 season.
“I could have never guessed what was going to unfold,” Wuerffel said. “Terry Dean had thrown four interceptions. I had just thrown my third. Coach was looking up and down the sideline looking for anybody to put in. I’m not sure why he let me go back in.”
Wuerffel hit Chris Doering for the game-winning score and the rest is history. Wuerffel compiled a 45-6-1 record and played in two national championship games in his Florida career from 1993-96.
When Wuerffel received word Friday that he was going to be inducted, officials asked him to keep the news quiet until the official announcement. He made it through the weekend, but on Monday, Wuerffel had to give Spurrier a call to let him in on the secret.
Spurrier didn’t answer. Wuerffel called for a specific reason and left a message for his former coach at Florida and later in the NFL with the Washington Redskins.
“I wanted him to know beforehand and just took the opportunity to really thank him for all that he’s done in my life and the way his coaching has impacted much more than just football for me,” Wuerffel said. “It was really nice to get that moment.”
He recalled a phrase Spurrier constantly would use at practice to remind him of the need to always be ready to make adjustments during a game.
“You gotta be flexible. It might work now, it might not work then. You gotta be flexible,” Wuerffel said in his best Spurrier impersonation.
“Life throws a lot of punches and a lot of curveballs, and when we get too attached to our plan or our agenda or expectation, life can be really tough,” he added. “You would think that we can control it, but we can’t. So just being flexible is the great lesson I learned from Coach Spurrier.”
Wuerffel’s phone blew up with messages once the news got out. He has so many people he wants to thank over the next several months for the role they played in his success.
Wuerffel lives now in the Atlanta area, where Desire Street Ministries relocated a few years after Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. He continues his faith-based work focused on revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods.
Wuerffel has much more to be thankful for than his entry into the Hall of Fame. He said that his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system that can cause paralysis and other life-altering conditions, is going well.
“I’m probably 90 to 95 percent recovered and feeling really grateful and thankful and able to engage with life and exercise on a much normal level,” he said. “It’s been a really hard two years in a lot of different ways but it’s also been really good in other ways.”
Wuerffel, who turns 39 later this month, has his health back, has a Heisman Trophy and a national title, is married with three healthy kids and has a bronze statuein his likeness outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Wuerffel’s place in Gators lore has long been established. He is now in the College Football Hall of Fame, joining his former coach among the all-time greats.
“It’s not something that years ago I ever thought of or put on a list of things to accomplish,” he said. “But from where I’m sitting right now it’s just an incredible honor. What we experienced those four years was better than anything I could have dreamed of. Starting with that pass to Chris and finishing with that win over Florida State, it couldn’t have been a better bookended four years.”