Sports Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Danny Wuerffel Of The Wuerffel Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Maria Angelova
Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in three years and underestimate what they can accomplish in 10. It’s very easy to get excited about a new idea or program, but then get discouraged when things do not go the way you want or as quickly as you want at first. My sense is, especially in the non-profit world, it takes longer, requires more patience and a lot of perseverance to be effective. Yes, it’s really hard, but over time, it’s worth it.
As a part of our series about sports stars who are making a social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danny Wuerffel.
1996 Heisman Trophy Winner, college football Hall of Famer and former NFL Quarterback Danny Wuerffel parlayed his success on the football field into a lifetime mission of helping others. Today, Danny is a renowned Humanitarian, and has a prestigious award named after him — The Wuerffel Trophy — recognized as “College Football’s Premier Award for Community Service.”
During his NFL years with the Saints, Danny volunteered after practice with Desire Street Ministries, serving in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, a neighborhood ranked by HUD as one of the worst economic conditions in the country. He felt so strongly about the pivotal role Desire Street played reshaping communities he became their Executive Director following his NFL career with the Packers, Bears and Redskins. Under Danny’s leadership, Desire Street expanded its reach to support leaders in under-resourced neighborhoods throughout the Southeast. Danny’s life mission is to inspire greater service and unity in our communities, and through The Wuerffel Foundation, he’s making a difference and a meaningful impact in communities across the USA.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to your career path in professional sports?
I loved all sports from as early in my life as I can remember. My parents said my first word was “ball,” and I just loved to play anything I could. Like many youngsters, I dreamed of playing professional sports, but my most vivid memory, from a goal perspective, was in ninth grade, when I really thought I had an opportunity to compete at a high level. My main goal was to get a college scholarship.
Interestingly enough, my favorite sport growing up was soccer. My father was an Air force Chaplain, which meant we moved often, and soccer was an easy way to make friends at the new school. Later I took up basketball, and it wasn’t until age 15 that I realized I excelled at throwing the football.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What were the lessons or takeaways that you took out of that story?
In my first NFL start as a rookie for the New Orleans Saints in 1997, I got hit in an awkward way, and my helmet spun all the way around my head. For a brief moment, I was standing in the pocket with my helmet on backwards trying to find a receiver — but couldn’t see anything. It was terrifying, and I even thought I had gone blind. I ended up fine and unfortunately just a part of the NFL blooper highlights.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Some of the most talented athletes I played with never made it to the professional level, and it had very little to do with their talent or on-field performance. It was their inability to manage life off the field that held them back. Some failed academically, and others made poor life decisions. Talent isn’t everything, and it’s so important to be a well-rounded individual. While I always put in the time to ensure I was fully prepared to compete at the highest level on the field, it doesn’t end there. The next generation must recognize that education and effectively preparing for life after athletics should always be a top priority.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I’m fully convinced the success I’ve had is very much attributed to the countless others who have poured into me throughout my life. I’m very fortunate to have two amazing and supportive parents, and I’ve had wonderful coaches, mentors, and pastors along the way. My high school football coach, Jimmy-Ray Stephens, changed the trajectory of my life both on and off the field. By leading our team to a state championship in 1991, he helped open the door for my college scholarship to the University of Florida. But it was the off-field development that continues to impact me today. He taught and forced us to be better men and leaders, and our entire program was based on character and leadership development.
Additionally, I can’t possibly express how much of my success I attribute to Steve Spurrier — also known as the Head Ball Coach (HBC). His creativity and excellence as a coach led to our teams’ unparalleled success as well as to the individual awards I won. In particular, winning the Heisman Trophy has led to incredible opportunities in my life, and I can’t imagine winning the Heisman without Steve Spurrier as my coach.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about what it is like being a professional sports player?
One myth about the NFL is that once you make a team you will be financially set for life. The reality is, most players that get on an NFL team don’t last for more than a year or two, and certainly don’t develop enough financial wealth to secure their futures. Also, I think many young men believe they will finally be happy if they make it as a professional athlete. That said, I’ve spent countless hours of my life working with professional athletes that have all sorts of challenges and struggles both on and off the field.
Ok super. Let’s now move to the main part of our discussion. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
When I was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1997, I was excited about my football career, but I also saw that my bigger calling in life was to make a difference off the field. I began volunteering with Desire Street Ministries, a small organization in an under-resourced neighborhood in the ninth ward of New Orleans. After volunteering for seven years while playing in the NFL, I came to a literal crossroad. At a particular intersection, I would have to turn right to go practice football, but turning left was the way to Desire Street. Each day, it got harder and harder to keep turning right. In February 2004, I retired from the NFL to work at Desire Street. I became the Executive Director after Hurricane Katrina, and now Desire Street is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia and we support leaders all over the southeast that both live in and serve under-resourced neighborhoods. We are currently in a five-year strategic plan to develop 20 Thriving and Sustainable organizations by 2025.
Additionally, we have started The Wuerffel Foundation to inspire more service and unity in our communities. We support other nonprofit organizations, and serve as the steward of The Wuerffel Trophy, College Football‘s Premier Award for community service. Every year we honor a student-athlete who is inspired to serve others and is committed to making a positive impact on society. This award embodies my values, and since inception, each respective recipient is truly making an incredible difference in their communities and beyond.
The 2022 Wuerffel Trophy recipient Dillan Gibbons, an offensive lineman from Florida State University, created a platform for players to dedicate their NIL funds towards charitable causes, amongst other initiatives. Dillan’s leadership, strong desire to serve others, and tireless efforts to improve the lives of those around him, truly reflects what The Wuerffel Trophy is all about.
What methods are you using to most effectively share your cause with the world?
At Desire Street, we believe in empowering local leaders to be the most effective they can be in making a more meaningful impact in their respective communities. I fully recognize we don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to helping those that are already doing heroic work. At The Wuerffel Foundation, our goal is to honor and develop those that are doing fantastic work in communities, while hoping to inspire others to be more generous and service minded. I’m often asked to speak at events, and this is an opportunity to share my belief that every one of us has the ability and opportunity to improve lives around us. In big ways or small, we all can make a difference in other’s lives, even while achieving our own business or financial success along the way.
Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
When I first drove into the ninth ward of New Orleans in 1997, there were so many dilapidated buildings — I couldn’t believe they were still standing. I assumed they were completely condemned until I saw a little girl walk out of a door, carrying a doll. I couldn’t believe she actually lived there. I went on to learn about many more of the struggles that people live with every single day throughout America. I knew this was my calling, and I needed to help be a part of the solution, where the next generation of boys and girls in underserved and under-resourced communities are given a real chance to thrive. In one of the most prosperous nations, poverty and injustice is very high for many. I want to do my part.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
During my early years volunteering at Desire Street in New Orleans, one of the young men we worked with was Oscar Brown. Oscar participated in our after-school programs and ministry, went off to college and then returned to work for Desire Street. Oscar is now the Director of Programs at the facility in New Orleans. He is an incredible man and such an inspirational leader. The positive impact on his own neighborhood cannot be overstated. These are the real-life stories that make me smile, because I know we are making a difference. Desire Street met Oscar at a pivotal time in his life and changed his trajectory.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1: Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in three years and underestimate what they can accomplish in 10. It’s very easy to get excited about a new idea or program, but then get discouraged when things do not go the way you want or as quickly as you want at first. My sense is, especially in the non-profit world, it takes longer, requires more patience and a lot of perseverance to be effective. Yes, it’s really hard, but over time, it’s worth it.
2: It’s great to be confident, but humility is one of the best character qualities for a leader.
3: Care about other people, but don’t care too much about what they think of you. It’s easy to become consumed with the opinions of others. I’ve spent too much of my life worrying about what other people think, and it can be draining. Today, I continue to learn how to focus more on being the most authentic version of myself that I can be.
4: You have to develop good and healthy rhythms and habits to take care of yourself. Caring for others is a noble and important goal for life, but if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t last very long. When getting on an airplane, they always remind you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others in case of an emergency. While that might feel counterintuitive, the point is simple: If you pass out, you won’t be able to help anyone else. Many leaders don’t get enough rest, don’t eat well, don’t drink enough water, don’t exercise and don’t do other life-giving activities.
5: Develop a mindfulness/centering prayer practice. I spend a lot of time now in silence and solitude. I try to spend 30 minutes to an hour each day doing centering prayer or mindfulness type practices. I’d have to write a book to describe the way this has impacted my life, but it’s made me a better father, husband, leader, and overall person. I wish I had started this practice earlier in my life.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I love the idea of bringing people together that often don’t see each other as allies. While we are living in a pretty divided time, I believe we have more in common than most people think. One of my favorite aspects of a football team is bringing together men from so many different backgrounds, many of which would not normally be friendly. These individuals have to work together for a common goal, and the uniqueness of those relationships creates some incredible beauty that many people never get to experience. Watching them grow together is powerful. I would love to figure out a way to start forums where people from different cultures and backgrounds could come together, get to know each other, and realize that even across political, racial, economic, and tribal divides, we are all human, and should be on the same team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
Proverbs 3:5–6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.” I have tried to center my life to be grounded in my faith. This quote, from thousands of years ago, has been a great reminder for me to stay humble, looking for guidance from the Lord and others.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Barack Obama. All politics aside, I admired the way he handled himself as a husband and father, and I can only imagine what it was like to not only be the President of the United States, but also the first African American President.
How can our readers follow you online?
Social media: @DannyWuerffel on Instagram and Twitter
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring