Katrina Helped Danny Wuerffel Spread Message, Outreach to Underprivileged
Even for Wuerffel, it was hard to see much good coming out of Hurricane Katrina.
But this was Danny Wuerffel. He knew something positive would arise out of all that muck, even if he couldn't quite see it then.
"The defining moment in the whole story is Katrina," he said.
It has to be special to qualify as the defining moment in Wuerffel's story. You probably remember his Heisman Trophy and the community work.
Though he was never much more than clipboard holder with the Saints, you could say Wuerffel is the most accomplished quarterback in New Orleans history. That's no knock on Drew Brees. It's just that Wuerffel's work is more profound than even winning a Super Bowl.
It all washed away five years ago Sunday. Desire Street Ministries, the faith-based organization Wuerffel heads, was encased in eight feet of Mississippi River mud. Buried with it were the school, the church, the health clinic and all the programs to help the people of the Upper Ninth Ward.
There was no immediate need for them, however, since there was no more Ninth Ward. It had turned into a lunar-sludge landscape, with its people scattered in Katrina refugee camps across the South.
The Desire Street Academy had 192 students in grades 7-12. Wuerffel didn't know if most of them were at the Superdome, Astrodome or even still alive. All he knew was somehow, some way Katrina could not win.
"We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen," he told himself, reciting a favorite Bible verse. "For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
What was seen in 2005 is still the scene now in parts of New Orleans. Every recovery story seems to come with an asterisk. As nice as it would be to say the Ninth Ward has been reborn, it will take a lot more than Desire Street Ministries to do that.
The happy irony is that while Katrina scattered people all over the map, it expanded Wuerffel's sight. The ministry has spread to cities in Alabama, Florida and Georgia that were never touched by the winds.
"The entire focus had been on the Upper Ninth Ward," Wuerffel said. "Then for a year there were no people there and no buildings, yet we still had all those people to take care of."
Desire Street Ministries is now headquartered in Atlanta. Three off-shoot programs are working in the Ninth Ward. They've rebuilt the community center, built two churches, reopened the pediatric health clinic and restored programs that serve one of America's most blighted neighborhoods.
The principle behind every operation is not just to help inner-city neighborhoods, but to teach residents to help themselves. But taking responsibility can be hard when all you're used to is taking handouts.
"The true lasting transformation comes from the people there," Wuerffel said. "It's harder to make everybody understand, but that's the best way to do it."
Wuerffel hasn't always been easy to understand, simply because he seemed too good to be true. He was Tim Tebow before Tim Tebow, though Tebow never had to deal with Steve Spurrier at the height of his perfectionist powers.
The old ball coach broke many a quarterback, but Wuerffel was the unflappable choirboy who folded his hands in prayer after throwing touchdowns. Faith alone couldn't make him into a pro star, but a power greater than the NFL must have wanted him in New Orleans.
At least that's how Wuerffel sees it, and nobody in the Ninth Ward would argue. Now he hopes to expand Desire Street Ministries to 12 cities in the next five years. That means new churches, clinics and schools where people really need them.
"We're getting a lot more inquiries than we have capacity to help," he said. "It's really exciting. But at the same time it's sad because we can't help everybody."
Desire Street Ministries (http://www.desirestreet.org) is a non-profit that that relies on contributions. If you're wondering if it's worth writing a check, see what happened to those 192 children cast to the wind by Katrina.
All were eventually accounted for, and Wuerffel vowed that every one of them would graduate from Desire Street Academy. About 120 kids eventually moved back to New Orleans, which meant years of boarding some of the students.
The final class graduated two months ago. The final eight little Katrina survivors had grown up enough to get their high-school diplomas. Five of them have gone on to college.
That kind of thing prompted Wuerffel to think beyond New Orleans. Not every city had TV correspondents holding up starving babies to the camera five years ago and asking where the cavalry was. But every city has its own version of the Ninth Ward.
In that respect, Katrina was a blessing. If not for the storm, a lot of people outside New Orleans wouldn't be getting the help they are now.
"I don't minimize any of the pain because it was hard," Wuerffel said. "But for myself and much of New Orleans, out of the pain a lot of new things have been birthed and healed."
That includes his house. Wuerffel sold the property long ago, but he went back last week to check it out.
"They've done a nice job with it," he said.
He didn't knock on the door and ask to look around. It would have been interesting to see if they even knew who he was.
"Especially since I'm bald now," Wuerffel said. "Nobody recognizes me."
He's only 36, which is five years younger than Brett Favre. But you don't have to worry about Wuerffel renouncing his retirement.
If anything, he'd rather be known as Danny Wuerffel, the guy at Desire Street Ministries. Not Danny Wuerffel, the college football legend.
He went on a national radio show recently. About 15 people called in, and only three of them wanted to ask about his football work.
Wuerffel also loves to tell the story about being at a high-school football practice in New Orleans. A ball bounced his way, and one of the players asked him to throw it back.
His arm was in 1996 form.
"Did you ever play quarterback?" the kid asked.
Yep. And through any storm, he had the best vision of any quarterback we'll ever see.