A Different Ball Game

Football star Danny Wuerffel went from a national championship in college to the bottom of the barrel in the NFL. Now as he enters his second year in the League, he reflects on the hardships of his rookie season–and the sweet unpredictability of God’s playbook.

by Danny Wuerffel

As the 1998 NFL season beckons, football mania is upon us once again. Fans, players and coaches alike have great aspirations for this new year, and the excitement of a new season sweeps the nation. Yet in the midst of it all, I can’t help reflecting on last year’s season–the false expectations, the frustrations, and, as always, the grace of God that made for a remarkable year.

As a child, I shared the dream of being a professional football player with just about every other ballplayer in our country. I dreamed of becoming the next Dan Marino or Joe Montana.

But as I grew older and achieved my goal of playing quarterback for the University of Florida Gators, I observed many aspects of professional football-both on and off the field-that began to taint my picture-perfect dreams. Players appeared as if money was their only motivation to play, and many of their lifestyles confirmed it.

After countless horror stories about the National Football League, I began to question the integrity of not only the players, but the coaches as well. A player came back to Gainesville after a year in the League and told us that a coach looked him in the eye and said, "You’re doing such a great job. We’re hoping to keep you here for a long time." He was cut the next day. So much for a childhood fantasy.

And though I was pleased to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round, the team’s history and the nature of the city itself were of some concern. But I was still about to walk on ground thousands of others only dream about-I was a professional football player. So when summer training camp began in mid-July, I was honored to be on the roster.

I jumped into NFL training camp much like any other rookie-filled with the energy and excitement of youth, but lacking any knowledge of the treacherous weeks that lay ahead.

In high school and college, two-a-day practices last about two weeks and are very difficult in their own right, NFL camp lasts over six weeks, and although we had camp in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to beat the New Orleans heat, the cool air offered little relief from the grueling schedule. A typical day would begin around 6 a.m., include practices all day and meetings all night, and end about 10:30 p.m. And in a small college town, there is little to do for entertainment other than pick on the rookies. Ahh, NFL training camp rookie initiation-a joy most people, thankfully, will never have to experience.

We finally broke camp in August, and there was great excitement for the upcoming season. After all, we had Coach "Iron Mike" Ditka, who had coached the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl championship in 1986. With a new coaching staff and virtually an entirely new team, the anticipation in New Orleans soared. Unfortunately, so did the expectations.

The season started and adversity quickly followed. What began with a city and team dancing to the song "When the Saints Go Marching In," soon became a group of players and coaches dealing with frustrations at unprecedented levels. The goal of reaching the playoffs faded with each loss.

As a competitive person, I was eager to get a chance to play, believing I could offer the spark our team needed to turn the corner. When my opportunity came midway through the season, I again learned a rookie lesson-things don’t come easy in this league. I struggled as a QB, and the Saints continued to struggle as a team. My first start ended in an embarrassing shut-out at the hands of the Carolina Panthers.

A possible bright spot of that game, however, was that I made the NFL highlight reel. Unfortunately, it was the blooper tape. I was hit in an awkward position at the end of the game, and my helmet spun completely around on my head. The face mask was facing out the back of my head and the chin strap was still fastened tightly.

I remember how hard it was. I heard strange voices. And I was very nervous when I didn’t see Jesus. Where am I? I wondered. "We live by faith, not by sight," says 2 Corinthians 5:7, and I certainly did that Sunday afternoon!

As a football team, we didn’t perform as we had hoped, and my rookie season was a far cry from my national-championship senior season at Florida. In only a year, it appeared that I had slipped from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley in the football world.

However, there were some other things that happened that shed a different light on the same story.

At home on Desire Street: Wuerffel "hangs" with a young friend
at the New Orleans housing project where he spent most of his off-season.

Coming into New Orleans, I had two desires I offered up to God in prayer. The first prayer was for my team.

With a good understanding of the fast-paced lifestyle of many players in the League, I wondered if I would be stepping into fertile soil for ministry or a land of persecution. Though I tried to prepare myself for both, I was still concerned about how I would fit in. Nonetheless, I prayed that I would find men eager to seek the living God, and that God, in His sovereignty, could use me to help.

Only two weeks into summer camp, I was offering this request to God in prayer when someone knocked on my door. I opened the door to find a fellow rookie with a somber face. I assumed he had also underestimated the difficulties of the training camp, but the look in his eyes told me it was much more.

"When I was 10 years old, my father committed suicide," he said. "By the time I was 14, four of my close friends had committed suicide. Danny, I need to learn about God." The mission field had opened.

Shortly thereafter, I began to notice the insecurities of many of the players. Training camp begins with about 90 players, and after all the cuts, only about 50 players remain. Almost one out of every two players knew their chances of making the team were slim. And even if they made the squad, they knew that the term "NFL" often stands for "Not for Long." Job insecurity and anxiety about the future often lead to deeper questions.

I also noticed that many of the players had already earned lots of money-and had quickly discovered that riches aren’t nearly as fulfilling as advertised. I was in fertile soil, indeed.

When the season began, a few Bible study groups were formed. Many players attended and were sincere in their desire to learn and grow-quite a different environment than I expected.

We started a group for accountability in daily devotions and called it The Daily Bread Club. A couple of us got together and began reading devotions from the booklets produced by the Radio Bible Class ministry. Each person had to read the daily verse and message by 9 a.m. and then be responsible for remembering it the entire day. If someone was unable to recall the message or the verse, they would pay a dollar fine.

I remember praying for at least five or six guys to join our club. But God had bigger plans. Within two weeks, we had 55 players and coaches in the club, and much of the "locker-room talk" revolved around God’s Word.

The coaches also had a weekly Bible study, and it was inspiring to see how God worked in their lives. Coach Ditka is an emotional coach and is famous for erupting during games. However, I learned that he is a Christian man, sincere in his effort to learn more about Christ and walk in His ways. Again, I found myself in a surprisingly pleasant Christian environment.

Losing is always difficult, but adversity can also become the best opportunity to learn and grow. I believe the adversity of last year and the way we persevered as a team will have a dramatic, positive effect on us this season and in the years to come.

The second desire of my heart was a prayer for New Orleans, a city with a unique and often ironic mix of wealth and poverty, love and hatred, culture and crime. Looking for ministry opportunities in New Orleans can be overwhelming, but I was blessed to meet Mo Leverett, founder and president of Desire Street Ministries.

Leverett spoke to the team about his work during a chapel service before a game. I was at once fascinated by this man and his unique urban ministry. Eight years ago, he began ministering to the children of the Desire Street housing project, the second largest in the country and one of the worst places in America to live. A year later, Leverett integrated the neighborhood when he moved there with his family.

He has since continued to pour out his life for this neighborhood that more resembles a war zone than a community. Tutoring programs, Bible studies, recreational activities, camps and mentoring programs have all grown out of Leverett’s work among the children of Desire.

After visiting the ministry and meeting the children, I knew God had set before me a unique and challenging opportunity. So after attending Bible studies throughout the football season, I chose to live in New Orleans during the entire off-season and go on staff with Mo Leverett’s ministry.

The highlight of the entire year for me, hands down, occurred on a Friday in late December. After a Sunday-morning chapel service, Coach Ditka asked me to collect some money from the players to purchase Christmas gifts for the people of Desire. In one day, we raised $6,800 and purchased Christmas turkeys, fruit baskets and gift certificates.

That Friday, about 15 players and coaches delivered these gifts to the residents of Desire, many of whom were filled with tears of gratitude. What an amazing event-to see how God had answered both of my prayers and then brought them together in such a beautiful fashion. An event like this is rarely highlighted on ESPN or mentioned in Sports Illustrated, but I am certain that the angels of God rejoiced that day.

This was the essence of the 1997 season for me: a time of struggle and failure in the eyes of man, but a season of great excitement and success in the eternal game plan. I can’t help smiling as I await what God has in store for His children this season.

Reprinted by Permission, New Man Magazine.