By Andy Staples
January 14, 2010

Danny Wuerffel heard the ruling, but he couldn't believe it. The 1996 Heisman Trophy winner and former New Orleans Saint had been all but assured Pershing Mason would win the hardship appeal he made to the Louisiana High School Athletic Association this summer. After all, Mason's previous school (Wuerffel's Desire Street Academy) had run out of money. All Mason wanted was to attend 12th grade at a Christian school and play football. Officially, Mason had gone out of his district, but Wuerffel assumed no one would be that heartless. Would they?

So when a group of high school principals ruled Mason ineligible to play at Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge, La., Wuerffel's heart broke. "It was just another really sad moment," Wuerffel said, "in a long story of disappointment." Now, Mason plays for the Christian Home Educators Fellowship Patriots, a team made up mostly of homeschoolers, because he has nowhere else to play. A 5-foot-10, 190-pound linebacker/tailback once recruited by Louisiana-Lafayette and Southeastern Louisiana, Mason now wonders if college coaches even know where to find him.STAPLES: Homeschool recruits fighting for chance

The story didn't start out so badly. Mason, who spent most of his life in New Orleans, was one of the first youngsters to find sanctuary at Desire Street Ministries, the charity Wuerffel launched in the Crescent City after he retired from the NFL. Mason became one of the first students when the ministry launched its school. Then came Hurricane Katrina.

When the hurricane hit on Aug. 28, 2005, Mason, then 13, and an uncle were at Mason's home in the Lower Ninth Ward. Mason lived 20 blocks from a broken levee. As the waters rose, Mason and his uncle climbed to the roof. When the water kept rising, they climbed to the roof of the two-story house next door.

For 36 hours, they stayed on the roof. Mason watched alligators tear the flesh from human corpses. Sometimes, when he sleeps, he still sees the gators and the bodies. "I have a dream at least twice a month," Mason said. Their only sustenance was a freezer full of ice pops that didn't stay frozen long in the 90-degree heat that followed the storm. "We had to make those freeze pops last," Mason said with a laugh.

Mason and his uncle saw helicopters overhead during most of their time on the roof. Whenever one passed, they waved their arms and begged for rescue. Finally, they were scooped off the roof and evacuated to Dallas. Now Mason had another problem. His mother had been evacuated to Houston. For more than a month, neither mother nor son knew if the other was alive or dead. Finally, they reunited. "She was crying," Mason said. "She was worried sick about me."

The storm destroyed the fledgling Desire Street Academy, but it did not deter Wuerffel. He moved the school to Panama City, Fla., and took the students with him. After the 2005-06 school year, Desire Street Academy moved to Baton Rouge. There, the school flourished. The Lions football team didn't win every game, but Wuerffel took pride in running a Christian school that provided for students who needed financial help and spiritual guidance.

When the economy tanked in 2008, Wuerffel knew dark days were ahead for Desire Street Academy, which was funded almost entirely by donations. As the donations dried up, Wuerffel knew he would have to take the school in a new direction. He set into motion a conversion to a charter school, but he knew that would take time. He promised the students who had been with Desire Street since the beginning that they would have a school, but Wuerffel couldn't promise any extras.

"It's a great story for those kids, but Pershing was kind of caught in the middle," Wuerffel said. "It's kind of hard to have a football team when you have a school with eight kids."

So Desire Street's football players sought other schools. Several settled at Capital High, a public school in Baton Rouge. Had Mason transferred to Capital, he would have been immediately eligible to join the football team because he lives in Capital's district. But Mason insisted on attending a Christian school. So he chose Christian Life Academy. In Louisiana, private schools are tied to the geographical boundaries of public school districts to determine an athlete's eligibility. Mason had left his district. But other athletes had received hardship waivers before. Wuerffel assumed a waiver for Mason was a no-brainer. "We were confident that if there ever was such a thing as a hardship, that would be it," Wuerffel said. "We had assurances from several people within the system that he would be fine. Then it was just a really, really big shock and surprise when that didn't happen."

It still bothers Wuerffel that he never received an explanation for the denial. "That's the frustrating thing," he said. "There is no reason. There's the group of principals who hear the case and vote, and they don't have to explain anything."

So Mason joined the Patriots, who aren't bound by LHSAA rules. But like Patriots junior quarterback Stevie Douglas, who also aspires to play in college, Mason wonders if college coaches will notice him on a roster full of homeschoolers. Playing for the Patriots, Mason is too exhausted to feel sorry for himself. He plays linebacker and running back, and he returns every kick. He never leaves the field.MORE: Mason highlight video

He hopes his perseverance will earn him the break the LHSAA committee wouldn't grant him. He hopes a college coach will somehow run across his name and take a closer look. "It's hard being on this team. ... It seems I'm playing for God and just hoping," Mason said. "That's all I can do."

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