One day in September 1995, during an off week early in the
college football season, a gang of about 10 intrepid reporters
who cover the Florida football team decided to investigate the
apparently unflawed character of Danny Wuerffel, the Gators'
quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate. "He was too good to be
true," says Robbie Andreu, the beat writer for The Gainesville
Sun. "He seemingly had no flaws. We were kidding around about it
when someone said, 'Let's find the other side of Danny Wuerffel.'"
Interrogating Wuerffel's coaches, teammates and friends, the
reporters found nothing but more squeak in his clean. They
learned that he never cut class. He did not throw his golf
clubs. He did not swear. "I don't think he's ever said 'hell' or
'damn,'" said Gators coach Steve Spurrier. Using tobacco,
smokeless or not, was unthinkable for Wuerffel. Nor had anyone
ever caught him hanging at any of the local pubs or attending
beer bashes, a sport in which Florida contends every year for
the Division I title. He did not drink. Or chase women. Nor had
anyone ever seen him lose his temper or in any other way blow
his cool--on the field or off. "Don't know if anyone here has
seen him mad," said Spurrier, the ol' yeller himself. "I've
never heard him yell at a lineman for missing a block or at a
receiver for dropping a pass."
Wuerffel rode a bicycle around campus, toting a bag with
schoolbooks and a Bible inside, and he talked to God twice a
day. At night, before retiring, he prayed on his knees.
Alas, the impromptu investigation was looking dead in the Swamp
when Wuerffel's favorite receiver, Chris Doering, suddenly
blurted, "I've got something on him." The reporters leaned
forward, pencils poised. "He chews his fingernails!" Doering
announced. This was not quite the eighth deadly sin, but the
reporters wrote about it good-naturedly the next day, and the
whole episode might have been forgotten had Wuerffel not taken
it so to heart. In July, 10 months later, Andreu and two
colleagues stopped the quarterback on campus to ask why he had
declined to accept Playboy magazine's award as the 1996 National
Scholar Athlete of the Year (studying public relations, Wuerffel
had a 4.0 grade-point average in the spring semester and a 3.75
GPA overall), which included a trip to a swanky Phoenix resort
for a photo shoot, as well as a $5,000 gift in Wuerffel's name
to Florida's scholarship fund.
October 13, 1996
Wuerffel was explaining why he could not accept the award--he
speaks frequently at churches and schools, and he believes his
appearance in a skin magazine would undermine his work as a role
model and "confuse" those who look up to him--when he paused in
midsentence and flashed 10 perfectly manicured nails. "Did you
notice?" he asked, grinning. "It was tough, but I stopped
chewin' my fingernails!"
So he was, at least for the record, essentially unflawed again.
And five games into the 1996 season, the 6'2", 209-pound senior
is, at least statistically, as near to being flawless as any
collegiate passer who ever played the game. After 41 games over
nearly 3 1/2 seasons, Wuerffel has 586 completions in 946 pass
attempts (62%) for 8,637 yards, and he has an NCAA career
passing efficiency rating of 163.14, the best in Division I-A
history. Wuerffel is first among career NCAA leaders in
touchdown/pass-completion ratio, throwing a TD for every 6.58
complete passes, and in touchdown/pass-attempt ratio, tossing a
score in every 10.63 attempts.
No one has figured more prominently than Wuerffel in the Gators'
three straight SEC championships. And in their third game this
season, against Tennessee on Sept. 21, he launched Florida
toward a possible fourth consecutive conference title when he
threw for four touchdowns in the first half and led the Gators
to a 35-29 victory. Tennessee's Peyton Manning had come into
that game as the early Heisman favorite, even though Wuerffel
finished third in the voting last year, behind two graduating
seniors. But in the first half against Florida, Manning threw
four interceptions, two of which led eventually to Wuerffel TD
passes. By day's end not only was Wuerffel favored to win the
Heisman, but, with Arizona State's 19-0 upset of Nebraska, he
was also suddenly leading the No. 1 team in the nation.
Not that the ranking or the personal accolades have had any
discernible effect on Wuerffel, whose rock-ribbed composure
under fire have made him a stabilizing force among the Gators
and the perfect counterpoint to Spurrier, whose in-your-face
outbursts on the sidelines have been known to undo less secure,
more excitable players. "Danny has a way of sifting through the
yelling and getting to what the coach is trying to say," says
Doering, who is now with the Indianapolis Colts. "It's a
blowing-off-steam thing for the coach, and Danny can sit there
and take it and not get rattled by it."
Wuerffel's poise and football instincts stem from an upbringing
steeped in religion and keen athletic competition. He is the son
of an Air Force chaplain, Lt. Col. Jon Wuerffel, and his wife,
Lola, a former schoolteacher who assisted Jon as an organist and
choir director wherever the service sent them. So Danny and his
older sister, Sara, grew up in places such as Myrtle Beach,
S.C.; Torrejon, Spain; and Colorado Springs. Their home was full
of laughter, about which Jon was something of an expert. He
studied marriage and family life for his Ph.D. at Nebraska and
did his dissertation on the relationship between humor and a
family's strength. ("Healthy humor, the kind that does not bite
and tear people down, predominates in strong families," he
wrote. "Weaker families use less humor, and it's digging and
Danny grew up listening to his father not only make jokes but
also preach sermons and read from the Bible. The Wuerffels'
lives were not, however, confined to religion. Jon was the Air
Force masters (over 40) racquetball champion in 1986, and he
taught his son the game. And while living at the Air Force
Academy in Colorado Springs, Jon and Danny spent hours riding
dirt bikes through the Rocky Mountains, racing full-bore around
and over perilous rocks, gullies and fallen trees. This
sharpened Danny's hand-eye coordination, he says, and helped
prepare him, as much as anything else, for life in the
fast-collapsing pockets of a football game.
"You learn to focus and concentrate when a million things go by
at once," Wuerffel says. "You don't have time to make decisions
on a dirt bike. You are forced to react, and you have to react
right--like in a football game. I think that's why I play better
with adrenaline, when things are going fast, and I have to react
Indeed, since his first game as a Gator in 1993, Wuerffel has
shown that the level of his game--the snap and precision of his
passes--rises at roughly the same rate as his adrenaline. On
Sept. 11, 1993, Florida was trailing Kentucky 20-17 when
Wuerffel, who had thrown three interceptions after coming off
the bench earlier in the game, asked Spurrier to let him play
the Gators' final series. Wuerffel promptly moved the team 58
yards in six plays, completing 4 of 6 passes, including a
28-yard touchdown toss to Doering with three seconds left that
gave Florida a 24-20 victory. Two games later Wuerffel rallied
Florida to a 38-24 win over Mississippi State, and then he did
it again against South Carolina, pulling out a 37-26 victory
after being down 17-0. The next year, in a game against Alabama,
Wuerffel erased a 23-17 fourth-quarter deficit with a two-yard
pass to Doering that pushed Florida ahead 24-23 and gave the
Gators their second straight SEC title.
"When things aren't going well, when things are going to hell,
everyone looks to Dan," says Bart Edmiston, the Gators' senior
place-kicker. "He's the calm in the middle of the hurricane."
Never did the hurricane blow harder than it did last year when
Florida faced Manning and Tennessee in Gainesville. Wuerffel
threw an end-zone interception in the first quarter to blow a
scoring drive, and with 3:27 left in the second quarter and the
Gators down 23-14, he violated one of Spurrier's cardinal
commandments by leaving the pocket when a blitz was on. Sure
enough, Wuerffel got creamed, the ball popped out of his hands,
and Tennessee's Raymond Austin scooped it up and dashed 46 yards
for the score, giving the Vols a 30-14 lead. Spurrier threw a
fit as Wuerffel approached him. "You have to step into the
pocket against the blitz and get rid of the ball!" the coach
yelled. "You're smarter than that. Why are you running around
where they can knock it out of your hands? I coached you better
The quarterback's unruffled response was vintage Wuerffel:
"Don't worry about it, Coach. We'll come back. Stay calm. We can
Wuerffel is rarely the prettiest quarterback on the field; when
he sets up in the pocket and cocks his arm, he tucks the ball in
his neck and often fails to rotate his shoulder forward when he
throws. This unorthodox motion gives him the appearance of a
shot-putter thrusting the ball with a snap of the elbow, but
Wuerffel can be ruthlessly efficient when his blood is up, as it
was after the fumble in last year's Tennessee game. Over the
next 31 minutes of play, as the Gators' defense held Tennessee
scoreless until its final possession, Wuerffel passed for six
touchdowns and ran for a seventh, directing Florida to a 62-37
By then Wuerffel had become an enormously popular figure in
Florida, and Spurrier was starting to take heat for his public
scoldings of the player. But the outbursts did not appear to
"I don't get emotionally aroused or upset at him," the
quarterback says of his coach. "He has said many times, 'We're
not mad at you personally. We're upset with the situation.' You
love the person and criticize the performance. Virtually every
time that happens, I agree with him. I understand what happened.
I'm upset with myself. I take pride in being disciplined and
faithful and in doing the best I can. When he yells on the
sidelines, there's no need for me to get riled up. I've got to
go out and play again. So I'll take the constructive criticism,
learn from it and move on.
"I've always said I'd rather play for a coach who demands
perfection than one who accepts mediocrity. Coach Spurrier will
push you, and he will rejoice with you when you're done. I'm
grateful that God blessed me with a demeanor that is calm."
In fact, says backup quarterback Brian Schottenheimer, Wuerffel
has "had a calming effect on the coach. I've seen that a lot."
Spurrier himself concedes that Wuerffel has taught him patience.
"Just because something bad happens, it doesn't mean we can't
win the game," Spurrier says. "Be patient. And maintaining a
positive outlook is something Danny has done for all of us."
There is an unusual sense of balance in Wuerffel's life. He
raises a skeptical brow at the crazed intensity that surrounds
college football in Gainesville and much of the rest of the
country. "Sometimes it's almost silly," he says. Wuerffel's own
priorities are clear, according to Spurrier: "God, his family,
school and then maybe football. He's a very nice young man.
Almost too nice."
And, as one of his teachers learned recently, Wuerffel is
courteous and conscientious to a fault. Michael Mondello was
sitting in his office on Sept. 25 when Wuerffel telephoned.
Wuerffel is in Mondello's basketball coaching class, which was
scheduled to meet that day. Wuerffel began by saying that his
mother had just come to town, and they needed to do some errands
together. "Would it be O.K. if I'm five or 10 minutes late?" he
The teacher was astonished. "I thought he was calling to ask if
he could miss class," says Mondello. "I've never had a student
call to tell me he'd be late."
"Danny's a perfectionist," says Spurrier. As things turned out,
however, the young man is not completely unflawed. The '96
season had hardly begun when that old devil was back to haunt
him. Wuerffel was chewing his fingernails again.