‘Humbling’ journey to recovery for Wuerffel


Published: Friday, September 2, 2011 at 7:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 at 7:47 p.m.

The knock on the door was startling. The news behind it was stunning.

It was 5 a.m. in Montgomery, Ala., and Danny Wuerffel was sleeping in a bedroom in a bad neighborhood he was trying to help because that’s what Danny Wuerffel does. When he opened the door, he was surprised who was doing the knocking.

“It was the doctor who had been running tests on me,” Wuerffel said. “I said to him, ‘You’re probably not here to tell me I’m fine.’ And he said, ‘I figured out that you have Guillain-Barre Syndrome. And I wanted to see if you were still breathing.”

And so it began almost three months ago, the journey that has been an eye-opener and a leg-weakener. Florida’s first national championship quarterback is still not all the way back, but he’s closing in.

Legs that were once as sturdy as the statue in front of The Swamp are getting stronger. One day last week, he took his sons Jonah, 7, and Joshua, 5, to Stone Mountain and the three of them kicked around a soccer ball.

“That was a good day,” he said.

But there are still bad ones. He thought he was back last week, but found out this week just how far he still is from complete recovery.

“I felt like I was starting to be normal,” he said. “And then this week, I pooped out.”

That’s why he won’t be at the game today when Florida opens its first season under Will Muschamp. He summoned up the energy to make the trip from Atlanta to Gainesville on Thursday, napping in the passenger’s seat during much of the ride, and spoke to help launch the iMentor initiative, but then it was back home to rest.

“I’ll come back for another game,” he said. “When I’m ready.”

This journey, which Wuerffel calls “humbling,” began innocently enough with a stomach virus during a June 2 retreat in Colorado. Five days later, Wuerffel felt great. He jumped out of bed ... and his legs buckled.

As the day went on, it got worse. Going up and down the stairs was an ordeal. He stubbed his toe in his Atlanta home and when he went to shift his weight to the other leg he fell to the ground.

Still, Wuerffel drove to Montgomery where one of his Desire Street missions is located. That’s when his hands started going numb.

He went to the doctor who would later visit him in the Washington Park neighborhood in Montgomery. Before the sun came up that June morning, the doctor would test Wuerffel’s reflexes with a rubber hammer to the knees.

Nothing.

“The blessing was that I was there in Montgomery where they could get me in quickly and run tests,” Wuerffel said. “Over the next six or seven hours they did everything — brain MRI, spinal tap. And by 2:30 in the afternoon, I started getting treatment.”

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is serious stuff. It occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. It can be fatal, with victims dying because they can’t breathe.

And one morning, that’s what was running through Wuerffel’s mind.

He couldn’t get a breath.

“That was the scariest thing,” he said. “I went to the hospital. It turned out I just had bad gas.”

He’s better now but not great. Fatigue is still an issue. His three children are getting their father back slowly. He has assured them he will be the old daddy they knew. Recently, he was explaining to his sons how the doctors were going to make him better. His 2-year-old Macy corrected him.

“No, daddy, God will make you better.”

The struggle continues. Not surprisingly, he has turned a near-tragedy into a positive. Because, well, that’s what Danny Wuerffel does. Hurricane Katrina ravaged his home in 2005, he recovered and made Desire Street bigger and better.

“I see this as a gift,” he said. “I look at my life and see all that I was trying to do. The Lord forced me to slow down and reflect on some things. I want to be a good father and a good husband and impact lives for many years to come.

“At the pace I was going, I wouldn’t have lasted in a healthy way. It has been humbling to go from a strong, healthy guy to someone who can’t ride a bike or go swimming or go play soccer.”

He has heard dozens of stories from people who have had family members hit by the disease. Not many of them were encouraging. The Gator Nation let its voice be heard with hundreds of cards and gifts. The Seattle Gator club sent a T-shirt signed by all of its members.

“It has been a phenomenal experience,” Wuerffel said, his voice a little raspy from an afternoon nap. “To hear from so many people, so many words of encouragement. The two things I have been through — Katrina and this — all the different Gators have just reached out.”

When the word got out, it was like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All of the people who he touched have touched back.

His cell phone lit up with text messages. In rapid succession, he heard from Jeremy Foley, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp and Steve Spurrier.

“That was neat,” he said.

Danny Wuerffel was tired, but he had one more story to tell. During this ordeal, he went to a 70-year-old Korean neurologist in Birmingham.

“I walked in and he said, ‘You are the football player?’ I said that I was. He said, ‘No football for you for awhile.”

He laughed. Football made him a Gator hero. Everything he has done away from football made him a Gator legend.

And the day is coming, the day he will be out on a field somewhere floating passes to Joshua and Jonah and maybe even little Macy.

He can see it. And if you close your eyes, you can see it, too.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. You can listen to The Dools and ‘Dozo Show weekdays from noon-2 p.m. on 104.9 FM. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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