It’s a Saturday afternoon on Labor Day weekend, and for the past few hours I’ve had the nagging sensation that people are ridiculing me behind my back. They’re snickering. I can feel it.
Finally, Ronald Gordon confirms my suspicions. Gordon and his co-workers are moving furniture into the apartment next to mine when he stops me in the hallway. “We were just appreciating your jersey,” says Gordon with a chuckle. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big Redskins fan. But Danny Wuerffel?
“I didn’t know they made Wuerffel jerseys,” he adds.
I let him take a good look at my limited-edition 70th-anniversary Redskins jersey. It’s burgundy, with yellow-and-white arrows decorating the sleeves. And its key detail, No. 17, appears in white, on the front, back, and shoulders. “Wuerffel” spreads out in big block letters on the back. “I just bought it this morning,” I say. “Do you like it?”
Gordon pauses. The elevator door opens, and another member of the moving team emerges. “Check it out,” Gordon says to his buddy. “This guy’s wearing a Danny Wuerffel jersey.”
I turn around and strike my best Heisman Trophy pose.
The inspiration for the jersey came two nights before, when Wuerffel played well in the preseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguarscompleting 13 of 19 passes for 147 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. With that, he appeared to have locked up a spot as the team’s third-string quarterback, behind starter Patrick Ramsey and backup Rob Johnson.
But a year ago, Wuerffel was expected to be so much more. He arrived in the District during the 2002 off-season, after Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hired his former college coach, Steve Spurrier. At the University of Florida in the mid-’90s, Wuerffel had been the engine of Spurrier’s high-scoring attack, rolling up 10,800 yards of total offensethe fifth-highest total in NCAA Division I-A history. Following his senior year, Wuerffel was awarded the Heisman Trophy.
True, Wuerffel had floundered in the pros without Spurrier’s system, drifting from team to team. But reunited with his old ball coach, he had optimists settling in to watch the pyrotechnic offense ignite.
Instead, it fizzled.
Wuerffel played in seven games. He threw three touchdowns and six interceptions, and racked up a meager 70.9 quarterback rating. Over the course of the season, Redskins fans grew accustomed to Wuerffel’s signature style of play: Throw the ball softly to your teammates, get thrown around savagely by your opponents, and dutifully accept your failure as proof of God’s penchant for humbling talented men. Sometimes on national television.
At the end of the season, Wuerffel was released. But in August, several weeks into the Redskins training camp, Spurrier and Co. re-signed Wuerffel to the preseason roster. Call it adding an experienced veteran, or call it backsliding. Either way, Wuerffel was once again a Washington Redskin.
So with hopes high on Friday morning, I set out for Union Station, home of the sole Redskins Store in D.C.
There, I found jerseys for Jeremiah Trotter, Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner, Trung Canidate, and a few others. But alas, there were no Wuerffel jerseys in stock. Not one.
Maybe one of the other Redskins Stores has them, the guy behind the counter told me. Maybe not.
I returned to the office and started calling every sports-apparel store in the phone book.
“Naw, we only got Ramsey,” a guy at Capitol Hill Sporting Goods & Apparel informed me.
“Ooh, yikes, that’s not going to be easy to find,” said the guy from the House of Cards memorabilia shop.
“Who’s that?” asked a woman from the Sports Authority in Arlington.
“What team does he play for?” asked a woman from Modell’s.
But at last I struck pay dirt: “Yeah, we have a few Wuerffel jerseys left over from last season,” said John, an employee of the Redskins Store in Springfield. “They have Wuerffel’s old number on them. And they’re on sale.”
On Saturday morning, I arrived at Springfield Mall, giddy for Wuerffel gear. While there, I decided to check out the jersey selections at other stores. Champ Bailey jerseys were everywhere. Ditto for Fred Smoot. Most stores carried a few Trotter jerseys. Nobody had LaVar Arrington in stock; presumably, all the No. 56s were sold out.
Eventually, I homed in on the Redskins Store. The Wuerffel jerseys were hanging from a rack at the front, wooing passers-by with a discounted price of $40, marked down from $79.
It was a clearance item. After all, who wants to be associated with a loser?
Answer: Anyone who roots for the Redskins, actually. These days, if you don any Washington NFL jerseybe it Arrington’s or Bruce Smith’syou’re associating yourself with losers.
Rooting for the Redskins in the post-Joe Gibbs era is ipso facto an act of self-deprecation. Since Gibbs retired as coach, in 1993, the Redskins have a combined record of 69 wins, 90 losses, and one tie. They have made the playoffs only once in 10 seasons.
The Redskins faithful have become connoisseurs of losing football. We know the ingredients by heart: gimpy kickers. A capricious owner. Nepotistic coaches. Overpaid veterans. A guy named Wuerffel.
People who spend money on Champ Bailey jerseys are deluding themselves. They strut around town celebrating the accomplishment of an individual, trying to forget about the shortcomings of the group.
Bailey doesn’t accurately represent his team. If the 2002 Redskins had played collectively with the self-assurance, hustle, and discipline of their Pro Bowl cornerback, they would have made the playoffs. But they didn’t look like a bunch of Champs. They looked like a bunch of Wuerffels.
It’s a name with a built-in punch line thanks to Spurrier’s comical mantra, which was heard throughout last season: “We just need to give Danny a chance….Give Danny a chance.”
Wuerffel possesses the intangibles that will guarantee him a starting spot in our all-time joke book. Like the unforgettable place-kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh (aka Ali Haji-Shank), Wuerffel bears a godsend of a name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. From now on, we know what to say when a Redskins quarterback lobs a pass meekly into the opposing defense: “He just threw a Wuerffel.” We know what to say after a botched offensive play: “I know that one: On three: Wiffle, Waffle, Sputter, Wuerffel….”
Someday, spotting a Wuerffel jersey will be like seeing a Michael Westbrook shirt from the salad days of Norv Turner: an open invitation to approach your fellow fan and say, “I hear this is going to be Westbrook’s breakout season.”
I’m already looking forward to the day when I can take the Wuerffel duds out of the closet on game day, go down to the sports bar, and bond with fellow Redskins fans who remember the Wuerffel days.
At around midnight on Saturday, I’m sitting at the bar in the Capitol Lounge, watching the TV screen from across the room. The news is showing highlights from that Thursday-night preseason game against the Jaguars. Wuerffel looks sharp. Like I keep saying: “Give Danny a chance.”
Then the screen flashes a list of Redskins who have been cut.
From behind me, my friend Josh yells, “They cut him! They cut him!”
Sure enough, the Danny has cut the other Danny. I’m no longer wearing the jersey of a backup quarterback. I’m wearing a piece of Redskins history.
Half an hour later, I’m sitting at the bar in the Hawk ‘n’ Dove when I feel eyes boring into my back. I turn around and catch a guy in a Redskins hat ogling my jersey. I call him over and prepare for another round of ribbing.
But Matt Blenner, a law student at George Washington University, says he’s been eyeing the jersey with envy. He collects quarterback jerseys. He has a few good ones, like a vintage Redskins Brad Johnson jersey. But Blenner prefers the losers: Andre Ware, Jim Druckenmiller, Gus Frerotte.
Blenner recalls what is perhaps Wuerffel’s most famous play as a member of the NFL. Wuerffel was quarterbacking for the Saints in a game against the Carolina Panthers. Late in the game, he dropped back to pass, and an opposing defender swiped his face mask, knocking his helmet completely backward while it was still on his head.
“He couldn’t see anything,” recalls Blenner. “He had no idea where he was or what he was doing. That’s a quarterback I want on my team.”
And a jersey Blenner wants on his back.
But experts on retro sportswear don’t share Blenner’s enthusiasm. “Nobody’s ever come in here looking for a Wuerffel jersey,” says Patrick, a manager at Total Sport on Georgia Avenue. “I’m pretty sure they never will.”
Coin collectors may appreciate obscure specimens. Jersey aficionados don’t. “It’s too expensive,” says Patrick. “For this kind of money, people want to wear the best. No scrub like Wuerffel is going to sell a $350 jersey.”
Patrick says that plenty of other former Redskins’ jerseys are available in the store, including Sam Huff’s, Sonny Jurgensen’s, and Doug Williams’. All the greats. But I’m not looking to relive the team’s glorious past. I’m trying to celebrate the current moment. That means sticking with Wuerffel. The more I wear my new shirt, the more I’m reminded of Johnny Cash’s explanation for his signature color:
I’d love to wear a rainbow every day
And tell the world that everything’s OK
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on
‘Til things are brighter, I’m the man in black.
When the Redskins make the playoffs again, I’ll celebrate with a new jersey. Maybe a LaVar Arrington. Maybe a Champ Bailey. Maybe, if it takes long enough, it will be a Marcus Vick or some-as-yet-unheralded high-school phenom. ‘Til then, I’m the fan with Wuerffel on my back. CP