Wimprine's storybook season just keeps getting better
Danny Wimprine has been winning football games for years in New Orleans, so his sudden success with the VooDoo isn't surprising anyone, writes Troy Clardy.
For Danny Wimprine, February 29, 2008 started just like any other day for a backup quarterback. Wimprine and the New Orleans VooDoo were in Los Angeles to face the Avengers in the season opener. "I wasn't really sure what was going to happen, but I wanted to prepare myself like I was going to be in the game," Wimprine said. "I was ready to step in and do my job, but I had no idea it was going to happen in the first game."
It took about 34 minutes for Wimprine to get the call after New Orleans starting QB Steve Bellisari was knocked out of the game with a sprained knee.
"It was something that just happened all of a sudden,"said Wimprine, a rookie who was playing his first AFL game. "I didn't have any time to react. I just had to run and jump in there. I completed my first pass on an in route to Wendell Williams, but I was probably a little too pumped up throughout the whole game. I was probably trying to throw the ball too hard. I threw my first AFL touchdown, and that was a good experience. But in all, I think we played a pretty bad game."
New Orleans lost that night, 59-42, a result that didn't surprise many AFL observers. Since then, however, the VooDoo have won seven of 10 games, a result that has surprised almost everyone. Led by a ballhawk secondary and a physical receiving corps, the VooDoo have been at or near the top of the Southern Division for much of the season.
But Wimprine has been the biggest reason for the VooDoo's resurgence. "I didn't expect a whole lot out of VooDoo, given the way things went last year and the question mark at QB," said ESPN AFL analyst Ray Bentley. "But Danny Wimprine is really a difference maker. He makes that team able to score with anybody."
His play has been the biggest surprise this AFL season.
That is, unless you live in New Orleans. That city has known about Wimprine since his days at John Curtis High School in neighboring River Ridge. "It was almost obvious right from the beginning that quarterback was the position Danny was meant to play," says J.T. Curtis, Wimprine's high school coach. "His first start was against (Shreveport) Evangel High School. They were ranked No. 1 in the country and Brock Berlin was their quarterback. We lost that ballgame, but Danny played with great intensity. After that, you knew that once it was time to compete, Danny was going to give you the best that he had."
The best Wimprine had was good enough to deliver two state championships. From there, Wimprine went to Memphis, a program not exactly used to success.
"I think his biggest challenge was to get that team to believe in itself, and that Memphis could win and win big," Curtis said. "We talked about continuing to play hard and leading a team that had not been really successful prior to his arrival in the program. I think he brought that to them."
Wimprine, a three-year starter for the Tigers, left Memphis with a slew of passing records. But he got cut in rookie camp by the Cleveland Browns and played a year in the CFL before being released.
"So I came home and started working," Wimprine said.
He sold earth movers and was doing just fine without football. That's when VooDoo head coach Mike Neu started calling. "He called me a few times and wanted me to throw for him. I told him no, because I guess I was a little bitter about the situation. But he kept calling me and kept calling me, and finally one day I said, ‘Fine." I went and threw, and that football fever started running through my veins again. I was excited about it again, and I couldn't wait to sign up. I threw for him two more times, and then we signed the contract."
Once he learned that Wimprine was joining the VooDoo, Curtis knew his former player was back on track. "I think that game was meant for him. It lends itself more to what he's capable of doing. The way he could throw the ball with touch as well as with zip, the arena game lent itself to him being very successful.
"He was a little discouraged when we talked initially. He had a nice job, and he didn't know whether to leave it or not. I told him in life you only get one opportunity to see if it can work for you, and I think you owe it to yourself to give it that chance. Knowing Coach Neu and knowing Danny's personality, I thought they would mesh together. They're both very intense guys that are really committed to hard work and determination. I thought they would blend very nicely, and they have."
The idea of Wimprine playing for his hometown team also blends nicely
"It's the coolest," said Wimprine laughing. "I grew up wanting to play for the Saints because I was from here. I can remember when I was young going to a New Orleans Night game. It was pretty cool, but you don't grow up watching arena football. But to get the opportunity to play professional football and to be the starting quarterback, it's a dream come true."
Not bad for a 26-yard pro football quarterback who still lives with his parents. The Wimprine home is just five minutes away from the VooDoo's practice facility. "I'm trying to move out as quick as I can,' Wimprine laughs again. "Just trying to get the season finished up and then I'll be rolling out of there."
Still, playing in his hometown has its advantages. "I have a girlfriend of 11 years, and I have the same six best friends I had when we went to high school. I like to hang out with my family and friends because they're important to me. I'm pretty laid back, although my girlfriend probably wouldn't say so. She'd probably say I'm too intense. She always makes fun of me for that. But I take what I do seriously, and this means the world to me to be here."
New Orleans and Wimprine go together like, well, New Orleans and gumbo. With the VooDoo's success so far, it could make for an interesting afternoon if the VooDoo advance to ArenaBowl XXII, to be played on July 27 in New Orleans.
"The fact that this game is in New Orleans gets you pumped inside," said Wimprine, who admits to thinking about the possibility. "To maybe have the chance to play for the home crowd in the ArenaBowl, and to be the starting quarterback in the championship game in your hometown, I couldn't write a better script."
As improbable as the script for Wimprine and this year's VooDoo has already been, that isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.
Troy Clardy hosts "Inside the AFL", ESPN's arena football podcast, posted Thursdays on ESPN's PodCenter. You can drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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