For Once, Chargers’ Benirschke Has a Challenge

Times Staff Writer

He was halfway around the world, minding his business and playing tourist, when the Chargers threw down the gauntlet.

Rolf Benirschke--Mr. Good Guy--was going to have to fight for his job.

The highly popular and highly accurate kicker was vacationing in Australia the day the Chargers drafted a challenger named Ralf Mojsiejenko from Michigan State, who is said to have the leg to handle kickoffs, punts and field goals.

Benirschke’s basic reaction: We’ll see.

Actually, he was more circumspect. Benirschke picks his words, like his friends and his causes, with care. He would be one of the last men in the Charger organization--heck, in all of pro football--to pout or pop off.

If the Chargers were trying to make him mad, they failed.

On the other hand, if they wanted to send a message to the rest of the team that no one is going to be coddled, they may have succeeded. Benirschke intends to report to camp next month in the best physical and mental condition of his career, ready to run 40-yard dashes for all he’s worth, even if he has no idea whether he can break 5.0.


“At first I took it personally,” Benirschke said, “but then I realized the nature of the game is competition. That’s how I got my job in the first place. There is going to be competition for every job. That should make us a better team, and I want to be part of it.”

Benirschke, who has the third-highest field goal percentage in pro football history, fell somewhat into disfavor as a result of two developments during the 1984 season.

His kickoffs were deemed to be too short, abetting the opposition’s assault on the San Diego defense. And he was seen as being somehow traitorous because he gave a thumbs-up sign to Denver kicker Rich Karlis before a field goal that beat the Chargers.

Benirschke is wary when discussing both topics. He is less bothered by the kickoff issue than by the insinuation he was disloyal.

It’s conceivable Mojsiejenko could beat him out as the kickoff man and could dislodge Maury Buford as the punter. Benirschke, however, expects to be kicking field goals this year, and for the indefinite future.

Benirschke won’t address the loyalty matter directly. It is known he met with Charger owner Alex Spanos, and apparently cleared up any questions.

His paramount concern now is the battle to keep his job, and he seems assured politics won’t be a factor.

Benirschke, one of San Diego’s more recognizable athletes, hears encouraging words from fans who spot him in public, but he doesn’t want or need the sympathy vote.

“People are somewhat influenced by what they have read in the papers,” he said. “People know me and have followed my career here. I appreciate their understanding, but I don’t need the well-wishers as a source of strength.

“I certainly don’t want to be on the team if I’m not the best kicker. I don’t want to be a sympathy case. I don’t want to be on the team because someone felt sorry for me, and I’m sure no athlete would.”

Benirschke, who has undergone several operations to treat an intestinal disorder, missed several weeks last year after surgery to remove kidney stones. He said he is strong and healthy now.

“I have no doubts about my ability or my condition,” Benirschke said. “I know there are ups and downs in this business, but I have the maturity to face them. I’m a better kicker as a result of all my experience.”

Benirschke thinks it is unrealistic for any team to assign all the kicking duties to one man. Even though National Football League rosters have been reduced from 49 to 45 for 1985, Benirschke believes the Chargers likely will carry two kickers.

“I’m not going to blow my own horn,” he said. “I’ll just do my job and let the coaches make the decisions.”

His agent, Leigh Steinberg, said Benirschke is enough of a realist to recognize he has largely escaped the training camp competition many other veterans face annually.

“He has been lucky in that respect, and he knows it,” Steinberg said. “Rolf’s competition has been with his health and with his own high standards.

“I really believe he is going to respond with his best year.”

Benirschke said pretty much the same thing, although in slightly different terms.

“I haven’t seen any complacency on this team, but that doesn’t mean you don’t respond to a kick in the bottom,” he said. “It’s important to be hungry. You achieve more when you are hungry.”