Bet on Rolf Benirschke to penetrate the mystery of his life one of these days. But, until he does so, it surely can get confusing, what with all these women wanting to mother him and doctors trying to figure what ails him and a team that can’t decide if it wants to bronze him or waive him.
He has a cuddly vulnerability, certified by Cosmo, that lures females. Sometimes, their interest is reciprocated, but he’s still waiting for Ms. Right to sit down next to him on an airplane, or meet his gaze across a crowded room.
He has a body that fails him regularly, requiring five operations in seven years, and confounds doctors in the attempt to ascertain the latest malady.
In 1978 he nearly died from an intestinal disorder thought to be Crohn’s disease, which turned out to be ulcerative colitis.
In 1985 he feared his football career might end because of a pulled groin, which got better only when some nonconformist doctors recognized and treated it as something entirely different--a silent, postural injury.
Aside from the places in the heart, the tummy and the leg, there’s one other area of the anatomy that gets attention--his psyche.
Benirschke, for his kicking exploits and his well-chronicled battle against disease, is recognized by sports fans from Maine to Baja. But in his own mind, he doesn’t quite measure up to the achievements of an illustrious father, who is a physician, professor and conservationist. The struggle to find and fully accept himself is one of the themes of an upcoming autobiography.
For the most part, though, Benirschke is in an upbeat mood these days as he pursues his umpteenth comeback.
After missing the entire 1985 season with an injury which, doctors belatedly discovered, was linked to past surgery, he is encouraged by recent strides in his recovery.
His abdominal muscles had been weakened by all those operations, creating an imbalance that affected him from head to toe. But three months of therapy to strengthen his stomach wall and restore balance to his neck and jaw have straightened him out--literally--meaning he can fight for his old job with veteran Bob Thomas and at least one rookie or free agent.
“I’m at peace now,” Benirschke said recently. “It’s all going to work out, one way or another. But in the last six months, it got pretty depressing. I couldn’t see the end. I was really forced to accept what I talk about all the time, how there are no givens in life.”
It was pleasantly dark in the cozy grill where Benirschke was being coaxed into sharing his thoughts. It wasn’t too dark to notice the female eyes that winked or lingered on him.
Benirschke looked more starved than tortured as he attacked a cheeseburger and a side of fries. Wearing a sweat shirt and shorts, he was still shivering after completing a 30-minute workout in a cold mist that had settled on Mission Valley.
“I have answered the biggest question--can I still kick?--but I’m a pragmatist and I know the battle isn’t won yet,” Benirschke said.
“I think I can kick in the National Football League for many more years, but I realize I have to fight to get my job back. “
Benirschke has preached on the theme, “It’s the journey, not the destination, that really matters,” but even he wonders about it at times.
“I can sit here right now with a grin on my face,” he said, “but just a couple of months ago, I wasn’t so optimistic. I was asking myself, ‘When will all this be over?’ I knew the Chargers were concerned about whether I’d ever be healthy, and I knew the draft was coming up in April.”
The Chargers shouldn’t worry another minute, according to Dr. Jeff Bronson, who deciphered the kicker’s ailment.
“He’s going to be better than ever,” Bronson said. “I think he’s totally bulletproof.”
Bronson, in collaboration with two other orthopedic specialists, John Beck and Tom Harris, arrived at a diagnosis for Benirschke after carefully breaking down videotape of his kicking motion. They also utilized a computer program that can dissect 88 postural injuries and 2,000 muscle movements.
Benirschke was skeptical of the Bronson approach, which is sort of California New Wave. It isn’t often that a groin injury is treated with a bite plate and shoe inserts.
Bronson’s ideas may be unorthodox, but this wasn’t a textbook injury he was treating, either.
“Postural injuries are not recognized by most orthopedists,” he said. “People are not created to kick a football--the basic reason we’re here is to live long enough to have babies.
“A postural injury, which occurs when the body is trying to position itself to be efficient, is measured by certain deficits. With Rolf, we did a gait analysis, like that used in victims of cerebral palsy. What we found was an injury to the internal oblique muscles (in the abdomen), a silent injury which Rolf wasn’t even aware he had.”
Benirschke’s balance had been thrown out of kilter by weakened stomach muscles, and his posture was damaged because his neck and jaw were slightly out of alignment, according to Bronson.
Exercises were prescribed to stretch and strengthen first the abdominal muscles, then the groin. A bite plate to balance the neck and jaw was added, along with orthotics for his athletic shoes.
Therapists Mark Jacobson and Kathe Grace spent hundreds of hours with Benirschke, aiding in his rehabilitation.
“The injury is well now,” Benirschke said. “We have videotape that shows my leg can move through an arc of 115 degrees, my normal kicking motion, and we’re working on patterns to strengthen that motion. The muscle memory is intact, I just need to fine tune it.”
The Chargers are in his corner, sort of.
“He seems to be making excellent progress,” said Ron Nay, director of scouting and a consultant to owner Alex Spanos. “Everybody in the organization is pulling for him.
“But even if we decide he is completely well, we might draft another kicker in the middle rounds. Every position needs competition. If a rookie beat out Rolf, we wouldn’t be upset. I’m tickled Rolf is doing so well, but if UCLA’s John Lee was sitting there in the sixth round, we’d have to take him.”
Hank Bauer, the Chargers’ new special teams coach, recently spent a couple of weeks on the road, evaluating a dozen collegiate and free-agent kickers. He said he found two can’t-miss prospects and a couple of others who might beat out Benirschke or Thomas.
“I like what I’ve seen of Rolf, and if he is truly well and can prove that he can sustain without injury or illness, you’d be hard pressed to find a better kicker,” Bauer said.
“We don’t have to make a final determination on Rolf until September, and I can tell you we are going to start with five or six guys in mini-camp and go into summer camp with three legitimate prospects.”
So, Benirschke gets a vote of confidence, but he’s also going to get a trial by fire this summer.
“Fine,” he said. “I accept that there’s going to be competition. I’m a competitive person. I have no doubts about my kicking--and no pain. I’m in control physically.
“With all the comebacks I’ve had, I know what it takes me to get ready. I don’t have to kick as well in April as I do in August. I’m not going to burn myself out in the off-season. I’m going to be fresh and psyched for camp.”
So is Thomas, the 10-year veteran who filled in for Benirschke after being waived by the Chicago Bears last summer.
It was a trying season for Thomas, who watched his old teammates win the Super Bowl and heard howls of criticism from San Diego fans and media. Two blocked field goals in an overtime game at Denver symbolized the disenchantment with Thomas.
“We are in the process of evaluating his future with us,” Bauer said. “He has a shot at being our kicker, but he is not the leading candidate. I want to stress to everyone that the job is open.”
Thomas, whose contract lapsed after last season, has been offered a new one, but the terms proposed by the Chargers are not completely to his liking. He expects negotiations this spring will provide a tip-off on how badly the Chargers want him back.
“Kicking looks easy, but people only remember the big misses, not the ones you made,” said Thomas, who is an attorney in Chicago in the off-season.
“If I’m there, I’ll do a good job for the Chargers, but it doesn’t do any good to worry if they are going to draft a kicker, or if Rolf is going to be well, or if they might trade me. Last year taught me a lot; I mean, I was coming off my best season, when I made 80% of my kicks, yet the Bears drafted a kicker (Kevin Butler) and waived me.”
In his own defense, Thomas pointed out that the Chargers had a new snapper, Jim Leonard, and a new holder, Ralf Mojsiejenko, as well as a new field-goal kicker last year. And they didn’t have the luxury of a training camp to coordinate their timing.
“We overcame a lot and I thought we wound up having a pretty good year,” Thomas said. “All the things that were new last year-- new personnel, kicking off dirt, the shock of leaving Chicago--are no longer new to me. Heck, I made six of my last seven field goals, and two of them were over 45 yards.
“I think the Chargers still see some value in me, but if not, there are lots of teams that could use my services. Most teams think they can get by with a younger, inexperienced and inexpensive kicker, but when that doesn’t work out, they turn to an older guy. . . . I just hope, whatever happens, that Rolf and I will be kicking in the league this year.”
It’s conceivable that both Thomas and Benirschke could battle each other in training camp and wind up losing to a newcomer.
Bauer makes it plain he is not beholden to either of the veterans. “We need to make great improvement in our field goal and extra point efficiency,” Bauer said. “The best guy will get the job, regardless of who he is or what he has done in the past.
“We could have a couple of strategies for the draft. First, if we decide Rolf isn’t well, we’d be in desperate need. Second, even if we think he is healthy, he’s not the incumbent as he was in the past. I saw a couple of college kickers who definitely could make us more productive.”
A year ago, when they drafted Mojsiejenko, the Chargers viewed him as a man who might handle both the punting and the place kicking. They’ve changed their minds.
“We want Mojo to concentrate on punting, because he’s shown he could be a Pro Bowl-type punter,” Bauer said. “There’s never been a guy who was productive over a sustained period doing both jobs. It would be a hindrance to ask Ralf to try.”
The Chargers probably will continue to employ him as a holder for field goals and extra points, and he may also handle kickoffs.
“Ralf is the best holder we have, and we like the fact that he isn’t likely to be injured,” Bauer said. “Many teams use a backup quarterback or wide receiver as a holder, but they are more likely to get hurt than a punter. Besides, our backup quarterback, Mark Herrmann, has never held in his life.”
Both Benirschke and Thomas agree that improvement is near, and not just in the area of special teams.
“The best thing about this team is that, as good as the offense is, they never accused the defense of giving up too many points or losing a game last year,” Thomas said.
“In comparing this team to the Bears, it’s obvious San Diego has the No. 1 offense and Chicago the No. 1 defense. Looking back on it, the Bears became a big winner when they came together as a team in 1984. The Chargers have that part of it licked. . . . The defense doesn’t have to be great--just mediocre. And the chemistry is there. It’s hard to pinpoint, but as a veteran, you can sense it.”
Benirschke seems convinced, too.
“Internal happiness is very important, and I think we’re getting there,” he said. “Alex Spanos has done a lot of good things for this team, and I want to be part of it. Winning is heady stuff.”
So is dealing with life’s nastiest shots. Benirschke, having faced death, can go well beyond football in assessing what counts.
“I gave up asking why a person is made to suffer,” he said. “Life deals you certain hands, and you have to play each one.
“I know my latest injury seems minor compared to the illness when my life was almost taken, but it turned out to be nearly as difficult. I could walk and carry on my everyday life, but I couldn’t kick, and I felt like I was letting people down. It would’ve been easier if I had a big scar or something. It was really hard to watch a game come down to a field goal and not be out there.”
Benirschke is betting he’ll be out there this year.