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B n rschk (Buy a Vowel) to Host ‘Wheel of Fortune’

After 10 years of kicking footballs for the San Diego Chargers, Rolf Benirschke has landed a new job, talking about vowels and consonants with Vanna White as the new host of the mega-popular syndicated television game show “Wheel of Fortune.”

The 33-year-old ex-kicker will replace Pat Sajak, who is giving up his duties of the daytime version of the show to host his own late-night talk show. Sajak will continue to host the nightly version of the show.

Benirschke beat out more than 400 aspiring game show hosts, including tennis star Jimmy Connors, according to show producers. More than 30 finalists taped auditions with White, the best-known letter-turner in the world.

“The producers really liked the open and sincere quality that he exhibited while playing the game,” said Karen Griffith, a producer’s assistant at Merv Griffin Enterprises. “He seemed to be very enthusiastic about the show, and he looked very good with Vanna, and Vanna likes him.”

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Benirschke will tape his first show Wednesday. It is scheduled to air Jan. 9.

One of the National Football League’s all-time leading kickers, Benirschke said on Monday that he never actively pursued the job. Merv Griffin Enterprises contacted him after he appeared as a guest on the “A.M. L.A.” talk show.

“I was asked to come up and meet him, and I was considered as a host for another show he was creating,” Benirschke said. “For me, it was just an interesting experience and a chance to meet interesting people.”

Benirschke has signed an agreement of more than three years with Merv Griffin Enterprises, according to Leigh Steinberg, Benirschke’s agent.

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Except for occasionally co-hosting the local “Sun Up San Diego” talk show, appearances as a guest on several talk shows and working as an announcer on San Diego Sockers broadcasts, Benirschke has no television experience.

“It’s exciting and challenging and a little scary,” Benirschke said. “I’ve never done anything like this. It’s a new challenge, but I never planned to play football, either.”

He has never been a big fan of the show, Benirschke acknowledged.

“I’m not a ‘Wheel-watcher,’ ” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever watched a game all the way through.”

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After taping his audition, the producers taped another segment of Benirschke and White casually talking.

“I had read a lot about her, and I knew she was stunningly beautiful,” he said. “She was very easy to talk to and a very genuine person. She understands the difficulties of a new host coming in.”

Benirschke left football in 1987, as one of the National Football League’s all-time leading kickers. But it was his life-threatening bout with ulcerative colitis, an intestinal ailment, that made Benirschke a nationally known figure. In 1979, the Chargers placed him on injured reserve as his weight dropped from 179 to 123 pounds.

By the 1980 season, though, he was back kicking for the Chargers.

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Benirschke was traded by the Chargers to the Dallas Cowboys at the beginning of the 1987 season, and the Cowboys released him a few days later. Since then, Benirschke has been actively involved in his own travel agency, with a financial planning company and with continuing charity work with the San Diego Zoo.

“The up side of the (‘Wheel of Fortune’) job is that it tapes only four or five days a month, so it leaves me a lot of time to do other things,” Benirschke said.


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