Life Kicked Back at This Star Kicker
If someone asked you who was the leading scorer in San Diego Chargers history, don’t answer right away. Don’t be sure you know.
To be sure, this is the team that had Lance Alworth, Paul Lowe, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, to say nothing of Jack Kemp and Dan Fouts and Keith Lincoln. The correct answer is none of the above.
I’ll give you a clue: He’s the only top scorer who ever had to be carried on to the field. He never ran with, passed or caught a football in his career. But even in the Chargers’ Air Coryell years he was the most devastating scoring machine they had. He won probably the greatest game in Charger history, the overtime playoff against Miami in 1982, 41-38. He led the team in scoring eight of the 10 years he played.
Field-goal kickers are a breed all to themselves. They come from islands in the Mediterranean, the Swiss Alps, they speak English with a comic opera accent, sometimes they don’t know a touchdown from a first down, there isn’t an All-American in the group--but they win more games than any Heisman Trophy winners ever do. All they require is a backup quarterback to hold the seams straight and a line that can give them three seconds to aim their feet.
Even for them, Rolf Benirschke was quite a specimen. He spoke perfect English, he had movie star good looks but, like them, he never really intended to become an NFL star. He went to UC Davis without a scholarship and kicked a soccer ball on Saturday afternoons and a football at night.
He poured through 766 points for the Chargers in his career. But anybody can do this when their temperature is normal, weight standard, pulse steady and leg strong. Benirschke used to do it on days he had to get out of a hospital bed, unplug the I.V., suit up, kick--and then go back to the hospital for the rest of the week.
Since UC Davis is not to be confused with Notre Dame--or Oklahoma State--Benirschke was agreeably surprised to be drafted by the Raiders (who then left him unprotected, to be picked up on waivers by the Chargers). But the pros knew something he didn’t--that he had one of the most accurate releases in the game. He was to become the third most-accurate in league history.
It’s a pressure position. You don’t need shoulder pads, mittens or probably even helmets to kick. But you need the nerves of a lion-tamer or a guy betting into a pat hand with short money in a waterfront saloon.
As if the odds weren’t high enough, Rolf began to take the field early in 1979 in about the condition of a guy who just left a POW camp. He thought he had a simple case of food poisoning, at first, but he was almost doubled over all the time with vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. He had just opened the season beating Seattle with four field goals and three extra points but he was getting so weak that, a week later, he couldn’t even get out of the way of a Lester Hayes rush. Lester broke three of his ribs. He tried to play taped-up against New England two weeks later but, on the flight home, he collapsed and had to be taken on a stretcher to the hospital, on landing.
The diagnosis was doomsday. Crohn’s disease. An incurable disorder of the intestines in which the good news is, you will die. The surgery was so complex that, six days after it, Benirschke’s sutures had broken, become infected and he was shot through with peritonitis and runaway bacteria. “I should have died,” he recalls.
He looked as if he had. His weight went from 175 to 122. He was kept alive by other people’s blood, he didn’t have any of his own.
When he came down to the locker room, using a cane, he was supposed to go to the center of the field as honorary captain for the coin toss. He couldn’t make it. The Chargers’ mastodonic lineman, Louie Kelcher, had to carry him.
Benirschke figured life was just a goal-line stand from then on, but unaccountably, he got a turnover. The doctors discovered his condition was not the dread Crohn’s disease but ulcerative colitis. It’s not a whole lot more comfortable, just a whole lot more treatable. In other words you could, so to speak, live with it. Crohn’s, you can’t live with it.
Rolf Benirschke became the only guy ever to play in the NFL with a colostomy bag. He led the team in scoring every year except one (Chuck Muncie scored 19 touchdowns in 1981). He had nine field goals of more than 50 yards. He kicked 41 of 41 points-after-touchdown in 1984. He won, like, 15 games with less than a minute to play.
The bag was able to be removed but not before he was able to set new records of triumph over adversity. The 10-yard-line of the Chicago Bears is no place for a well man, never mind one with a sack for a colon. The Chargers’ bag man was bad news to the rest of the AFC.
He left football in ’86 but he’s still splitting the uprights. He’s in another form of show biz. His collar-ad good looks and poise caught the eye of Merv Griffin, who was casting about for a successor to Pat Sajak on the Wheel Of Fortune when he chanced to see Benirschke on a morning talk show. “When the producer comes on and tells you you have a minute to fill on the end of the show, it’s a little like the coach sending you in the game to kick a 50-yarder with a minute to play and telling you, ‘Now, take your time--but don’t miss!’ ” he smiles.
Of course, if Vanna White ever hangs up a category for bravest football player of his time, everyone knows what the spaces will be:
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And the contestant will get the consonants and win the car every time.