Rolf Benirschke is, in the popular idiom, goal-oriented. He kicks them from the field for the San Diego Chargers, and he regularly sets them for himself in his personal life. "My goal right now is to be a good kicker," says Benirschke, who is already better than that. "It is very important to me. Eleven months ago, it wasn't. Then, my goal was to be able to get out of bed and see a sunset." Last October Benirschke's chances of realizing any of his goals weren't promising; he lay near death in the intensive care unit of University Hospital in San Diego, victim of a rare and as yet incompletely diagnosed intestinal disorder. That he is alive and kicking today is no mean achievement. That he is kicking better than ever—he has made good on six of seven field-goal attempts through last Sunday—surpasses the hopes of even his most optimistic supporters.
"I never questioned that he'd kick again," says Wayne Sevier, the Chargers' special teams coach. "But I thought it would take one more season before he'd be ready. He's all the way back now—plus a little more."
Benirschke, who graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in zoology, was the second-to-the-last—334th—player drafted in 1977, but he had established himself as one of the NFL's premier kickers before his illness. In little more than two seasons, he had booted 39 field goals in 49 attempts for a percentage of .796. He had set a Charger record by going 4 for 4 against Seattle in the opening game of the 1979 season, and by the time he was hospitalized after the fourth game he had a string of 13 without a miss, a streak he ran to 16 this year before missing one of two attempts against Oakland on Sept. 14. And because he is an intelligent, conscientious, good-looking, pleasant young man and a local boy to boot—from nearby La Jolla—he had become a particular favorite of Charger fans.
It became apparent during the '78 season, though, that something was wrong with Benirschke. His weight began dropping, and at 6' and 172 pounds he had never been overly robust for pro football. He was afflicted with stomach cramps so agonizing that eating became punishment. His normally sunny disposition suffered. "Life was just a question of existing," he says.
But he made it through the season, hitting on 18 of 22 field-goal attempts, using technique to compensate for the decline in strength. His illness was tentatively diagnosed as Crohn's Disease, an ailment that infects and inflames the colon. "The bottom line is they don't know the cause of it," says Benirschke, whose father is a professor of pathology at the University of California at San Diego. In some cases, afflictions of the colon will flare up only occasionally; in others, surgery is required to remove the infected parts.
Forgoing surgery, Benirschke began the 1979 season determined to play in pain, as non-kickers often boastfully do. He set his record in the opener, but in the second game an Oakland cornerback crashed into him while attempting to block an extra-point try, and the already frail Benirschke suffered bruised ribs. Still, he continued to kick. Then, on the flight to San Diego after a 27-21 loss to New England in the fourth game, he nearly collapsed. He was hospitalized in San Diego with a 105° temperature, and was operated on a week later for the removal of part of his colon. A second operation was necessary four days later when he contracted peritonitis.
Benirschke was in intensive care for more than two weeks, a time of immeasurable physical and mental anguish. "There was a three-or four-day period there when I could've died as easily as lived," he says. "It was a bad month for my family. My sister, Ingrid, was a floor below me with a kidney stone, and my grandfather in Germany was dying. But I have a strong family and they buoyed me. It wasn't a matter of whether I would play football again but of whether I'd live. Once, after the second operation, my dad came in to see me. I felt so sick I was ready to hang it up. I told my dad I didn't want to be kept alive on machines. Now my dad is a doctor and a very positive person, but all he said was, 'O.K., I won't let them.' It struck me at that moment just how sick I really was. From then on, I began to fight it."
Benirschke didn't look like much of a fighter. His weight had dropped to 125 pounds and he was too weak to get out of bed. But he had enough left to set goals for himself, goals he now describes as "ludicrous." The first was simply to get up. He accomplished that. The next was to walk all the way to the door of his room and back. In time, he did that too. Five weeks after the surgery to halt the peritonitis, he was released from the hospital to the care of his parents, and at home he set more ambitious goals—get out of the house, walk to the house next door, then to the one after that, and on and on. "I kept adding houses," he says. "It was like working out again. But it seemed such a slow process, and it was tough on me mentally. I was used to being fit, and here I was reduced to this state."
Benirschke's outlook was improved by two isolated events. On Nov. 18 the Chargers named him co-captain for their important game with Pittsburgh. He learned of the honor while visiting his teammates in the locker room before the game and he wept. Then it occurred to him that he might not have the stamina to walk to the center of the field for the ceremonial coin toss. Benirschke's fellow co-captain, the injured Defensive Tackle Louie Kelcher, said he would carry him all the way if necessary. Instead, Kelcher led the emaciated kicker by the hand out of the tunnel and onto the field. The crowd rose to give Benirschke a standing ovation. Stunned, he says he "just stood out there crying." He knew then that he wanted to be part of the Chargers again. A few months later his resolve was further strengthened by watching on television "the courageous performances given by some of the injured athletes in the Winter Olympics." Benirschke set some more goals for himself.
He began working out under the guidance of Charger Conditioning Coach Phil Tyne. At first he was barely able to curl a three-pound weight, but gradually the atrophied muscles grew stronger and Benirschke stepped up the pace, working with weights and the Nautilus equipment and running increasingly longer distances. In college Benirschke had played both football and soccer, so he also began working out with the San Diego Sockers of the NASL. He kicked the lighter soccer ball for two months before he even attempted booting a football. But when the Chargers' camp opened in July, Benirschke was in shape. Sevier brought him along slowly. "At first we just had him meeting the ball," Sevier says. "He wasn't kicking any farther than 40 yards. But he kept getting stronger and stronger. The next thing we knew he was kicking 48 yards into a stiff wind. In one session, he started kicking from PAT range and gradually moved out to 55 yards. He missed only one of 35 kicks."
Benirschke was still no cinch to make the team. Mike Wood had been installed as his replacement. In nine games, Wood had been successful on 11 of 14 field-goal attempts and had tied Benirschke's team record with a 4-for-4 effort against Cincinnati. In camp the two became fast friends and ardent rooters for each other, though competitors for the same job. When the season began, Wood was the kickoff man and Benirschke the kicker. Against Seattle in the opener, Benirschke booted a 29-and a 41-yarder. He had come back, not simply from injury but from the brink of oblivion.
In Sevier's opinion, Benirschke is even stronger than before. His weight has increased to 180 pounds, and it seems to have added distance to his kicks. "He had a 55-yarder in the preseason," says Sevier, "and a 57-yarder in practice." He set a personal and club record with a 53-yarder against Denver in the third game of the season. With Wood now on the injured reserve list with a groin-muscle pull, the Chargers are using Benirschke once again on kickoffs, although there are lingering doubts whether he will be able to "take a hit."
Benirschke says he has never felt better. He is his old friendly and active self, involved in myriad projects around San Diego. As a student of zoology and a lifelong lover of animals, he has taken an active role in raising money for the San Diego Zoo's research department, which, coincidentally, is headed by his father. He is also raising funds for the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis and has moonlighted as the color man on broadcasts of Sockers games. He is a bird watcher and a naturalist, pastimes he enjoys even more now that sights and sounds he once accepted without notice have gained a special meaning. "It sounds like a clichè, I know. But when you've been very ill, the good things look different," he says. "I love the beautiful sunshine we have here in San Diego. I love laughing and being around people. And yes, I love kicking footballs again."