From his position as inside linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, John Offerdahl has often looked across the line of scrimmage and seen panic in a quarterback's eyes. But until a week ago, Offerdahl had never looked into a face and had death peer back at him.
On an off day from training camp. Offerdahl was inside a bagel shop he owns in Boynton Beach, Fla., when, as he recalls, "I heard an accident sound. I looked out, and there was a car in the middle of the intersection just kind of traveling real slow. It continued to move about 30 or 40 yards until it went over the curb and down a ditch into a big pond."
Offerdahl, along with a construction supervisor named Pete Burch and a tree trimmer named Joe Hanley, sprinted across the six-lane road, dodging traffic to get to the pond. When they reached the water's edge, the car and its two elderly occupants were sinking rapidly below the surface. "In a weird way you're kind of responsible," Offerdahl says. "You have the responsibility of life and death in front of you. It brings a little reality cheek into two-a-days."
Offerdahl and the two other men dived in. When they reached the car. they found the back door unlocked and rescued Julius Roth, 86, who was alone in the backseat. Hanley and Burch carried him to shore, while Offerdahl swam underwater and tried to open the locked front door to get to Roth's wife, Ruth, also 86, who had been driving.
August 22, 1993
The car was completely submerged by this time, and Offerdahl estimates that he made 10 to 15 dives in an attempt to help get Mrs. Roth out. "Her front door was locked and her window was halfway down, so I tried to reach in and unlock her door," Offerdahl remembers. "It's amazing how you can't find the right knob when you need to. You think that she's someone's mother or grandmother, so you picture your mom and your grandmom. It makes you realize how precious life is."
Hanley and Burch rejoined the rescue effort along with two other men, Jim Branom and Joe Davis. "It was really emotional...because the lady couldn't help herself," Offerdahl says. "You were there to witness someone dying in front of your face, literally a foot away, and not able to do much."
There is little about Offerdahl's life to suggest that he has ever settled for doing only what was absolutely necessary. After Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Florida a year ago, Offerdahl set himself and the employees of his bagel shops (there were three then, four now) the task of baking more than 6,000 bagels and giving them to people left homeless by the storm.
When Offerdahl went into the water on Aug. 8, he was recuperating from a week-old injury to his left biceps, which had threatened to sideline him for the first half of the upcoming season. Voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons, Offerdahl, 29, has been plagued by injuries ever since, missing 18 games in the past two years. He was at full strength for only the first six games last year, and the Dolphins proved how much they rely on him by going 6-0 when he was starting and 6-6 after he suffered an abdominal injury that required postseason surgery.
Offerdahl's heroics came almost exactly a decade after former Kansas City Chief running back Joe Delaney drowned while trying to save two 11-year-old boys. But Delaney couldn't swim well, and Offerdahl knew himself to be a strong swimmer.
"At least, I thought I was," Offerdahl says. "But it's just not like the movies, where you can go underwater, hold your breath for two minutes, save 10 people, then come up for air and go down and save 10 more. I mean, by the time we got through running across the street and the emotion of it all, then going under and staying as long as you can...it's just a snowball effect. You start panicking yourself. I was so fatigued, but all I could think about was this woman who was going to die before we could get her. When [Hanley] came up with her, there was just a relief, big-time. We got her to the shore, I don't know how, because by that time I was ready to pass out myself."
Julius Roth was treated and released from the hospital the next day, but as of Monday, Ruth Roth remained on a ventilator and in critical condition at Delray Community Hospital. As soon as Offerdahl was sure that the couple was being taken care of, he quickly left the scene because he feared the media would make too much of his involvement. It was only because a newspaperman spotted his name on a police report that Offerdahl's heroics came to light.
"I am no more a hero than the other four guys," he says. "The only difference between me and them is that they don't play football."