One player sat slumped on a metal bench under a cold shower, too
exhausted to take off his blood-caked uniform. Four were sprawled
on the floor, IVs dripping into their arms. One of them tried to
answer a reporter's questions, but no words would come out of his
parched, chalky mouth. And that was the winning locker room.
On Jan. 2, 1982, a sticky, soaked-shirt South Florida night, the
Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers played a magnificent,
horrible, gripping, preposterous NFL playoff game. For four
hours and five minutes, 90 men took themselves to the limit of
human endurance. They cramped. They staggered. They wilted. Then
they played on, until it was no longer a game but a test of
will. "People remember all kinds of details from that game,"
says San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow, "but they can't
remember who won, because it wasn't about who won or who lost."
It was about effort and failure and heroics. Each team's
quarterback threw for more than 400 yards. Combined the two
teams lost four fumbles and missed three easy field goals. They
also scored 79 points and gained 1,036 yards. Miami coach Don
Shula called it "a great game, maybe the greatest ever." San
Diego coach Don Coryell said, "There has never been a game like
this." Years later Miami fans voted it the greatest game in
franchise history. And their team lost.
For his first 24 years Rolf Benirschke may not have had the
perfect life, but it was at least in the class photo.
Handsome. Gorgeous smile. Son of an internationally acclaimed
pathologist. Honor student. Stud of the UC Davis soccer team.
Star kicker on the school's football team. Beloved San Diego
Chargers kicker--by 1979, he was on course to set the career NFL
record for field goal accuracy. Wheel of Fortune host. Spokesman
for the San Diego Zoo, best zoo in the country. It was all blue
skies and tables by the window. Looking back, maybe he should
have seen trouble coming.
It all started with bananas.
Squalls had just blown through Miami, and the weather report
called for nasty heat with humidity to match by game time, so
Coryell ordered his players to eat bananas to ward off cramps.
Lots and lots of bananas.
Problem was, it was New Year's Day in Miami Beach, and except
for those being worn by the Carmen Miranda impersonators,
bananas were a little hard to come by. Chargers' business
manager Pat Curran had to go from hotel to hotel rounding them
up at one dollar apiece. Not everybody got enough. "I think I
had a couple beers instead," says San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts.
The Dolphins were three-point favorites, what with their Killer
B's defense and their home field advantage--the dingy, rickety
Orange Bowl, where Fouts remembers fans "blowing their nose on
you as you walked out of the tunnel." Fouts was the brilliant,
belligerent boss of the turbo-charged Chargers offense that
knocked pro football on its ear. But the team had started that
'81 season 6-5, and was routinely dismissed as a bunch of
underachievers. Even Winslow, who led the league in catches for
the second straight year, was hearing catcalls. "They call me
the sissy, the San Diego chicken," he said the week before the
game. "I'm the tight end who won't block. They say I need a
heart transplant...that our whole team has no heart. But I know
what I can do."
All of which set the game up as a barn burner: the unstoppable
San Diego O versus the immovable Miami D, the two highest-ranked
kickers in the AFC--Miami's Uwe von Schamann and San Diego's
On San Diego's opening drive Benirschke hit a 32-yard field
goal, which figured. The guy hadn't missed a road kick on grass
all year. Then San Diego wideout Wes Chandler returned a short
punt for a touchdown to make it 10-0. Benirschke wedged the
ensuing kickoff high into the wind, and when it hit the ground,
it bounced backward into Chargers hands. That set up a one-yard
touchdown run by bespectacled halfback Chuck Muncie. Three plays
later the Dolphins' wunderkind 23-year-old quarterback, David
Woodley, fired a beauty straight into the arms of Chargers free
safety Glen Edwards, who ran the interception back far enough to
set up another easy score--24-zip. And how's your Sunday going?
"I wanted to dig a hole and crawl in it," says Miami tight end
Across the sideline the Chargers' veteran receiver, Charlie
Joiner, had his head in his hands. "What's wrong?" Winslow asked.
"Man, you just don't do this to a Don Shula team," Joiner moaned.
"He's gonna pull Woodley, put in [backup veteran Don] Strock,
start throwing the ball, and we're gonna be here all damn day."
Joiner was wrong. Strock kept them there all night.
The year he nearly died, Benirschke was perfect. He opened the
1979 season with four-for-four field goals in four games, then
spent the rest of the season in area hospitals. He had what the
doctors originally thought was a demon intestinal virus that
they eventually identified as ulcerative colitis. Basically, it
was eating up his intestines, microscopic bite by bite.
Two surgeries, 78 units of blood and 60 lost pounds later,
Benirschke wasn't dead, but he was a reasonable facsimile.
"After the second surgery," he recalls, "I knew that if I had
another, I wouldn't make it."
Three days later the doctors told him he needed a third
Everything changed the instant Don Strock and his mod-squad
haircut and double-hinged arm strode on the field three minutes
into the second quarter. "You could just sense the difference,"
says Chargers linebacker Linden King. "Strock had a real
presence out there." Calling his own plays, with nothing to
lose, Strock drove the Dolphins to a quick field goal, then a
The Chargers' O, meanwhile, was suddenly getting battered. The
Killer B's strategy was to turn Winslow into a complicated
collection of lumps, so on every pass play the defensive end
would take a lick at him, linebacker A.J. Duhe would say a quick
hello with his forearm, and then one of the defensive backs
would take a shot at him. Early in the second quarter Duhe
opened up a cut in Winslow's lip that needed three stitches.
Winslow had been a one-man outpatient clinic coming into the
game: bruised left shoulder, strained rotator cuff in his right,
sore neck from trying to compensate for both. It was so bad that
Sid Brooks, the Chargers' equipment guy, had to help him put on
his shoulder pads before the game. Brooks would get good at
it--Winslow went through three pairs that night.
Ahead 24-10 with just 36 seconds left in the half, Benirschke
attempted a 55-yarder that was plenty long, but right. His first
miss since November. With good field position off the miss,
Strock came back sizzling. In three plays he took Miami to its
40-yard line with six seconds left in the half--too far out for a
field goal. Just for fun, Miami called timeout and tried to dream
something up. "What about the hook-and-ladder?" said Shula.
Interesting idea. Dumb idea, but interesting. The Dolphins hadn't
tried that play all year, possibly because it hadn't worked once
in practice all year.
So they tried it. Strock hit wideout Duriel Harris on a 15-yard
curl on the right wing. Nothing fancy. In fact the pass was
underthrown, so Harris had to dive to catch it. Every Chargers
defensive back on that side rushed to finish Harris off...except
that when they got there, Harris was missing one thing: the
ball. He'd lateraled to running back Tony Nathan while falling
down. Nathan had come straight out of the backfield, cut right
and tucked Harris's lateral under his arm without breaking
stride. It was the alltime sucker play. "I never saw him," says
San Diego corner Willie Buchanon.
Neither did Harris, but buried under the pile of duped Chargers,
he could hear a roar. When he finally sat up, he saw Nathan in
the end zone, lonely as an IRS auditor, holding the ball over his
head. Touchdown. The lead was suddenly just seven.
The Chargers' sideline froze in shock. "It was a beautiful,
beautiful play," remembers Coryell. "Perfectly executed."
Said Fouts, to no one in particular: "Aw, f---! Here we go
again." Then he went into the locker room and set new records
for swearing, punctuated by a heaved helmet that nearly
Not that anybody could hear Fouts ranting. The schoolyard
flea-flicker had so inflamed the Orange Bowl crowd that Shula
could not deliver his halftime speech in the Dolphins' locker
room because of the din. "I've never heard anything like it,"
says Strock. "It was like we were still on the field. It was
that loud. We were in the locker room, what--10, 15
minutes?--and it never stopped!"
It would get only louder.
Benirschke never had that third operation. While looking at a
pre-op X-ray, doctors noticed that the abscess in his abdomen
had disappeared. They couldn't figure it out. Benirschke's
father couldn't figure it out. Benirschke, now a devout
Christian, calls it a miracle.
Still, the stud college hero was down to 123 pounds and the
approximate shape of a rake, and was going to have to learn to
live with two tubes coming out of his abdomen for his ostomy
pouch. Kick again? He was hoping just to walk again.
He asked the Chargers' conditioning coach, Phil Tyne, to help him
get back some strength. Tyne started him on weights--a dumbbell
bar with nothing on it. Benirschke couldn't even lift that.
Still he made his way back. By 1980 he not only was a spokesman
for sufferers of ulcerative colitis (von Schamann eventually
became both a sufferer and a spokesman) and the 120,000
Americans who have ostomy surgery each year, but was also back
He showed his "bags" to his teammates one day in the shower. It
was a little awkward, explaining it all, until special teams
captain Hank Bauer finally said, "Hey, Rolf, do you have shoes to
When the second half started, the Orange Bowl fans were still
roaring, and Strock was still firing, throwing another touchdown
to Rose on the Dolphins' first possession. The game was now tied
at 24 and starting to look like the ultimate no-heart loss for a
no-heart team. Except to Winslow. "No," he said to himself on the
sideline. "No. We are not going to be the team that blew a 24-0
lead in the playoffs."
A whole bunch of Chargers must've felt the same way because this
is when the game really got good. "Never in my life," says Eric
Sievers, the second San Diego tight end, "have I been in a game
like that, when nobody took a single play off."
Back came the Chargers. Winslow took a 25-yard touchdown pass
from Fouts to give them the lead again, 31-24. Returning to the
bench, Winslow started to cramp--first in his thighs, then in his
calves. "And I ate my bananas," Winslow says.
Back came the Dolphins. Strock hit reserve tight end Bruce Hardy
for a 50-yard touchdown. Now the noise in the Orange Bowl sounded
like a DC-11. "It made my ears pop," recalls Ric McDonald, the
Chargers' overworked trainer that day. "It would be at this
incredibly loud level and then it would go up about 10 decibels.
Guys were coming up to me and screaming, 'My ears are popping!'
You could stand two feet from a guy and not hear him."
Maybe that's why a Fouts pass was picked off by Lyle Blackwood,
who lateraled to Gerald Small, who ran it to the San Diego 15 to
set up another easy touchdown run by Nathan and a 38-31 Miami
lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
That score seemed to kill the Chargers. They tried to put
together a drive on their next possession but had to punt after
seven plays, and Strock, starting on his own 20-yard line, led a
brutal, clock-munching drive that put the Dolphins on the San
Diego 21 with five minutes to play. A three-pointer by von
Schamann, the AFC leader in field goal percentage, would ice it.
"We thought they were dead," Rose told NFL Films. "It was like,
C'mon, throw in the towel! It's hot, we're tired. Let us win the
On first down, Nathan ran right for a short gain. On second down
and seven, Andra Franklin took a safe handoff and plunged up the
middle, where he got tortillaed by Gary (Big Hands) Johnson, and
the ball was ripped out of his grip by San Diego's 280-pound
lineman Louie Kelcher. Safety Pete Shaw fell on it. San Diego
San Diego, the city, however, had no idea. Right around then a
storm there caused a huge power outage. It was as if half a
million people were simultaneously stabbed in the knee. All over
town, in the wind and rain, fans huddled in their cars listening
to the game on the radio. One caller to a TV station threatened
to shoot the president of San Diego Gas and Electric if the game
didn't come back on. This was the playoffs.
Back came the Chargers. Fouts connected with Joiner for 14 yards,
Chandler for 6, Joiner for 5 and then 15 more, Winslow for 7 and
Chandler for 19. "It seemed so easy," says Fouts. "There was just
no pass rush from Miami. They were gassed."
Winslow was really cramping now--his thigh, his calves and now
his lower back. If you ever get your choice of cramps, do not
pick the lower back. A cramp there means you can't stand and you
can't bend over either. "Kind of like paralysis," Winslow
remembers. Each time Winslow was helped to the bench by
teammates, the San Diego trainers surrounded him like a NASCAR
pit crew: one working on his calves, another stretching his
shoulder, a third massaging his back, a fourth trying to pour
fluids into his mouth through his face mask. Somehow, Winslow
got up each time and got back into the game.
First-and-goal from the nine. Fouts dropped back, scrambled and
lobbed one toward the corner of the end zone to Winslow, who
jumped for it but couldn't get high enough. Fouts had cursed his
overthrow the instant he released it, but then something strange
happened. James Brooks, the Chargers' sensational rookie running
back, had the ball and the grin and the tying touchdown. On his
own initiative Brooks had run the back line of the end
zone--behind Winslow--just in case.
"That was one of the alltime brilliant heads-up plays I've ever
seen," Fouts says. "In all the hundreds of times we'd run that
play, I'd never thrown to anybody back there."
When Benirschke added the pressurized extra point, the game was
tied at 38. Fifty-eight seconds left. For the first time in more
than two hours, the Orange Bowl crowd was silent.
Just when Benirschke figured he had his problems licked, his
insides attacked him again. During the 1981 season, the small
section of colon the doctors hadn't removed in the previous two
surgeries began sloughing blood. More tests. More hospitals.
More surgery. More impressions of a rake. And yet he built
himself back up--again. He didn't miss a single game that year.
"You discover within yourself a greater courage," he says, "a
greater perseverance than you ever knew you had."
It would turn out to be a handy trait.
Fouts is still ticked off that Coryell had Benirschke squib the
ensuing kickoff. The Dolphins took over at their 40, 52 seconds
on the clock. Strock's first pass was nearly intercepted by
Edwards. His second pass was intercepted, by Buchanon, who
fumbled it right back. First-and-10, 34 seconds left, Strock hit
Nathan for 17, then running back Tommy Vigorito picked up six
yards, to the San Diego 26. Miami let the clock run down; Shula
called timeout with four seconds to go, and von Schamann ran out
to kick a 43-yard field goal that would bring this game to an
unforgettable end. It was as good as over--von Schamann had
already won three games this season with last-second kicks.
Winslow, who was slumped on the bench trying to hold down some
liquids, ran back onto the field to try to block the kick. He
was on the "desperation" team. Never in his career had he
blocked one, and now he could hardly stand, much less leap, but
he went in anyway. Why not? It was the last play of the season.
"Get me some penetration, guys," Winslow yelled to Kelcher and
Johnson, "so I can have a chance at the block."
They did. The snap was a little high, but Strock's hold was
good. Winslow summoned everything that was left in him, heaved
his 6'6" body as high as it would go and blocked von Schamann's
kick with the pinkie finger on his right hand. "To get as high
as he did after all he'd been through?" Fouts says. "Amazing."
When Winslow hit the ground, he got history's first all-body
cramp. He lay on the field, spasming from his calves to his
neck. He was carried off again. He would return again.
Benirschke is a humble man who has spent half his life raising
cash for critters and blood for people, but he seems to have
"trouble" on his speed dial. He nearly lost his wife, Mary, in
childbirth after she'd spent the last five months of her
pregnancy in bed. He nearly lost his newborn daughter, Kari,
that same day--the nurses woke him up in the hospital at 4 a.m.
so he could say goodbye to her. Somehow she survived. She has
cerebral palsy, but she's alive and she's happy.
He and Mary adopted a second daughter, Christina, in 1995 and
were beside themselves with joy. Eight days later, the
biological mother rang their doorbell and took Christina away.
He flew to Russia to bring home an orphan, only to be told he
also had to take the boy's brother, who had a cleft lip, refused
to eat, was malnourished and infected with scabies. Benirschke
was given no health reports. He couldn't reach his wife. He ran
out of time. He brought home two orphans.
"We never ask, 'Why us?'" Benirschke says. "We just try to build
our patience and resolve as deep as they'll go."
He'd need more.
The idea of overtime on this thick, broiled night was about as
appetizing to the players as a bowl of hot soup. Still, the
marathon ran on. "You hear coaches say, 'Leave everything on the
field,'" says Miami lineman Ed Newman, now a judge. "Well, that
actually happened that day. Both teams. We really did give it
all we had. Everything."
Even Benirschke was exhausted. Not physically, mentally. All
game he'd been stretching, running, kicking--always averting his
eyes from his teammates. He was the one apart, the one man on
the team with the clean jersey, getting himself ready for the
moment he knew was coming: when all the gazelles and gorillas
would leave the field and ask him to finish what they could not.
San Diego won the flip, took the kickoff and cut through Miami.
In five minutes they were at the Miami eight-yard line, second
down. Coryell called for Benirschke to kick a 27-yarder. On the
sideline, San Diego's Shaw started pulling the tape off his
wrists. Rolf just doesn't miss from there, he thought. No lie.
Benirschke hadn't missed from inside the 30 all year, and two of
those kicks had given the team last-second wins. Come to think
of it, Benirschke had kicked a 28-yarder to beat Miami in the
Orange Bowl in overtime last season.
But a field goal unit is not one man, it's 11, and some of the
sapped men on San Diego's field goal team were getting water and
didn't hear the coach's call. They were late getting onto the
field and didn't even make the huddle. "Eddie," Benirschke
called to his holder, Ed Luther, "We're not set!"
"We're O.K.," Luther said. "Just kick it."
Benirschke prepared for the snap, but his rhythm was off. The
ball was snapped, Luther put it down, and Benirschke hooked his
kick just left of the goalpost.
Benirschke was nearly sick with regret. "I knew I'd never get a
second chance," he remembers. "I thought, How long will I have to
live with this?"
That miss was, strangely, a blow to both teams. The players were
now on a death march. Men in both huddles leaned on one another
for support. "Guys would refuse to come out of the game just so
they didn't have to run all the way to the sideline," says
Sievers. Whatever side of the huddle receivers happened to be on
was the side they lined up on, formations be damned.
Neither offense was able to sustain a drive, and the two clubs
staggered through what seemed to be a pointless, hopeless,
endless dance. There was a punt, a lost San Diego fumble, two
more punts. "I remember Kellen had his eyes closed in the
huddle, mouth hanging open," Sievers says. "He looked like a
slow-motion picture of a boxer--his mouthpiece falling out,
saliva dripping from his lip."
Shula was hot that his players were helping Winslow up after a
play only to see him beat them with another great catch. (He had
13 in all, for 166 yards.) "Let him get up by himself!" Shula
At one point in this blast furnace of noise and sweat and
exhaustion, Winslow was blocking Miami cornerback Gerald Small.
When the play ended, both men tried to get off the field for the
punt, but they couldn't move. They just leaned on each other for
a few seconds, too tired to get out of each other's way. They
shoot horses, don't they? "I'd never come that close to death
before," Winslow says.
Finally, nine minutes into overtime, Miami made one last
Jell-O-legged breakaway. Strock hit wideout Jimmy Cefalo for a
big gain, and von Schamann set up for a 34-yarder to win it.
Across the field Benirschke looked like a man about to get
fitted for a lifetime of goathood. He knelt on the sideline,
"waiting for the inevitable," he says. "It was like watching
your own execution. Only in slow motion."
"I wanted to get the kick up right away," said von Schamann
later, thinking of Winslow's block earlier. He tried too hard.
His shoe scuffed the painted green dirt and the ball went
straight into the right arm of defensive end Leroy Jones. It was
the only NFL field goal attempt Jones ever blocked.
Three times Strock had prepared to ride off into the sunset at
the end of the movie--and three times his horse had broken a leg.
In 1998, 19 years after his last surgery, Benirschke took a
standard physical for a life insurance policy. Doctors said his
blood showed elevated levels of liver enzymes. This time,
Benirschke had hepatitis C, which causes an inflammation of the
liver that can lead to cancer and, often, death. Doctors told
him that one of those 78 units of blood he received during his
surgery in 1979 had probably been infected with the hepatitis
Benirschke dug in. Again. As he'd done with the ulcerative
colitis, he decided to make himself an expert on hepatitis C.
There were days he wished he hadn't.
Back came the Chargers. "You find something deep down inside
you," says Winslow, "and you push on." Almost robotically Fouts
drove his team again. He hit Brooks and Chandler and Chandler
again, and then Joiner for 39 yards, down to the Miami 10.
Fate, in a forgiving mood, presented Benirschke with a second
chance. Guard Doug Wilkerson approached Benirschke on the
sideline. "You know that giraffe at your zoo?" he asked.
"Yeah?" said Benirschke, warily.
"Well, if you miss this, I'm gonna go down there and cut its
The giraffe lived. This time San Diego's field goal unit was
ready and the rhythm was fine. Benirschke says he didn't even
have butterflies. The snap was sweet, and the kick perfect.
Wasn't it? "There was just this silence," Benirschke remembers.
The linemen for both teams were still lying on the ground.
Nobody was celebrating. Benirschke turned to Luther and said,
"Didn't it go through?"
"Yes!" Luther said, and Benirschke was mobbed by his teammates.
"Hold on! Hold on!" Benirschke yelled. Not every hero has to
watch out for his ostomy pouch.
San Diego 41, Miami 38. Sudden death.
At the bottom of the pile Winslow felt a spoonful of joy and a
truckful of pain. As players from both teams struggled to their
feet, a Miami player gave Winslow a hand up. Winslow took three
or four wobbly steps, then fell, wracked by spasms. Sievers and
tackle Billy Shields helped Winslow up and carried him off, a
moment recorded in the famous Al Messerschmidt photograph.
At the line of scrimmage, the massive Kelcher and 270-pound
Chargers guard Ed White hadn't moved. The photographers and the
reporters and Winslow were long gone, and still they lay there.
"Louie, you know we're gonna have to get up and walk," White
groaned. "They don't carry fat guys off the field."
Both locker rooms looked like field hospitals. Miami's Newman
wept. Wilkerson was so overheated, he sat under a shower fully
clothed. Despite the IV in his arm, White had no color and
couldn't connect his brain to his mouth. "I really thought Ed
was gonna go," says McDonald, the trainer. "I'm not kidding. I
thought we might lose him."
Winslow's body temperature was up to 105[degrees], and he'd lost
13 pounds. Pretty much everything on the sissy had stopped
working--except his heart.
Kelcher, hair matted with sweat, blood caked on his hands,
needed someone to cut the socks off his feet. He could not
stand. An hour later, he said, "I feel like I just rode a horse
from Texas to California."
Said White, "I feel like the horse."
Reporters mobbed Benirschke, who had scored the first and last
points in this epic game. Is this your biggest thrill? they
asked him. "Yes," he said with a little smile. "In a football
No player on either team would ever take himself that far or
that high again. There would be more misery: San Diego went to
Cincinnati the next week and lost the coldest playoff game in
NFL history--a -59[degree] windchill. There would be payback:
Miami beat San Diego in the playoffs the next year. There would
be sorrow: Miami linebacker Larry Gordon would die the next year
jogging; Muncie would be arrested for cocaine trafficking;
Woodley would have a liver transplant. And there would be honor:
Shula, Coryell, Fouts, Joiner and Winslow all were inducted into
the Hall of Fame. But there would never be another game like the
one they played that night.
"People come up to me sometimes and say, 'Too bad you never went
to the big one,'" says Fouts. "And I say, Really? Well, do you
remember who played in Super Bowl XIV? And they'll say, No.
Super Bowl XXII? And they'll go, No. How about our playoff game
with Miami in 1982? And they all go, Oh, yeeeah!"
Winslow retired six years later at 30 with a bum knee and an
aura of glory that just won't fade. "Not a day goes by that
somebody doesn't bring up that game," he says. "It's wonderful
and it's humbling to be remembered for something people see as
A motivational speaker now, Winslow has two enduring memories
from that day. One is his permanently sore shoulder. The other
is a shoebox filled with pictures of kids named after him.
Winslow's count was up to 129, until the author showed him a
picture of his son, and made it an even 130.
Reach for a can of beer in Benirschke's fridge these days and
what you will mostly find are the needles he uses to inject the
drugs he hopes will save his life. "There's a chance I'll die,"
he says, "but we're not focusing on that." Instead, he's a
spokesman on hepatitis C. Five million Americans have it, he'll
tell you, but only 250,000 are being treated for it. Some people
think there's a reason God gave Benirschke all these diseases.
Who would handle them better?
Doctors say the virus is undetectable in his system, but he'll
be tested again in six months because 65% of those who get rid
of it get it back. He may need a liver transplant.
Whatever happens, Benirschke is ready for it. His wife, Mary,
says, "People don't realize what you can go through."
Funny, isn't it, how much of Rolf Benirschke's life has been
like that game? Up, down, joy, woe, win, lose and start all over
again? Would it be asking too much for him to get one more
franchise history. And their team lost.
deliver his halftime speech because of the din.
Newman. "Well, that actually happened that day. Both teams."
cramp. He was spasming from his calves to his neck.
so they didn't have to run all the way to the sideline."
everything had stopped working--except his heart.