Place-kicker Rolf Benirschke, one of the most beloved Chargers of all time, played 10 seasons in the NFL (1977-1987) before retiring as the third-most-accurate kicker in NFL history. He was the 20th player to join the Chargers Hall of Fame and, in 2004, was inducted into the Academic All-America Hall of Fame. He’s hosted a spate of TV sports shows, and even had a short-lived career on national television as host of Wheel of Fortune. His personal challenges, with his health and his family, are almost as well-chronicled as his exploits on the gridiron and the tube. But Benirschke——the poster boy for the power of positive thinking——is a survivor. Still San Diegans, Rolf, his wife, Mary, and their four children are on sabbatical this year in Park City, Utah.
TOM BLAIR: You’ve conquered some daunting challenges over the years, including a pair of potentially life-ending diseases. Are you beginning to feel a bit like the cat with nine lives?
ROLF BENIRSCHKE: Well, I do feel incredibly blessed. I’ve gone through a lot. When I was in the middle of my first illness [ulcerative colitis], I would have done anything to get rid of the disease—because it was right at the beginning of my career. I was excited about football; our team was getting good. It just seemed so unfair. But sometimes the best prayers are unanswered, because clearly that illness changed my life. It gave me a purpose that was clearly defined. It’s given me the understanding that we don’t live a guaranteed 85 years. We need to treasure each day and value the relationships that are important to us. The involvement I’ve had with the Chron’s and Colitis Foundation, and those patients facing ostomy surgery, has been incredibly fulfilling. And now, with this whole awareness campaign we’ve put together for hepatitis C, the same thing can happen. As you know, when I went through my illness with colitis, I took 80 units of blood to survive the surgeries. The irony is that same blood that saved my life put my life in jeopardy.
TB: Are you a fatalist? Do you think it was your fate to have these challenges?
RB: I don’t think I’m a fatalist. But we don’t know the rest of the story. Our obligation is to fight through every day and see where it goes. Not to ask why, because that’s an endless question that brings the focus back to you—to “poor me”—but rather to ask: Where do I go from here; how do I become changed? I won’t say I came to this on my own, but as I wrestled through my first illness, I read a lot of books, and one of the profound ones was written by a POW who spent seven years in Vietnam prison camps. You talk about unfair, brutal, all the reasons why they should give up—but they didn’t. They persevered and came out changed and, arguably, better people as a result.
TB: And it changed you; it made you an outspoken advocate for awareness of these diseases. I know that’s what you’re doing now with hepatitis C. But let’s go back, for a minute, 30 years, to the battle with colitis. Is that something you still have to deal with today?
RB: No. I had my colon removed, and my disease was gone. I had to wear an ostomy bag for four years, and then a newer surgery internalized that. I’ll live with that the rest of my life. I’m still very involved in the Chron’s and Colitis Foundation, because we’re still looking for the cure. We’ve gone a lot farther down the road, and have much better treatment, but the cause and cure are elusive. I’m still very engaged with that, and meet with 10 or 15 patients a week to encourage them to keep up the fight.
TB: One of the most touching moments in San Diego sports history was that day in 1979 when your Chargers teammate, Louie Kelcher, helped you to the center of the field as honorary captain—your weight had dropped from 170 pounds to 130 pounds . . .
RB: It was 125 pounds, and of course, Louie was about 350.
TB: And a packed stadium gave you a prolonged standing ovation. That must stand out as one of the high points of your football career.
RB: It’s ironic. When people ask me about the highlight of my career, it’s not about a game I played in but one I was a spectator at. When I was walking on the field and people began to stand, it took me by surprise. And it was a bittersweet feeling that it was the last time I would be on that field. But ultimately, that moment would have a lot to do with my recovery. I reflected on that, and it was a great boost for me when there were times I didn’t want to work out, and had to keep up the fight. So that clearly is a highlight in my life, not just my career. As a result, Louie and I are forever bound together—our friendship was defined at that moment.
TB: You’ve been quoted as saying your first illness was a blessing. What did you mean by that?
RB: In a number of ways, it’s changed my perspective on life. You know, when you’re 21 or 22 or 23, you think life’s going to last forever. But I looked death in the eye, and could have very easily died. When you get a second chance at life, you live it differently. You value people and relationships more. You recognize every day is a gift, and we’re supposed to live it that way.
TB: And you turned to God.
RB: It challenged my faith. I had to reconcile if there was really a God. I decided if there was no God, then it was all just a bad nightmare and would never be more than that. But if there was a God, then it was my responsibility to live every day as best I could and see where He took me. So, in the end, it galvanized my faith. It gave me an opportunity to deflect the attention that was on me to the plight of these other patients. In the process, it defined a mission for me that I never would have found if I had just been a normal, healthy NFL kicker.
TB: And there were more tests of your faith. At first, you and Mary were unable to have children, so you decided to adopt two children from Russia. And then you had a son and daughter of your own. But the children came with health problems, too. Your daughter, Carrie, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy; an adopted son, Erik, had problems.
RB: Carrie is 13 now, and she’s an incredible girl. Yes, she has cerebral palsy, and she walks with a limp. And she has a brain injury; socially, she struggles. But she's very bright, and we have a tremendous relationship with her. Our oldest son, Erik, had emotional challenges from his five years in an orphanage. Our other adopted son, Timmy, weighed only 17 pounds at 21.2. It's amazing what he's overcome in his life. Our 8-year-old, little Ryan, is an incredible blessing, too. He's normal, healthy, wise beyond his years, sensitive. Really, a remarkable little guy.
TB: And then came a new challenge. Doctors diagnosed you with hepatitis C, the disease contracted from those blood transfusions. Did that rock your faith a little bit?
RB: I wouldn't say it rocked my faith; I think it challenged me again. There's a biblical figure, Paul, who has a thorn in his side, and prays to the Lord three times to remove it. And the Lord never sees fit to remove it. I guess I felt, “Well, I’ll be Paul, and I’ll deal with this thorn in my side.” And then the Lord did see fit to get rid of it.
TB: Sounds like the cure for hepatitis C could kill you: daily injections of interferon—the equivalent to injecting yourself with a deadly flu virus —for a year, with no guarantee of positive results. And you did it more than once.
RB: It was a new interferon-based treatment that is now about 50 percent effective for the toughest type of hepatitis C. I did it three times, and the last one worked. When I got that call from my physician, it was another one of those unbelievably emotional moments. I tried to call Mary when I got the news, and I couldn’t even get the words out. You know, back when I was sick with colitis, when I was playing football, it was just me and my silly little football career. But with hepatitis C, it was my wife and four kids depending on me. They were also at risk of infection; say, if they borrow your razor or even use your toothbrush—anything that can pass that blood. To have that threat removed was incredible.
TB: You’re still the national spokesman for the Chron’s and Colitis Foundation, and you’ve taken on a similar role for awareness of hepatitis C. What do most people need to know about this disease that they don’t know?
RB: The critical message is that of the 4 million Americans who have it, more than 70 percent don’t know it, because it’s asymptomatic. The only real symptom is fatigue, but most of us are fatigued in our lives. And so the message really is, if you are an at-risk person—someone who’s had a blood transfusion prior to 1992; someone who was in a war-zone medical situation; a healthcare worker accidentally stuck by a needle; somebody who did IV drugs just once, maybe experimented with drugs just once; or somebody who got tattooed or body-pierced 10 or 12 years ago, before that industry was sanitized—you need to get tested. And if you test positive, rather than sit there and say, “Well, I feel good, and my doctor says I don’t need to do anything,” you need to go see a liver specialist. We’re trying to direct people who are at risk to the Web site, hepcstat.com.
TB: Going back again, after your recovery from colitis, you returned to the Chargers and played another seven seasons. You went on to kick the winning field goal in a 1982 playoff game at Miami that’s arguably the most exciting in NFL history. Almost 20 years after retiring, do you miss the thrill of playing football?
RB: First of all, I was incredibly fortunate to have been playing at that time. You remember how special it was—the team, the camaraderie and the relationship with the community. I still feel connected to the Chargers. A bunch of us retired veterans go down every week to speak with the team. And we may share some wisdom with them, and that’s very special. So, right now? I still love it. Game day comes around, and I get pumped up. But the team’s got a pretty good kicker right now.
TB: A guy’s got to earn a living. With all the time you devote to your faith, to the Chron’s and Colitis Foundation, to the National Centers for Disease Control and Liver Foundation on behalf of hepatitis C, what are you doing these days to feed the family?
RB: A lot of things. I sold my financial services company. We funded a venture capital company; I still have shares in that. I’m a spokesman for California Bank & Trust. I speak a lot; I’ve written a couple of books. I do more and more work with a development group called DMB, the group that developed Santaluz in Rancho Santa Fe. We’re doing a big project on Kauai. We’re going to do a project in Lake Tahoe. We have a project in Park City, Utah—which gives me a great excuse for being in Park City with my family.
TB: Do they televise Chargers games in Park City?
RB: They have, so far. But I was in San Diego for the opener and back for the Pittsburgh game. It’s hard to keep me away from the Chargers.