He began his career as a long shot, the 334th of 335 players chosen in the 1977 pro football draft Yet for San Diego Charger placekicker Rolf Benirschke, the odds against survival itself would soon seem even tougher. Midway through the 1979 season Benirschke underwent emergency abdominal surgery to combat an inflammatory bowel disease. It resulted in the removal of much of his large intestine. Amazingly, Benirschke returned to action the following year, wearing an ileostomy bag to collect his bodily wastes. Last January be booted bis team into the final round of the AFC championship with a dramatic overtime Geld goal against Miami. Just three weeks after his season ended, however, the still-ailing Benirschke entered Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for one more bout with surgery. Now much improved and back in his La Jolla, Calif. bachelor condo, the 27-year-old athlete has resumed training for a second postoperative season. Recently be spoke to Arturo F. Gonzalez Jr. for PEOPLE about his long medical battle and the ailment that be now hopes be has kicked for good.
I can remember precisely when I first noticed that something was wrong with me. It was Sept. 4, 1978, just after lunch. I had pigged out on hamburgers at a local fast food place, and I thought I was just suffering some kind of food poisoning. I began to have abdominal cramps and bad diarrhea. The next day we didn’t have practice, so it wasn’t too big a deal that I still felt sick. By then I was noticing blood in my stool. Coach Tommy Prothro had a case of the flu himself, so we decided I had it too.
That Sunday we played Oakland, and I was hurting, dizzy and weak. Early in the game I missed a short field goal attempt, and then I blew an extra point. The next week I went into the hospital, took a lot of tests and discovered that the doctors thought I had something really serious called Crohn’s disease. With my dad, who’s a pathologist and teaches at the medical school at the University of California at San Diego, I pored over medical books trying to find out more about it. Basically, it’s an incurable, recurring disease also known as ileitis that can attack anywhere along the digestive tract. The bottom line was that it might kill me but that it also often went into remission. As a young man with a strong body, I decided that somehow we could battle this illness.
So I played hurt the entire 1978 season. My stomach was tender to the touch, and I was losing a fair amount of blood through the rectum every day. I was taking lots of medication, and they were experimenting with my diet all the time. One week I was playing one of the world’s roughest games having eaten nothing but baby food mush. Then they’d switch me to fiber foods to try to scour out my insides. Another week I didn’t eat at all; they put me in a hospital with a total intravenous line in my neck.
Despite the constant pain and dizziness, I wasn’t having a bad season. Even though the pounds were dropping off me every week, I kicked 18 out of 22 field goals and still seemed able to get the ball over the bar. When the off-season began, I tried to rest and put some of my weight back on again.
All spring and summer of 1979 we experimented with drugs and cures and diets trying to beat this thing. But I felt we were losing the battle. In the first game of the 1979 season I kicked four field goals, and after each kick I had to stagger over to the bench, sit down and rest. In the locker room afterward I sobbed. What was going on with me?
I’d lose half a dozen pounds in a week, and there were times when I could not run, kick or work out. Then, on a flight back from New England, I toppled over in the aisle of the plane. I had a temperature of 105 degrees. The next day I was admitted to University Hospital in San Diego, and five days later they opened me up and took out half my large bowel and my appendix.
But the recovery was not smooth. I kept having high fevers, up to 105 degrees, and at the same time I’d feel like I was freezing. I’d clench my fists to try to stop the shaking, but I couldn’t. Then the chills would break, and I’d be drenched in sweat. This went on for four days, and my condition worsened. The doctors decided to operate again and discovered I had massive peritonitis. Bacteria in the gut spread all over the stomach cavity and into the circulatory system, and until that’s controlled, your life is in the balance. For what seemed like an eternity I was on the edge of dying. They put me in intensive care, and I had so many tubes and strings hanging off me, I felt like a marionette. It was a nightmare made worse by the moans and cries of others fighting for life behind the curtain next to me. My dad tells me that I asked not to be kept alive on machines if it came to that. He agreed that he would never let this happen.
As I came out of all this, I realized that I had an ileostomy bag attached to me. I could hardly bear to look at it. I’m an athlete and proud of my body, but now there was something strange attached to it. All during this crisis my teammate Mike Fuller was there. He’s a reborn Christian, and he came with the Bible and spent a lot of time with me. So did my pastor. I have to admit that I didn’t have a lot of faith before, but I know that I prayed during the bad times.
For me, a pro football player, the big test was just to be able to take one step away from the bed, and then another, and then a third. As soon as I walked, the bacteria in my body would attack, and I’d spike a fever. An hour or so later I’d try again. Four steps this time. Then another fever. It may seem ridiculous, but for a long time my supreme goal was just to make it all the way to the hospital room door.
Because my father is a doctor and my mother a nurse, I was sent home to their care. My whole family rallied around me. My mother would say, “Rolf, you can’t look at the mountain and be overwhelmed by how high it seems. It takes a lot of little steps to get up that mountain.” The goal became to walk downstairs in my house. Then outdoors as far away as the neighbor’s driveway. Each day I would try to add an extra house to my walk. Four houses, six houses, all the way to the corner. I’d go outside in the brilliant California sunshine and be on a high. I found I really wanted to live again.
One Sunday I felt well enough to go to a Chargers game. I was down in weight from 178 to about 135 pounds, and I was gaunt and hunched like a very old man. When I walked into the locker room before the game, I could see some of my teammates just turn their eyes away. They were horrified to see how different I looked. Then the team told me they wanted me to go out to midfield for the coin toss as honorary captain. I was in pain from the sutures still in me and really didn’t think I could stagger all the way to the 50-yard line. Louie Kelcher, all 6’5″ and 285 pounds of him, drawled in his best Texas accent, “Rolfie boy, if you cain’t walk, I’ll just have to carry you out there because one way or t’other, we are goin’ together.” The tears were streaming down my face as we walked out. The reaction of the crowd was unbelievable. Some people were cheering, a few were crying.
All winter, spring and early summer I worked out with the Charger strength coach, Phil Tyne. My first day, I couldn’t do a sit-up or curl a three-pound barbell. But each day I got a little more of myself back. When training camp opened, I was there, and in a couple of weeks I had my old job back. With one exception. I am, of course, playing with my bag strapped to me, taped down under my pads. On kickoffs I do not charge downfield and try to make a tackle. The coaches want me to run what we call “Rolf’s L pattern,” a sprint downfield to kick the ball followed by a 90-degree turn toward the bench and safety. As a matter of fact, I must admit this hurts my pride, and at times I’ve taken to loitering on the field a bit.
Right after the 1981 season they checked me into New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, and I went through the second major operation. On my 27th birthday I was flat on my back, too weak to enjoy the birthday cake brought to me by the nurses. But later that night I was given the best birthday present I ever received. A doctor came in to tell me that the pathologists had found that I did not have Crohn’s disease. Instead I had ulcerative colitis, a bad disease, sure, but one that I found out could be cured with the surgical removal of my entire colon, which had just been done.
During the operation the doctors changed the position of my ileostomy bag. It’s much lower now so that, for instance, I can wear a bathing suit without its showing. And they’ve put it on my left side so it won’t get in the way when I kick. Sure, it’s an enormous adjustment to know it’s attached to you, but I don’t try to hide it. In the locker room I take showers with the rest of the players, and it’s never a problem. It’s no big deal with the girls I date, and most know I have it. If I hug a lady, she can feel it pressing against her. In the future I can have another operation and have the doctors construct what is called a Kock pouch inside my body made from a section of my small intestine, with just a nipple coming through to the surface through which waste matter can be expelled.
Getting another chance to be alive has even changed my outlook about football. I’m out to enjoy the moment, and I’m not going to let myself be consumed by a fear of losing. I’ve also taken on the job of being chairman of the Sports Council of the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis. I work with stars like golf’s Al Geiberger and track’s Rene Felton, both of whom have suffered from bowel diseases. We speak at fund raisers and try to educate people about what can be done to deal with their illness. Two million Americans suffer from some form of these inflammatory bowel diseases. I have been there and know what they are going through. My illness hasn’t kept me from enjoying my life, and now I want to help others enjoy theirs.