For Rolf Benirschke, the former UC Davis kicker who enjoyed a memorable career with the San Diego Chargers (1977-86), the uncertainty enveloping his favorite franchise is troubling.
He was never just a football player. The Chargers were never just his employers. San Diego was never just a tourist town. Since his sophomore year at La Jolla High School, it was his city for all seasons. He loves the scent of the ocean, the soothing sound of the waves, the proximity to his beloved animals, both those in the water and on land.
In another life, one uninterrupted by the surprising power in his accurate right foot, the son of renowned UC San Diego pathologist Dr. Kurt Benirschke would have been a veterinarian; he enrolled at UC Davis to study zoology, kick around a football and prepare for a career tending to animals.
But life often has a mind of its own. Legendary Aggies football coach Jim Sochor swung a deal with his soccer counterpart and arranged for the 6-foot, 170-pound Benirschke to attend classes and play both sports. The rest, as they say, is history; but what a history.
Drafted by the Raiders and immediately traded to a Chargers team that featured Dan Fouts and Charlie Joiner, and later Wes Chandler, John Jefferson and Kellen Winslow, he was the sure-footed neighborhood celebrity, the one who retired a decade later as the organization’s scoring leader.
So this ongoing relocation game? The chess matches between the Rams and the Chargers, the Rams and the Raiders, the Chargers and the city of San Diego, the Raiders and who knows how many other cities?
It wounds. It frustrates. It hits home.
“Nobody is dying,” Benirschke reminded, offering some much-needed perspective, “but you’re talking about taking the heart out of a community. You think about the memories that were made, the first time your dad takes you to a game, the people who are affected. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me and say, ‘Thanks for being part of the Chargers and doing what you can.’ ”
When talks between Chargers owner Dean Spanos and San Diego officials intensified, Benirschke joined a task force that attempted to repair the frayed relationships and facilitate a public-private partnership to replace outdated Qualcomm Stadium.
The most recent developments – somewhat unexpected given repeated reports of an imminent Rams-Chargers pairing in Inglewood – further muddled the issue. Spanos announced Friday the Chargers would remain in San Diego for another season and reiterated his desire to cobble together a deal on a downtown San Diego facility. But if a November public referendum fails and no accord materializes within a year, he said somewhat ominously, he has an agreement to become a tenant of Stan Kroenke’s Rams.
“There is blame on both sides,” said Benirschke. “We haven’t had the strongest mayors. (Ex-mayor) Pete Wilson would have made this happen. And we would love a sign from the Chargers, who have been mostly (unengaged). You can hide behind that – that lack of leadership – but there is an absolute desire in this community for something to get done.
“There is a small group that wants to revisit the downtown site, do something to expand the Convention Center, and really revitalize the area. Look at what Petco Park has done. We could hold Super Bowls, Final Fours, really add value to our city.”
People in San Diego care deeply about Benirschke, 60, who forever will be the boy next door. In his third season with the Chargers, he collapsed from ulcerative colitis on a return flight from New England and was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. He underwent multiple surgeries to remove portions of his intestines and was in intensive care for weeks. His father was told his son was unlikely to survive.
Yet survive he did, though he weighed only 120 pounds and wore two ostomy bags when he left the hospital.
“I was 24, and I was asking myself, ‘Why do I want to live?’ ” Benirschke said Friday from his La Jolla office. “I was a skier, a body surfer. I’ll never be a football player again. I can’t play soccer. I was really depressed. Then my mother drove me to the La Jolla Cove and she helped me walk along the boardwalk. The sound of the seagulls. You could hear the waves. You could smell the salt. I was grateful to be alive, and that’s when my recovery started.”
He started with baby steps, walking to the mail box. Then walking to a neighbor’s mail box. Then walking an entire block. Within several months, he regained his strength and 60 pounds and began tossing around a football and the idea of a comeback.
“I was still under contract to the Chargers,” Benirschke said, “and I remember walking into (former owner) Gene Klein’s office and asking if he would allow me to compete for my job. I said, ‘You need a kicker, and I’m your best kicker.’ He said if the medical staff can protect you, and if (coach Don) Coryell says it’s OK, then fine. I played almost 10 more years and that changed my life.”
Benirschke, who is married with four children, including two boys he adopted from Russia, has been involved in San Diego-area businesses for decades. He now runs a company that provides medical equipment and devices and offers a support system for those afflicted with colitis, multiple sclerosis and arthritis, among other illnesses.
He’s quick to cite those who offered encouragement during his darkest hours. Friends. Teammates. Journalists who passed notes to his nurses. Reminded that he often crooned along to his favorite song, “Sara Smile,” by Hall & Oates, Benirschke howled in delight.
And no conversation ends without mention of a certain NFL team that is threatening to bolt and break hearts.
“We get blinded when it becomes all about the money,” Benirschke said. “Dean (Spanos) has great kids. They can make a mark, pass on a legacy and accomplish great things, much like the Rooneys (in Pittsburgh). … I really can’t imagine the Chargers leaving. Sort of like my life, I’m hoping for a (Chargers) comeback.”