Rolf Benirschke – Great Comebacks™ Program Founder
As the place-kicker for the San Diego Chargers for 10 seasons, Rolf held 16 team records and was the third-most accurate kicker in league history when he retired. What makes Rolf’s football career so remarkable is that he played the majority of his career with ulcerative colitis and an ostomy.
About Rolf from Wikipedia
Rolf attended La Jolla High School in San Diego. He attended college at the University of California at Davis, playing under coach Jim Sochor. He was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the 12th round of the 1977 NFL Draft, and was then traded to the San Diego Chargers for his rookie year in the National Football League.
In his rookie year in 1978, Rolf made all 12 of his 12 field goals. In the off-season before the 1978 season, his second season, Rolf developed chronic fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. He learned that he had ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. Despite staying in the hospital for weeks on end, he made 34 of 38 field goals that year. He was named the NFL Man of the Year in 1983.
Living with ulcerative colitis
However, the problem worsened in the 1979 season, when, on the team plane coming home from a road trip, Benirschke collapsed. He underwent two surgeries to remove his large intestine and he was in the intensive care unit for weeks. When released from the hospital, Rolf was only 123 pounds and had to adjust to life with two ostomy appliances. His ileostomy was eventually reversed in a Koch pouch procedure.
On Sunday, November 18, 1979, Benirschke made his dramatic return to the Chargers in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he did not play, he was named honorary team captain for the game, which was a sellout. Louie Kelcher, a Chargers’ defensive tackle, assisted Rolf and held his hand out onto the field. In 1980 Rolf returned to kicking and played seven more seasons with the team before retiring in 1987 as the team’s all-time leader in points scored (766).
Benirschke was named the NFL Man of the Year, the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and the NFL Players’ Association’s Hero of the Year. He was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 1983 season. In 1997 he was the twentieth player inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.
Life after football
Benirschke hosted the daytime version of the TV game show Wheel of Fortune from January 10 to June 30, 1989. Although Merv Griffin thought he would be the perfect choice to replace Pat Sajak, Rolf failed to meet expectations, in part because of a lack of previous TV experience, and also because he had never seen a complete episode of the show prior to his hiring. Due to these, he came across as stiff and uncomfortable plus made several on-camera mistakes during his tenure. Although he had become more comfortable in his role by his final show, CBS chose Bob Goen instead after NBC canceled the series. He has not been involved in television since.
In November 1996 he published his book, Alive and Kicking! Married with four children, Rolf is active in the San Diego, California area, volunteering his time with organizations like the San Diego Zoo, Scripps Hospital, United Way, the Chargers, the Boys & Girls Clubs of East County and the San Diego Blood Bank.
Every year, Rolf is in charge of the Rolf Benirschke Legacy Golf Invitational, held at the Rancho Santa Fe Farms Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Some of the money is donated to charities such as the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.
See more of his story on the Great Comebacks website at www.greatcomebacks.com