Rolf Benirschke began his NFL career when he was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the 12th round of the 1977 NFL Draft. After being traded to the San Diego Chargers in his rookie year he had a fulfilling ten year career with the Chargers. Benirschke was the San Diego Chargers placekicker from 1978 until 1986, and the third most accurate placekicker in NFL history at the time of his retirement. In his second season with the Chargers Benirschke was stricken with a life-threatening disease ulcerative colitis. He underwent two surgeries to remove his large intestine and was in the intensive care unit for six weeks. When released from the hospital, he weighed on 123 pounds and had to adjust to life with two ostomy appliances. In 1980 Benirschke returned to kicking for the Chargers and played seven more seasons before retiring in 1987 as the team’s all-time leader in points scored.
Benirschke received numerous honors during his career including NFL Man of the Year; Comeback Player of the Year; Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, Most Courageous Athlete. In 1997 he was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame. Benirschke has taken his bouts with illness and devoted his time and energy to inspiring others. He founded Great Combacks, a patient advocacy and support program sponsored by ConvaTec, and is the co-founder of Legacy Health Strategies, an strategic marketing firm that develops patient support, disease awareness, and treatment compliance initiatives for medical device and pharmaceutical companies.
Our interview begins as we were talking about a mutual friend that we have who played on the Women’s Professional tour.
Examiner: In this day and age it’s special to have friendship through such a long period of time. I think it’s also the benefit of participating in sports. I am sure there are people that you still know from your football playing days.
RB: You realize that you are in a unique fraternity and once you mature those relationships become that more important. No-one can quite appreciate what you go through except those that have gone through it. It’s pretty unique in that way.
Examiner: The shared experience that you both understand. When you think back to the juniors in tennis and everyone is competing for little opportunities and over time everything just sort of works out. It’s a good thing.
RB: How did you end up deciding to be a sport counselor?
Examiner: My ambition had been to turn professional at some point but I wasn’t ready and really needed guidance to understand my skills, where I had been as a junior, where my current skill level was at, what skills I needed to develop to move to the next level. The desire to go back and become involved in sport counseling was that I knew a lot of players in many sports were in similar situations. I currently work with youth, adults, professionals around anxiety issues, performance issues, transitions, peak performance, and am Board Certified in Biofeedback. I conduct physiological stress tests which are very helpful for athletes to see how their thoughts influence their bodies ability to perform.
RB: I love that it is such a real thing for every player but no-one actually wants to admit it because it’s almost a sign of weakness or perceived sign of weakness. I think it takes a strong person to recognize that. I would say it’s becoming more accepted though I still think for younger people it takes awhile.
Examiner: Some of it is mental maturity. Frequently the mind set of a young player is, “I should beat this person.” “I should do this or do that.” My job is to scale it back and focus the player when they make an error how do they get themselves back on track without a mental melt down? Frequently the answer at the beginning is, “I just hit the ball harder.” Or, “I tell myself to work harder.” Those solutions often add to their difficulties. Physiologically they may need to reset their body and readjust their mental thoughts. Many more sport teams employ performance consultants. It’s much more common than it was ten years ago. The Seattle Seahawks employ Dr. Michael Gervais. He’s been running their program for several years.
RB: David Cook is the Director of the Peak Performance Center at Baylor University and wrote a book called, Links of Utopia. There was a movie made about him. David is a really compelling wonderful guy. When you are around him it’s just so cool. He’s just a bright, thoughtful, approachable guy. You recognize how fragile the psyche of so many players are. We wrestle with so many of the things you are talking about. I used to read Tim Gallwey’s book “The Inner Game of Tennis.” That was my fledgling attempt to manage a lot of that stuff. A lot comes with mental maturity. Many athletes are identified so early these days it can create such damage. Some athletes think their skills are going to give them happiness and reward yet for some it stunts their growth socially and intellectually, then there is the possibility of an injury or they don’t make it. It’s devastating to watch.
Examiner: Earlier we were talking about pressure on kids to succeed and their role models. Looking at the last Super Bowl and the deflated ball story who makes that decision? What does that say about the game? Does it mean players have to cheat to be good enough to win? Can they play within the rules of the game and be successful?
RB: To me that is systemic in a sport where we are all looking for an edge. The line becomes blurred whether it’s nutrition or strength training or enhancement supplements. Everybody is pushing it. I don’t think that’s healthy either. I believe athletes need two to three months down time away from their sport. Just to let their bodies recalibrate. I don’t thing it’s good to work out twelve months a year and expect your body and emotional capacity to remain strong and be able to get dialed up when you need to. But it’s done because we all want an edge and this leads to a dilemma as parents. Parents may feel pressure to encourage the child to select the sport they are going to play by the age of twelve. In the minds of many parents their child will not be able to to make the high school team if they don’t fully commit for example to soccer for ten or eleven months a year to the detriment of other opportunities. We’ve created this unhealthy system that potentially leads to a lot of the problems we are talking about.
Examiner: How would you change the process?
RB: That’s a very big question with lots of answers. I think it begins with making people aware of what happens when you do this and things don’t turn out well. We are talking about the fraction of a percent that actually makes it to the college level or professional level. It’s the story of Todd Marinovich the football player at USC told a hundred times for parents to get the message of, “Wait a minute, sports is for enjoyment to learn how to challenge yourself to build skills of how to get along, how to deal with defeat, how to deal with success and how to push yourself beyond what you think you can do.” All the healthy things about sports becomes unhealthy when we make it our God idol, and when it supersedes family vacations and all that. Parents couple by couple have to rein that back in and say look sports are going to be a healthy balance for my child. My youngest son is in his late teens and we’ve had to make some hard decisions as he’s shown athletic ability. He’s been on teams that play hard but it’s not life or death to them and if they lose it’s tough but they go have a milkshake and off to the beach. I just know it’s in the long term the right balance. I’ve sadly watched kids drafted into baseball and have an injury and never get past double AA. Five years later they are looking around and their buddies are deep into careers.
Examiner: Because they continue to pursue the dream and they didn’t make it.
RB: I think there’s a correlation between the longer you play the harder it is to make the transition. I don’t care how bright you are or how well prepared you are. It’s harder. If a player leaves the game at thirty-three or thirty-four years old they are so far behind their peers in the normal development of a career. That can be extremely challenging for the most adjusted player to make the transition. Now there’s no doubt that they may have a leg up if they’ve played that long and have a reputation or experiences that are unique.
When I was playing my agent was Leigh Steinberg and he said to me, “Rolf you need to get involved in the community.” I asked “What does that mean?” He strongly suggested that I learn to public speak. I’d never done it before. I’d never taken classes in that so I bought a Dale Carnegie book on public speaking and read it. When I went to the San Diego Chargers my rookie year in the off season I said every time there’s a request from somebody and would like a player to come out and speak put me on the list. In that rookie off season I must have spoken ninety times.
Examiner: What a great opportunity.
RB: It was a brilliant opportunity but if Leigh hadn’t said it I wouldn’t have thought about it. I spoke at Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, junior high schools and the special Olympics. I was exposed to the fabric of the community and began to meet the presidents and CEO”s of companies. But through that the community got to know me as more than an athlete and what really changed for me was I became ill. I got sick and at a time when our team was loved by a community one of their players got sick and there was this great out pouring of support and affection. I was very lucky to have lived and should never really have lived. I am rewriting my book Alive & Kicking right now.
Examiner: You became terribly sick with ulcerative colitis and had two surgeries which left you wearing two osmotic sacks, yet returned to the Chargers as a kicker the next year and played for four more years.
RB: I figured out a way to protect my stoma and I did get hit a few times and there was some concern certainly initially about my playing again. The point is my illness was played out in the public and there is this safety net in the community if you recognize the opportunity that the platform of sport gives you. During my career I got to play for ten years in my community where I had gone to high school. In a place where I was going to settle for the rest of my life at least I thought. Then with my illness which was a horrible thing yet turned out to be a blessing in my life. It forced me to grow up on a lot of fronts.
When I was in college at U.C. Davis and played for the football team and the soccer team I really thought I was going to go on to vet school and was also intrigued by a graduate program at Cornell University. Then I was drafted by the NFL I was the last player drafted in the NFL draft in 1977 but I was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. They had just won the Super Bowl so I ended up deciding to go and see what it was like to play professional football. Once I arrived in Oakland I realized that my skills were as good as others guys and back then there were six preseason games and I got a chance to kick. I had some success in those games and pretty soon I’m the guy.
Examiner: If you’re playing football that the position to be in.
RB: I agree with you (laughing), and it fits my personality. I love being part of the team and I love to be able to make a difference in the outcome. You have a big impact on the outcome of the game and autonomy. You can kind of do your own thing as long as you perform.
Examiner: You had an amazing professional kicking record. Are you still in the top three of all kickers for the Chargers?
RB: When I retired I was the third most accurate kicker in the history of the league. That’s obviously since past. I did things in the off season that weren’t football related. As I mentioned I learned to public speak, traveled and did other things. I was never a hundred percent devoted to kicking. I believe if I had been I’d have been a better kicker but I don’t think I’d have been a better person. When I played we didn’t make a lot of money so all of us were always trying to figure out what’s the transition? When’s the transition? What are we going to transition into? I felt I needed to keep my options open so on the one hand it was healthy, on the other hand it probably kept some of us from reaching our true potential. What I wanted to get to though was the stuff that you kind of talked about earlier. I ended up in San Diego and I began to experience the scrutiny that these athletes go through everyday. I like most athletes began to start to put my self worth on my performance and when I performed well I felt good. If I struggled I didn’t feel so good about myself. I ended up on this roller coaster, feel good about myself when it’s going well and feel like dog meat when I’m struggling.
But there were a couple of guys on our team who didn’t seem to be on that same roller coaster. I didn’t know why but I wanted what they had. There was a peace and self confidence about them that at the end of the game in the locker room I couldn’t tell if my locker mate who I have huge respect for, had caught ten passes or if he dropped five balls. I just watched and there were four or five guys on the team that were just like that and they were encouragers. They had something I didn’t have and I wanted it. I began to ask them and what they had was a faith. I learned that they had wrestled with their faith. Is there a God or not? If there is a God what are my obligations? If there is no God what’s this all about? They invited me to some of the chapel services that the team had. Back then the speakers that would come were just incredible. Some of the giants of faith, David Jeremiah, Mike MacIntosh and others.
Examiner: Through the church.
RB: Yes, through the church. They’d have a chapel service either the night before the game or sometimes right after a team meeting. I started to attend this chapel and it
touched my heart. I made a decision that I was going to learn more and read the bible and start to figure it out. Then I started to get ill and it was confusing. How could this be happening? It was unfair. I was twenty-three years old. My life was ahead of me and our team was getting good. In a short time my illness required two surgeries. I lost sixty-four pounds. When I woke up from my second surgery with two ileostomy bags on my side.
I’d sort of made peace with God and believed that I was going to die. I confessed my sins and was ready to go and God allowed me to live. I was so sick that I really shouldn’t have lived. Now I’m twenty-four years old and everything I loved to do involved outdoor athletics. I loved San Diego. I was in the water a lot scuba diving. I ski, play a lot of tennis and was making my living as a professional football player. Now I am thinking, “No girls are ever going to like me.” I went through a really hard time. I was discouraged and interestingly that as I recovered my life changed.
Examiner: It’s a letting go.
RB: It’s a couple of things. Yes, it’s a recognition. After the surgeries I had no idea what the rest of my life was going to be like. That was the beginning and then it was, “Alright I’m alive now what?” There was a book written by a guy named Jerry Coffee who was one of the longest held P.O.W.’s in Vietnam. He spent over seven years in one of the P.O.W camps and he wrote about how he survived. He shared some of the principles that made a lot of sense to me and I began to apply them to my life. The prisoners had to figure out how to get through the day, they couldn’t think about tomorrow or a week from now which seemed like an eternity. It was literally, “How do you get through the day? The moment.” I felt that’s me. First I’ve got to figure out how to get through the day. Second thing is the prisoners made small goals, silly little goals. I used that and everyday one of my goals became getting up and walking to the mailbox of my parents house and back. The next day was two mailboxes. Everyday I was going to add a mailbox. You live in California, you know how close those mailboxes are. It’s not a huge accomplishment. But it was for me.
The next thing I learned from the book is that the P.O.W.’s learned to lean on each other. These are studly guys and when they felt that they were beaten and worn out and couldn’t do any more the other guys spread the word that someone was ready to give up and word got around, “You’ve got to help Bill in cell twenty.” They learned to tap the wall in code, coughed in code and they left notes where their buddies would find them. The notes had words of encouragement, “God bless you,” “Don’t give up,” “You can’t give up we are with you.” They talked about how important that was for each of them to know that people around them were with them.
I had to learn to do that and share with my friends who came by and team-mates the burden, my embarrassment, my uncertainty, my fears. That was huge. I also discovered as had the P.O.W.’s that instilled inside everyone of us is what we call the indomitable spirit. We read about the human spirit all the time. We see it live out particularly in sports. Most of us live our lives sort of between the guard rails of life. We may have problems and bounce off the walls because we missed a kick or failed a class, but until we crash over the proverbial guard rail of life and end up in a ditch and survive you come out fundamentally changed.
The guys that survived the P.O.W. experience returned to the U.S. and became presidents of companies, and political leaders. They discovered they had a greater ability to cope, greater perseverance, greater creativity, and courage than they ever thought they had. The irony of this is that the only way they could discover that was to have gone through this incredible trial. I began to discover that for myself. Because I was still under contract with the Chargers the strength coach took me under his wing. Day after day he helped me rebuild my body and confidence. I took it a day at a time and learned to lean on him and made small goals that I was achieving. All of a sudden July came around and I am at one hundred and eighty-five pounds. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I wonder if I can kick with the bags on. The trainer and I go out one day and I discover I can not only kick but I’m booming it. But I am thinking there is no way the Chargers are going to let me play. There’s a hundred guys in line who want my job including the kicker who took it when I got sick.
I went to the owner of the team and said, “Look there’s been a lot of public support for me. I appreciate that but you need a kicker that you can depend on. The Chargers are a good team you will make it to the play offs. All I am asking is to let me compete for my job. No special favors. Just allow me to compete.” And to my surprise he said if I could prove to the medical staff that I could protect myself they would let me try out. The owner gave me an opportunity and that’s where my life changed. So the last thing those guys in the P.O.W. camps wrestled with was is there a God? Because if there is no God then what was happening to them was just a bad nightmare with no redeeming value. But if there was a God then he was asking me to do certain things which was to believe and trust that one day it might be revealed.
If you had given me a million options I would never have put the opportunity to play football, to play in a Pro Bowl, to play seven more years after my surgeries on the list. I was just such an incredible outcome. So that was my faith journey. I’ve watched God take what were horrible circumstances and turn them into the great lessons of my life including the company that I have now. The company that I co-founded, Legacy Health Strategies is based on all the things that I learned as a player, through my illness and a company I started over thirty years ago called Great Comebacks which educates others about ileostomy. Legacy Health Strategies is built around the premise that patients need support during their illness trial and helping create that support. My business partner and I started the business in my spare bedroom. We now have thirty-six employees. We build programs that profoundly change the lives of patients everyday.
So getting back to our earlier discussion about these young athletes. Some of them will make fifty million dollars and will never need to work again. I don’t know if that is healthy or not. If you are twenty-seven years old and you’ve got fifty million dollars in the bank you think you are pretty hot stuff. In that place it’s hard to realize that there is more to life than that.
Examiner: Maturity is an important part of the process. What you are describing is a story or life path that has been experienced in many ways. Viktor Frankl told it in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. The essence of being human and in the dark moments making choices to survive for a greater purpose. The belief that nothing worse can happy than what is happening right now can happen to me. If it’s death then I will go forward by doing something productive for myself and others.
RB: I don’t think you just sit there and expect God to do something. I think you’ve got to move you’ve got to make decisions. God has an opportunity to direct your path. I think you’re right there’s a volitional component to this, a faith component, a trust and maybe it’s a view of the world.
Examiner: You’ve incorporated compassion and patience through your experiences. When you say to yourself, “If I sit here and just watch and observe for a second and allow myself to have empathy and compassion then I may understand what’s going on a little better.”
RB: We run from accountability. Somewhere along the line you have to make the decision to accept what’s happened and then figure out where to go from there. Initially it’s “Why, why me?” A very natural reaction. I was there for awhile, but it’s the wrong question. Why, is a circular loop that comes back to poor me why did this happen? It’s not fair. Once you mourn through the why question the question becomes, what now? If there is an acceptance it’s happened I can’t change it and these bags are not going away. If I didn’t have these bags I would be dead. I began to recognize that I had an opportunity to do something.
Examiner: It’s motivational for you everyday.
RB: It’s inspiring and humbling really.
Examiner: Rolf thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day for this interview.
It’s been a pleasure hearing your story.