Rolf Benirschke's Great Comeback from Ulcerative Colitis

An Ostomy Didn't Stop This Former Place-kicker For The San Diego Chargers

San Diego Chargers
Former San Diego Charger Rolf Benirschke lived with ulcerative colitis before the advent of biologic medications or j-pouch surgery. He's a permanent ostomate who continues to advocate for people with IBD. Image © Peter G. Aiken / Getty Images

In the 1977 National Football League draft, 22-year old Rolf Benirschke was drafted second-to-last by the Oakland Raiders. Soon after, he was part of a deal that sent him to the San Diego Chargers for his rookie year in the NFL. Once he became a member of the team, Rolf didn't disappoint Chargers fans. He kicked twelve consecutive field goals, which was a new team record.

During the 1978 football season, Rolf's second season with the Chargers, his health began to decline.

He was plagued by symptoms that included fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. At first he thought it was the flu, but as the symptoms continued, it was obvious that his illness was more serious.

A Diagnosis Changed Nothing

Rolf was eventually diagnosed with a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)ulcerative colitis. Unwilling to let the disease get the best of him and affect his career, he continued to play football. He was hospitalized during much of the 1978-79 season. At times he spent entire weeks hospitalized, only leaving to play football.

Despite what was happening off the field, on the field Rolf continued to keep up the momentum he'd built in his first season. He played every game in his second season with the Chargers and converted 34 of 38 field goals.

Finally, in his third season in the NFL, Rolf collapsed while on the team plane. He was immediately rushed to the hospital.

This time, instead of treating the disease medically, the decision to have surgery was made. Rolf underwent two surgeries to remove his colon (large intestine), and was so ill that he was placed in the intensive care unit. When he was finally released from the hospital, he weighed only 124 pounds.

He was also wearing two ostomy appliances.

A Great Comeback

Rolf's inner strength and determination helped him to stay on the road to recovery from abdominal surgery. Soon after his release from the hospital, his team extended an invitation to come to a home game. Even though he was weak and could barely walk, Rolf accepted. He was voted honorary captain, and was asked to walk onto the field for the pre-game coin flip. Teammate Louie Kelcher walked onto the field with Rolf, holding his hand. The crowd came to their feet in a standing ovation. Rolf had made his Great Comeback.

The 1979 season saw a healthier Rolf back at his job of place-kicker for the Chargers. He went on to play 7 more seasons in the NFL and score 766 points: another team record.

Since retiring from the NFL, Rolf has been a spokesperson and advocate for people with IBD and ostomies. His inspiring book, Alive and Kicking, describes his fight to regain his life and go back to football after being devastated by his ulcerative colitis and the surgeries to treat it. He is chairperson for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America's (CCFA) Sports Council, and both chairperson and spokesperson for The Great Comebacks Award Program.

The Great Comebacks Award Program

The Great Comebacks Award Program is intended to recognize ostomates who have overcome challenges in their lives.

Past award winners include a firefighter, a psychologist, a cardiologist, a teacher, a National Park Ranger, and a medical illustrator.

"When I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis," Rolf remembers, "I was convinced in my mind (wrongly) that if I submitted to surgery, I would be forced to give up football and all the other activities I loved. It was during my recovery that I realized that there were thousands of other people living with the same fears I had experienced. Great Comebacks was created to encourage others by finding inspirational stories and recognizing the courageous people who have overcome IBD or ostomy surgery."

In addition to his work with the CCFA and Great Comebacks, Rolf enjoys skiing, roller hockey, scuba diving, and spending time with his wife and their four children. He truly is an inspiration to those who are dealing with IBD and ostomy surgery.

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