Returning the Love at Qualcomm Stadium
May 1, 2003 - Former San Diego Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke is the Chair of Mission San Diego With Billy Graham. Having come to Christ through the witness of a teammate more than two decades ago, Benirschke hopes to see thousands have a similar experience through the words of Billy Graham May 8-11, 2003, at Qualcomm Stadium.
by Rolf Benirschke
When I step up to the podium to share my testimony at Mission San Diego, I know a flood of emotions and memories will be running through my mind. You see, on the very same turf where the stage will be standing, I used to make my living kicking field goals for the San Diego Chargers. Now, however, I will have the privilege of doing something of much greater significance, and I pray I can split the uprights with the message that God loves each of us and pursues us even when we try to run from Him.
How I became an NFL kicker is a miracle in itself and reminds me that God does have a plan for our lives—even if we don't understand it. My journey began during my senior year in high school when my friends, who had seen me kick a soccer ball, talked me into trying out for the football team. I was a reluctant participant, but I enjoyed the experience.
Although I was recruited out of high school by several large, West Coast colleges, I opted to study zoology at the University of California at Davis, and I didn't even consider continuing my football career. But it is now clear to me that God had different plans, and I was again talked into kicking by a persistent football coach who had heard about me. I ended up playing all four years in college but was as surprised as anyone when I was drafted into the NFL.
Although I was successful in college and I knew I could kick a football, nothing could have prepared me for the pressure of playing in the NFL. It was thrilling to compete at the highest level and exhilarating to play in front of sold-out crowds and national television audiences. The pressure was intense, but the euphoria of success was intoxicating.
But with victories also came losses, and I soon found myself trying to deal with the roller-coaster ride of emotions that is a part of professional athletics. When I played well, I felt good about myself; when I didn't, I was miserable. For most players, self-worth is directly related to performance on the field. But a couple of guys had a peace about them that was evident. In only a short time, I figured out that they were Christians and that they got their sense of worth from a different Source than I did.
One of those Christians was my holder, Mike Fuller, the guy who quite literally held my football future in his hands every time I went out to kick. It didn't matter how good a kicker I was; if the hold was bad, I had no chance of making the kick. Little did I know that Mike Fuller would have an impact on ensuring my eternal future as well.
Mike was a superb holder and became a special friend. He was a constant source of encouragement in a very critical world and invited me to attend our team chapels, where I heard the Gospel explained by some of San Diego's most prominent pastors, including David Jeremiah and Mike MacIntosh. The seeds of faith were planted inside of me, and I made a decision for Christ.
However, just as I was beginning to feel comfortable about my place in the NFL, I was blindsided by an illness that would threaten not only my career but also my life. As I started my second season, I began experiencing abdominal cramps, nausea and bloody diarrhea. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis but continued to play, hoping the symptoms of this chronic disease would go away. They didn't—in fact, they got worse. Midway through my third year in the league, I collapsed on the team plane following a road game.
I was rushed to the hospital, where I had emergency surgery to remove a portion of my colon. There were complications, though, and five days later I needed a second operation. I awoke weighing 123 pounds—down from my normal 180—and wearing two ostomy bags on my side. My abdomen was stitched together with wire sutures, and the physicians weren't sure if I would make it. At that point I didn't much care. I was ready to die. I had been battling my illness for more than a year, and I was completely worn out. Besides, I knew that if my time was up, I would soon be with the Lord.
But God wasn't ready to take me. I was allowed to live. Amazingly, after much hard work and support from a community that wouldn't give up on me, I returned to the team the next year. I became the first NFL player—and probably the first professional athlete—to play with an ostomy bag. In the competitive world of the NFL, where the sick and the injured are usually cast away, this was unheard of.
I am embarrassed to say, however, that as I returned to my old form, I turned away from God. I wasn't ready to trust Him with everything, and I became busy living for me. I wasn't in an accountability group or a Bible study. I was living the parable of the seed that landed in the thorns, took root and blossomed—only to get choked out by the attractions of the world and the pursuit of fame and fortune.
But we serve a loving and patient Lord who gives us second chances. Sadly, it wasn't until after I left the game seven years later that I was challenged again to re-examine my life. The challenge this time came from the young woman I would marry. Together, we committed to building our marriage and family on the rock of the Lord. He has always been with us as we have endured three miscarriages and a stillborn daughter as well as the issues resulting from a baby girl born 13 weeks early. We've also adopted two young boys from Russia and have dealt with difficulties that come with kids who grow up in orphanages. Still, the Lord has been faithful to comfort and to provide for us.
As the Chair of Mission San Diego with Billy Graham, I feel like Moses did—like God picked the wrong guy. But just as Moses learned, this isn't about me. Rather, it's about God working through a servant who desires to be obedient. I am humbled to serve in this capacity and am overwhelmed at the way the Mission has unified our churches, has broken down denominational barriers, and has reached across the border into Mexico. For me, it is a joy to return to my community some of the love that was poured over me and also to share in presenting a hope and a future that only a relationship with Jesus Christ can offer.