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Alive and kicking

Rolf Benirschke was an up-and-coming placekicker for the San Diego Chargers, earning a reputation as one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history – until 1979 when a little-understood intestinal illness turned his life upside down. Despite four major abdominal surgeries that left him near death and wearing an ostomy pouch, he surprised his doctors and teammates by returning to the NFL for seven more seasons. The 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff Game, in which Benirschke kicked the winning field goal in overtime to beat the Miami Dolphins, was voted one of the top 10 most memorable games in NFL history.

Following is an excerpt from Benirschke’s book, Alive and Kicking.

By Rolf Benirschke

The development of my faith has been a journey. God was my anchor when I was at my lowest point during the 1979 surgeries. When I stood at the edge of the cliff, staring into the dark abyss, I asked some tough questions: What happens when I die? Is that it? Is there any hope? Is this all there is to life?

My faith allowed me to come to grips with dying; and, as a result, a feeling of extraordinary calm came over me. I felt at peace with the Lord. I meant it when I told my father not to let the doctors keep me artificially alive it if meant being on life support. I was prepared to die and meet my Creator.

But looking back over the years, I can see where I had more of an intellectual faith during those dark days in ICU. I believed because it was comforting — not because I had a relationship with Christ. Instead, I had an instinctual faith that things were going to work out, and if they didn’t … well, that was OK, too.

But once I got back on my feet, I put God back in His box. I appreciate You getting me through this, but I’ve got a great life as an NFL kicker going now. See You later. I resumed taking charge of my life and went back to doing things that I knew were inappropriate. I wasn’t a bad person, but I was living a hypocritical life. My guilt kept me from going back to church; and the more I stayed away from Christian fellowship, the easier it was to rationalize my behavior.

Perhaps that was because my faith was a mile wide and only an inch deep. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have strong friends to hold me accountable. Or, perhaps it was because I was just unwilling to turn everything over to God.

As a kid, I went to mass and catechism class during the week. I took Communion regularly and was confirmed in the Catholic faith. But in the winter, when the snow was good, skiing at the Dartmouth Skiway often took precedence over the Sabbath.

Not until my rookie season with the Chargers did I encounter a group of Christians for the first time. Included in that group was Mike Fuller, a special guy who also happened to be my holder.

For a kicker, there are no more valuable people on the team than his holder and his snapper. I absolutely relied on Mike Fuller. But Mike Fuller absolutely relied on Jesus Christ.

No matter how the season was going, Mike was always the same. Oh, Mike was as competitive as everyone else, but there was a calm about him that was hard to put your finger on. Whether we were going out to kick a game-winning field goal or a meaningless extra point with a 30-point lead, Mike was always the same. I didn’t understand it, but I knew I wanted it.

When Mike encouraged me to attend team chapel, I gladly accepted. Mike planted the seeds of faith inside me, but it wasn’t until I became sick with inflammatory bowel disease a year later that I began moving closer to Christ.

During my battle with ulcerative colitis, I discovered the fellowship of Christian friends and the comfort that reading the Bible brings. So when I lay there in the hospital in the fall of ’79, I honestly felt I had nothing to fear … no matter what happened.

I believed I had done everything I could do. I had excellent medical resources, talented doctors, attentive nurses, a loving family and faithful friends. Although I trusted that God was providing, it was still sad to see the pain on my parents’ faces. I knew that if I died my death would send them into deep grief. Still, God was in control, I told myself, and I rested in that thought.

The ABCs of salvation

Knowing your sins are forgiven and you are ready for heaven is as simple as following these steps:

A. Admit you have sinned. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

B. Believe in Jesus. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

C. Confess and leave your sin. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

For further help, contact the Assemblies of God church near you. If you would like someone to pray with you concerning your decision to follow Jesus Christ, please call:
1-800-4PRAYER
,
the Assemblies of God
National Prayer Center

 

The regular visits I was getting from my minister friend, Jim Adkins, were a tremendous source of strength. He was kind, gentle, sensitive and giving. He read comforting Scriptures and fed my soul. That helped a great deal. One of my nurses, Sheana Funkhauser, regularly prayed with me. I liked that.

But all those years I never knew that believing in Jesus Christ is not a religion — it’s a relationship. All Christ was asking me was to believe in Him, and I would have eternal salvation. You see, I had always believed that I had to do something to earn my salvation — attending team chapels, having the right person pray for me, giving money to charitable organizations. I always thought that I had to be good — or at least better than my teammates — to go to heaven. But no, all I had to do was accept His free gift by saying, "I believe in You, and I humbly turn my life over to You, asking that You forgive my sins and take control of today and tomorrow."

In the end, that’s all Christ wanted, and when I made that commitment, everything changed — including my relationship with my wife, Mary.

Our lives haven’t been the same since.

Editor’s note: You can make this same decision that Rolf Benirschke — and many other NFL players — made. Just follow the ABCs of salvation on this page.

 


From Alive and Kicking by Rolf Benirschke with Mike Yorkey. San Diego: The Firefly Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission.

 

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