Del Mar resident and former San Diego Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke was inducted into the Junior Achievement of San Diego County’s San Diego Business Hall of Fame at a Sept. 15 gala held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.
Previous Hall of Fame laureates help select the new honorees, looking for individuals who have made significant contributions to the San Diego community. Junior Achievement Board Co-Chair Mike Schleyhahn said the choice to honor Benirschke was for a combination of both his business and philanthropic accomplishments.
“I think he represents a living legend in San Diego,” Schleyhahn said. “He’s a prime example of someone who persevered when things didn’t always go his way. He’s the epitome of what we’re looking for in our laureates.”
Benirschke was the Chargers’ kicker for 10 years, receiving Pro Bowl honors as well as NFL Man of the Year Award, NFL Player Association Hero of the Year and the Byron “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year Award, which honors a player who has best served his team, community and country.
He was inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame in 1997.
After his playing career ended, Benirschke co-founded Legacy Health Strategies, a company that creates personalized patient support for medical devices, pharmaceutical companies and health systems.
He is also a frequent inspirational speaker and is involved in numerous philanthropic organizations, including United Cerebral Palsy, UCSD Medical Center, the Zoological Society of San Diego, United Way and the San Diego Blood Bank.
“It’s humbling,” Benirschke said of his induction into his latest Hall of Fame. “I had a chance to visit BizTown and the Junior Achievement facility and see the Hall of Fame members’ photos on the wall. It was icons of the community, people who really shaped and built and influenced the city and it’s humbling to be a part of that group.”
Benirschke, a San Diego native, is remembered for overcoming great challenges in his career, being diagnosed with life-threatening ulcerative colitis in his second season as a Charger. He underwent two major surgeries but he was undeterred by his condition, returning to play seven more seasons. His experience led him to create Great Comebacks, a patient support program that has provided information and inspiration for ostomy patients for more than 30 years.
“I know I’m alive because of the support I’ve received in this community,” Benirschke said, noting he will never forget the prayers, the letters and the physical blood given by members of the community.
When Benirschke fell ill on a team flight, he required two surgeries and 80 pints of blood and, as a result, the Chargers teamed with the San Diego Blood Bank in 1979 to host a drive to help save lives.
The tradition has continued — the 36th annual Chargers Blood Drive will be held on Nov. 24 this year at the Town and Country Convention Center.
Benirschke said the most significant moment of his Chargers career came on Nov. 18, 1979 when, after his illness, he came back to the team weighing just 120 pounds. He could hardly walk, and the team made him an honorary team captain for the coin toss for a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The crowd stood and showered him with cheers and applause.
“It was such great positive support for me that really showed me that people really do care about the team and the players,” Benirschke said. “I’ll never forget it, the kindness of this community, the community safety net that you never knew existed until you fall into it.”
Benirschke said he is honored to now be affiliated with such a valuable organization as Junior Achievement and its mission to reach 53,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grades each year, to teach them how to get a job, start a business and how money works.
Through JA, students visit BizTown, a mini-city in which kids discover how the real world works through a simulated workday experience.
Junior Achievement’s latest program, Mission Fed Finance Park, is set to open on Oct. 1.
Martha Phillips, project manager, said the high-tech learning center helps students learn about personal finance and career planning. Phillips said they hope for Finance Park to be for more than just high school students, but a place for families to come to learn as well as a place companies can send employees, a true community asset.
“I love what Junior Achievement stands for,” Benirschke said. “It gives kids the opportunity to learn and be exposed to things that can help to dramatically influence their lives.”
If Benirschke’s career has shown anything, it’s how a football team can mean more than just the team you root for on game day, and its players can represent more than just points on a fantasy team. As Benirschke said, a football team and its players can connect and give back to a community, develop partnerships and, in his case, a special and lasting relationship with fans.
“To think that might go away is heartbreaking to a lot of us,” Benirschke said.
For information on Junior Achievement of San Diego County, visit www.jasandiego.org.