NFL at 100: Chargers’ Benirschke thankful for second chances

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              FILE - In this Jan. 2, 1982, file photo, San Diego Chargers' Rolf Benirschke (6), right, kicks the game-winning field goal in overtime of an NFL football AFC playoff game, against the Miami Dolphins, in Miami, Fla.  Ed Luther holds the ball. The Chargers won 41-38. Decades later, Rolf Benirschke still gets emotional talking about his second chances. (AP Photo/File)
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MIAMI (AP) — Decades later, Rolf Benirschke still gets emotional discussing his second chances.

As he reminisces about an epic playoff game between his San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins, Benirschke can’t help but recall his health scare in 1979, when he became so critically ill with ulcerative colitis he had a near-death experience. Against all odds, he recovered well enough to resume his career as an NFL placekicker.

That put him at the center of the postseason drama in Miami in January 1982. With the score 38-38 in overtime, Benirschke missed a 27-yard field goal attempt that would have ended the divisional-round playoff game.

“I’m thinking the worst,” Benirschke says. “I’ve let the team down.”

But he and the Chargers won a reprieve when a subsequent field-goal try by the Dolphins’ Uwe von Schamann was blocked. The Chargers then drove 74 yards to give Benirschke a reboot, and this time he made a 29-yarder to cap a game still considered among the greatest in NFL history.

“We’re flying home — I get weepy telling the story now — and I’m thinking, ‘I should have died,'” Benirschke says, a catch in his voice. “I got a second chance to live and play again.

“And when you miss in overtime, nobody gets a second chance to kick a game winner, right?”

The Chargers play at Miami again Sunday, stirring memories of the matchup 38 years ago.

“There are so many aspects to that game — the twists and turns, and the length of the game,” says Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who threw for 433 yards. “People say, ‘It went 17 overtimes.’ No, it just went one. But it went on and on and on, it seemed like.”

The game is remembered in large part for the performance by another Chargers Hall of Famer, Kellen Winslow. He caught 13 passes for 166 yards and deflected Miami’s field-goal attempt on the final play of regulation despite a shoulder injury, pinched nerve, swollen eye, split lip and dehydration that repeatedly sent him to the sideline.

“I thought he was acting at the time,” says Nat Moore, who was a receiver for the Dolphins. “I kid him — I tell him he acted his way into the Hall of Fame.

“Nah. He had a game any player dreams about.”

After coach Don Shula’s Dolphins fell behind 24-0, backup quarterback Don Strock led a rally that put Miami ahead 38-31. The comeback included a hook and lateral for a 40-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half, sending the Orange Bowl into pandemonium.

“People call it a classic,” says Tony Nathan, who scored on the trick play and totaled 162 yards rushing and receiving. “Any game where I had a good game, I call it a classic.”

Here’s a look at what happened to the teams in the aftermath:

SAN DIEGO

Six days after sweating out the Miami marathon, the Chargers played in Cincinnati in minus-59 degree wind chill and lost the coldest game in NFL history, 27-7.

It was 13 years before San Diego again advanced to the AFC championship game. The high-scoring Fouts-Winslow teams coached by Don Coryell never reached the Super Bowl.

“It’s heartbreaking, because we think we could have won two or three Super Bowls,” Benirschke says. “I think the thing that irks us the most is it has probably kept coach Coryell from getting to the Hall of Fame. He deserves to be there.”

The win in Miami provides some consolation, Fouts says.

“Obviously it’s one of the most memorable games of all time,” Fouts says. “People say, ‘Geez, it’s too bad you never won a Super Bowl.’ Can you tell me who won, say, Super Bowl 23? But if you say, ‘Who won the epic in Miami?,’ they know. It was just one of those games.

“Thank God we won it.”

MIAMI

Nathan says Shula didn’t want the team to dwell on the loss for long.

“It helped frame our attitude as players the next time around,” Nathan says.

Indeed, a year later Miami avenged the defeat by winning a playoff rematch in the Orange Bowl against the Chargers en route to the Super Bowl. The Dolphins lost the title game that year, and were the NFL runners-up again for the 1984 season.

“A nice little run for us,” says tight end Joe Rose, who caught two touchdown passes in the overtime loss to San Diego. “That game actually helped our confidence regarding what we could do.”

OTHER MEMORABLE GAMES

—Jan. 16, 1983. This time, in the playoff rematch, it’s Miami racing to a 24-0 lead. The Dolphins intercept Fouts five times and avenge their loss a year earlier by winning 34-13.

—Jan. 10, 1993. The Dolphins win in a postseason rout, 31-0. Dan Marino throws three touchdown passes, and Stan Humphries throws four interceptions.

—Jan. 8, 1995. San Diego rallies from a 15-point deficit in the second half to win 22-21, ending Shula’s last serious bid to reach the Super Bowl. Natrone Means runs for 139 yards for San Diego, and the Dolphins’ Pete Stoyanovich misses a 48-yard field-goal try with 8 seconds to go.

—Nov. 13, 2016. Linebacker Kiko Alonso returns an interception 60 yards for a touchdown with 1:01 left, and the Dolphins win in their final visit to San Diego, 31-24. The Chargers’ Philip Rivers throws for 326 yards but is picked off four times.