SAN DIEGO — The 1985 season was a frustrating one for Charger kicker Rolf Benirschke, who was sidelined for all but the regular-season opener with a severely pulled groin muscle.
But now, Benirschke is finally starting to feel like part of the team again as he begins his 10th year with the Chargers.
"I really missed the game a lot," said Benirschke, 31. "When you're injured, you don't feel like part of the team, and you're really not part of the team when you are not contributing."
Last season, veteran kicker Bob Thomas replaced Benirschke, who injured his groin muscle while stretching before the Chargers' final exhibition game. Benirshcke's injury turned out to be related to groin muscle weakness which stemmed from the healing of the five intestinal operations he underwent for inflammatory bowel disease in the previous seven years. "I had no idea I would be out the entire year, I didn't think (the injury) was nearly that severe," Benirschke said. "I've tried to forget about last year, it was a very difficult time for me."
Thomas was released by the Chargers this spring, after it became clear Benirschke was healthy.
But Benirschke still is a little rusty. He has made only 4 of 9 extra-point attempts in the exhibition season.
Coach Don Coryell isn't concerned, however.
"He hasn't kicked well in the (exhibition) games," Coryell said. "He has been kicking well at practice. . . . I've seen him kick extremely well."
Part of Benirschke's problem during the exhibition season has been breakdowns by the Charger offensive line. He had two kicks blocked against Dallas, kicks he said he had hit well. And against Philadelphia, one of his attempts was partially blocked.
Benirschke, however, isn't making any excuses.
"I don't like to miss ever," Benirschke said. "And it has been frustrating for me to miss. But I think I have learned from the misses I've had. . . . I thinks that's why the preseason is so important."
Hank Bauer, the Chargers' special teams coach, would be happier if Benirschke had been more accurate so far, but he is satisfied with his comeback.
"It's like asking a pro golfer to come back after a year off and win his first tournament," Bauer said. "He's fine. He has been kicking the ball as well as he ever has."
Benirschke's biggest obstacle has been getting accustomed to kicking in game situations again.
"I've been kicking well in practice, I just need to get in a game situation and feel confident," he said. "I've got to understand that I'm just getting back into the swing of things.
"It has taken a little longer than I thought to get back into the right groove. You tend to scrutinize every little thing . . . you need to go out there and let it happen and things will fall into place."
Benirschke was one of the Chargers' most potent weapons until last season. He has a streak of 85 consecutive extra points in the regular season and is the third most accurate kicker in National Football League history with a .710 field-goal percentage (130 of 183 attempts).
"I want to get back in there and be the person they rely on and do my share," Benirschke said. "Last year so many games came down to kicks and it was frustrating because I couldn't be a part of it.
"With our schedule this season, there are going to be a lot of close games, and I want to be able to answer the call when the kicking units are needed."
Compared to the adversity Benirschke overcame in the past, the groin injury is nothing.
In 1978, he was diagnosed as suffering from Crohn's Disease, an incurable, chronic disease of the intestine. In 1979, he underwent two operations and nearly died from complications. His weight dropped from 174 pounds to 123.
Then, in 1982, doctors at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital determined Benirschke had ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease of the intestine that is curable by surgery. Benirschke underwent an ileostomy, and has been free of digestive symptoms since.
After all that, it's no wonder he doesn't consider his recovery from the groin injury another comeback.
"I don't think of it as a comeback," he said. "For me, it's more like I have been away for a while and I'm stepping back into it.
"Last year was really difficult for me because I felt well, just my leg was injured. When I was sick (with the ulcerative colitis) I knew football was definitely out."
Benirschke runs, lifts weights and still sees a physical therapist in an effort to ward off any future injuries. Physically, he said he knows he is fine. Now, he is concentrating on developing the right attitude.
"If you look at the history of pro kickers, most have gone through a time when they were struggling," he said. "I've had those times and made it through. Now I can lean on that and I have to recognize that it will all work itself out."