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A Matter of Life and Sudden Death
Rick Reilly
October 25, 1999
The 1982 playoff between the Chargers and Dolphins wasn't just a football game and wasn't a war, exactly, but it did change a few people's lives
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October 25, 1999

A Matter Of Life And Sudden Death

The 1982 playoff between the Chargers and Dolphins wasn't just a football game and wasn't a war, exactly, but it did change a few people's lives

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One player sat slumped on a metal bench under a cold shower, too exhausted to take off his blood-caked uniform. Four were sprawled on the floor, IVs dripping into their arms. One of them tried to answer a reporter's questions, but no words would come out of his parched, chalky mouth. And that was the winning locker room.

On Jan. 2, 1982, a sticky, soaked-shirt South Florida night, the Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers played a magnificent, horrible, gripping, preposterous NFL playoff game. For four hours and five minutes, 90 men took themselves to the limit of human endurance. They cramped. They staggered. They wilted.

Then they played on, until it was no longer a game but a test of will. "People remember all kinds of details from that game," says San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow, "but they can't remember who won, because it wasn't about who won or who lost." It was about effort and failure and heroics. Each team's quarterback threw for more than 400 yards. Combined the two teams lost four fumbles and missed three easy field goals. They also scored 79 points and gained 1,036 yards. Miami coach Don Shula called it "a great game, maybe the greatest ever." San Diego coach Don Coryell said, "There has never been a game like this." Years later Miami fans voted it the greatest game in franchise history. And their team lost.

For his first 24 years Rolf Benirschke may not have had the perfect life, but it was at least in the class photo.

Handsome. Gorgeous smile. Son of an internationally acclaimed pathologist. Honor student. Stud of the UC Davis soccer team. Star kicker on the school's football team. Beloved San Diego Chargers kicker—by 1979, he was on course to set the career NFL record for field goal accuracy. Wheel of Fortune host. Spokesman for the San Diego Zoo, best zoo in the country. It was all blue skies and tables by the window. Looking back, maybe he should have seen trouble coming.

It all started with bananas.

Squalls had just blown through Miami, and the weather report called for nasty heat with humidity to match by game time, so Coryell ordered his players to eat bananas to ward off cramps. Lots and lots of bananas.

Problem was, it was New Year's Day in Miami Beach, and except for those being worn by the Carmen Miranda impersonators, bananas were a little hard to come by. Chargers' business manager Pat Curran had to go from hotel to hotel rounding them up at one dollar apiece. Not everybody got enough. "I think I had a couple beers instead," says quarterback Dan Fouts.

The Dolphins were three-point favorites, what with their Killer B's defense and their home field advantage—the dingy, rickety Orange Bowl, where Fouts remembers fans "blowing their nose on you as you walked out of the tunnel." Fouts was the brilliant, belligerent boss of the turbo-charged Chargers offense that knocked pro football on its ear. But the team had started that '81 season 6-5, and was routinely dismissed as a bunch of underachievers. Even Winslow, who led the league in catches for the second straight year, was hearing catcalls. "They call me the sissy, the San Diego chicken," he said the week before the game. "I'm the tight end who won't block. They say I need a heart transplant...that our whole team has no heart. But I know what I can do."

All of which set the game up as a barn burner: the unstoppable San Diego O versus the immovable Miami D, the two highest-ranked kickers in the AFC—Miami's Uwe von Schamann and San Diego's Benirschke.

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