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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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When Winslow hit the ground, he got history's first all-body cramp. He lay on the field, spasming from his calves to his neck. He was carried off again. He would return again.

Overtime.

Benirschke is a humble man who has spent half his life raising cash for critters and blood for people, but he seems to have "trouble" on his speed dial. He nearly lost his wife, Mary, in childbirth after she'd spent the last five months of her pregnancy in bed. He nearly lost his newborn daughter, Kari, that same day—the nurses woke him up in the hospital at 4 a.m. so he could say goodbye to her. Somehow she survived. She has cerebral palsy, but she's alive and she's happy.

He and Mary adopted a second daughter, Christina, in 1995 and were beside themselves with joy. Eight days later, the biological mother rang their doorbell and took Christina away.

He flew to Russia to bring home an orphan, only to be told he also had to take the boy's brother, who had a cleft lip, refused to eat, was malnourished and infected with scabies. Benirschke was given no health reports. He couldn't reach his wife. He ran out of time. He brought home two orphans.

"We never ask, 'Why us?' " Benirschke says. "We just try to build our patience and resolve as deep as they'll go."

He'd need more.

The idea of overtime on this thick, broiled night was about as appetizing to the players as a bowl of hot soup. Still, the marathon ran on. "You hear coaches say, 'Leave everything on the field,' " says Miami lineman Ed Newman, now a judge. "Well, that actually happened that day. Both teams. We really did give it all we had. Everything."

Even Benirschke was exhausted. Not physically, mentally. All game he'd been stretching, running, kicking—always averting his eyes from his teammates. He was the one apart, the one man on the team with the clean jersey, getting himself ready for the moment he knew was coming: when all the gazelles and gorillas would leave the field and ask him to finish what they could not.

San Diego won the flip, took the kickoff and cut through Miami. In five minutes they were at the Miami eight-yard line, second down. Coryell called for Benirschke to kick a 27-yarder. On the sideline, San Diego's Shaw started pulling the tape off his wrists. Rolf just doesn't miss from there, he thought. No lie. Benirschke hadn't missed from inside the 30 all year, and two of those kicks had given the team last-second wins. Come to think of it, Benirschke had kicked a 28-yarder to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl in overtime last season.

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