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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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Three times Strock had prepared to ride off into the sunset at the end of the movie—and three times his horse had broken a leg.

In 1998, 19 years after his last surgery, Benirschke took a standard physical for a life insurance policy. Doctors said his blood showed elevated levels of liver enzymes. This time, Benirschke had hepatitis C, which causes an inflammation of the liver that can lead to cancer and, often, death. Doctors told him that one of those 78 units of blood he received during his surgery in 1979 had probably been infected with the hepatitis virus.

Benirschke dug in. Again. As he'd done with the ulcerative colitis, he decided to make himself an expert on hepatitis C. There were days he wished he hadn't.

Back came the Chargers. "You find something deep down inside you," says Winslow, "and you push on." Almost robotically Fouts drove his team again. He hit Brooks and Chandler and Chandler again, and then Joiner for 39 yards, down to the Miami 10.

Fate, in a forgiving mood, presented Benirschke with a second chance. Guard Doug Wilkerson approached Benirschke on the sideline. "You know that giraffe at your zoo?" he asked.

"Yeah?" said Benirschke, warily.

"Well, if you miss this, I'm gonna go down there and cut its throat."

The giraffe lived. This time San Diego's field goal unit was ready and the rhythm was fine. Benirschke says he didn't even have butterflies. The snap was sweet, and the kick perfect. Wasn't it? "There was just this silence," Benirschke remembers. The linemen for both teams were still lying on the ground. Nobody was celebrating. Benirschke turned to Luther and said, "Didn't it go through?"

"Yes!" Luther said, and Benirschke was mobbed by his teammates.

"Hold on! Hold on!" Benirschke yelled. Not every hero has to watch out for his ostomy pouch.

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