Benirschke was still no cinch to make the team. Mike Wood had been installed as his replacement. In nine games, Wood had been successful on 11 of 14 field-goal attempts and had tied Benirschke's team record with a 4-for-4 effort against Cincinnati. In camp the two became fast friends and ardent rooters for each other, though competitors for the same job. When the season began, Wood was the kickoff man and Benirschke the kicker. Against Seattle in the opener, Benirschke booted a 29-and a 41-yarder. He had come back, not simply from injury but from the brink of oblivion.
In Sevier's opinion, Benirschke is even stronger than before. His weight has increased to 180 pounds, and it seems to have added distance to his kicks. "He had a 55-yarder in the preseason," says Sevier, "and a 57-yarder in practice." He set a personal and club record with a 53-yarder against Denver in the third game of the season. With Wood now on the injured reserve list with a groin-muscle pull, the Chargers are using Benirschke once again on kickoffs, although there are lingering doubts whether he will be able to "take a hit."
Benirschke says he has never felt better. He is his old friendly and active self, involved in myriad projects around San Diego. As a student of zoology and a lifelong lover of animals, he has taken an active role in raising money for the San Diego Zoo's research department, which, coincidentally, is headed by his father. He is also raising funds for the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis and has moonlighted as the color man on broadcasts of Sockers games. He is a bird watcher and a naturalist, pastimes he enjoys even more now that sights and sounds he once accepted without notice have gained a special meaning. "It sounds like a clich�, I know. But when you've been very ill, the good things look different," he says. "I love the beautiful sunshine we have here in San Diego. I love laughing and being around people. And yes, I love kicking footballs again."