SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The Benirschke family is well known in San Diego, with father Kurt and son Rolf both becoming leaders in two very different fields.
It's a story Rolf, a longtime Chargers fan favorite, is reflecting on in his new book "Saving Wildlife," written about his father, who was a key figure in determining the mission of the San Diego Zoo.
“I’m so grateful to be able to tell dad’s story and be able to carry on his legacy at the zoo," Rolf told ABC 10News in an interview in front of the zoo's Centennial Wall, which depicts key moments in the zoo's history and includes images of Rolf and Kurt.
Kurt Benirschke grew up in Germany. He served as a medic in World War Two and nearly died at the Battle of the Bulge, which Rolf says his father never spoke about.
After the war, Kurt wanted to become a doctor. But realizing the limited opportunity he had in post-war Germany, he caught a lucky break by obtaining a rare visa to move to the United States. Kurt earned his doctorate, began a family, and soon moved to San Diego as one of the early doctors at the UC San Diego Hospital.
From there, he joined the San Diego Zoo, where he pushed for more emphasis on a scientific understanding of the animals and using that learning for the mission of saving endangered species. That led to the creation of the innovative "Frozen Zoo," where samples of numerous species have been saved for research, and which has played a leading role in conservation efforts worldwide.
Kurt shared his curiosity for science with his children, including Rolf. “There were many nights, he would wake me up at two in the morning, 'Hey Rolf, we got a call from the park, we gotta go.' And I’d jump out of bed and go and we’d take little skin biopsies. We’d get home at 5:30 and I’d have to get up at 6:00 to go to school and I just loved it.”
While Kurt expected Rolf to follow him into science, Rolf's life took a turn when he started playing football at La Jolla High School. He became a placekicker in college at UC Davis, then was drafted and traded to his hometown San Diego Chargers. Rolf says the decision to play football strained his relationship with his father.
“They’re going to pay you to kick a football? Oh my gosh. When are you going to do something worthwhile with your life?" he remembers Kurt saying. "He wasn’t kidding. It was very serious.”
It was Rolf's own brush with mortality that helped bridge that divide. “Some viewers may remember I went through a very bad illness (ulcerative colitis) in the middle of my career. Should have died. Didn’t die. Got a second chance to live. And that’s where dad and I really reconnected again.”
Rolf says his father says how he worked to heal and return to the field, but also how he used the attention he received from overcoming his illness to help further causes near to his heart, including wildlife conservation.
“We came up with the idea of creating a program called Kicks for Critters. For every field goal I made, I donated money and we got the community to raise money for the endangered species research center here.”
Kurt died in 2018, but Rolf continues his legacy by serving on the Zoo's Board of Trustees.
Rolf shared with ABC 10News Jeff Lasky about growing up at the zoo, how his father launched his career after nearly dying at the battle of the bulge, and how his Chargers' teammates reacted to Rolf's love of animals.
You can listen to the extended interview below: