GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Before there was a quarterback who read answers on "Jeopardy!", there was a kicker who spun the "Wheel of Fortune."
As NFL-players-turned-game-show-hosts go, Rolf Benirschke did on "Wheel of Fortune" more than 30 years ago what Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has done on "Jeopardy!" the past two weeks.
Benirschke, 66, had a one-year run as host of "Wheel of Fortune" in 1989. Following a 10-year career as a kicker for the San Diego Chargers, he replaced Pat Sajak as the host of the daytime version of the show. Sajak left to host a short-lived late night talk show but continued to host the evening syndicated version of the game show. At that time, the show aired twice a day.
Unlike Rodgers, an avid fan and former celebrity contestant on "Jeopardy!", Benirschke had no previous experience or even an affinity for the game show he hosted.
He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
It started with an appearance on a local morning show in Los Angeles, where Benirschke went on behalf of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (he suffered from ulcerative colitis during his playing career).
He joked that the two things you never want to do in TV are follow kids and follow animals. Sure enough, the first guests were from a children’s theater group performing "Les Miserables," and the second was a man who was promoting what would be the “pet of the 1990s -- rabbits.”
“This guy comes out with 30 different rabbits on the stage, these cute floppy-eared rabbits,” Benirschke said. “Well, they start doing what rabbits do: they start humping each other ... The two hosts lose total control of the show and it ends with the host saying, ‘Back in a moment with Rolf Benirschke.’ They come back from break, bring me out and we had some fun with that.”
Little did Benirschke know but TV executive and "Wheel of Fortune" creator Merv Griffin happened to catch the segment. Griffin called him a few days later and wanted to know if Benirschke was interested in auditioning for a new game show.
“I was transitioning out of football, I had ideas of what I wanted to do but I wasn’t exactly sure, so I was curious,” Benirschke said. “I met him a couple of times.”
The next thing Benirschke knew, Griffin wanted him on "Wheel of Fortune."
“I was kind of curious, so I go up there and I meet Vanna [White], I meet the cast, I meet Charlie the voice, I meet the different producers,” he said. “The next thing I know, I’m coming back from giving a talk in New York on a Sunday and on my answering machine was a message:
"'You’ve been selected to be the next host of the daytime version of "Wheel of Fortune." Please show up at the studio on Thursday for the taping of the first five shows.' I’m laughing. It’s Sunday night, you’re going to put this rookie in front of your audience on Thursday.”
Sure enough, White introduced the "Wheel of Fortune" world to Benirschke on the first episode.
It’s not all that different from how Benirschke got into football.
“I was a reluctant football player to start with,” he said.
He played soccer growing up on the East Coast, where his father was a medical school professor at Harvard and Dartmouth. As a high school junior, his family moved to San Diego.
“The reason I ended up in football is one day after soccer practice, some of the guys from the football team came over and asked if any of us had ever kicked a football,” he said. “So the next thing I know, we’re having a little kicking competition, and I was the last guy standing. It wasn’t hard. It’s never been hard.
“But what I didn’t know is the football coach was watching and he came over to me and asked me if I would kick my senior year. I was probably 135 pounds then and I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s probably not for me.’ And then he kind of sent some of the football players after me, and I played senior year.”
Benirschke became an all-conference kicker and started to receive scholarship offers from several of the California Pac-10 schools before choosing UC Davis.
Benirschke said he has not seen any of the "Jeopardy!" shows with Rodgers, whose two-week stint ends Friday. But he has read about it and is not surprised Rodgers has enjoyed it. He and Rodgers actually belonged to the same golf club, The Santaluz Club, when they lived in San Diego, and bumped into each other a few times on the course.
“Here’s the thing: He’s a bright guy, and I think he enjoys that,” Benirschke said. “It gets to show the world that football players aren’t just football players. There are some really bright guys in the league that do other things.”
He also heard that Rodgers has an interest in the job full time even while playing in the NFL. Benirschke thinks that might be difficult.
“We taped a month worth of shows in a week,” Benirschke said. “Five on Monday, five on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, break Thursday and do the last five on Friday. So I’d go up there a week a month to do that. People probably don’t know that’s how it works. It’s an interesting situation. I remember I got laryngitis, I got hoarse one week and America thought I was sick for a month because you’re taping 20 shows in a week.
“You can’t do that obviously during the season, and it’s year-round. So I’m not sure how you’d do that.”
These days, Benirschke works as a motivational speaker and a Crohn's and colitis advocate for patients.
"'Wheel of Fortune' was a side street for me," he said. "I don’t think I’m the Hollywood type, but Aaron could be."