SAN DIEGO -- Among the invited guests were a snake named Irvine, a leopard named Kelai and an owl named Wahooee.

It wasn't your average retirement party, but then, Rolf Benirschke isn't average. The setting -- the Rondavel Room at the San Diego Zoo -- was tailor-made for a man whose "Kicks for Critters" project has raised more than $1 million for the zoo's Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species, including $50 for each field goal he kicked as a Charger.

So it was in a most public forum Dec. 16 that Benirschke, 32, announced his retirement from football. Although his action was not a surprise, he thought it best to make the news official.

Benirschke became an institution as the Chargers' kicker in a 10-year career that ended Aug. 31 when, after he lost his job to rookie Vince Abbott, he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys for a draft choice. He was released by the Cowboys Sept. 7.

"I realize that, for a lot of people, this is a questionable announcement," Benirschke said. "The impression is that I'm already retired. But in the public's mind and in the NFL's mind, I'm not retired. Since several teams have called me and asked if I would kick for them, I'm making a formal announcement."

Benirschke would not say which teams had been in contact, but he did say that one was in Super Bowl contention.

"It's time to hang up my cleats and go on to life after football," he said. "It wasn't a decision that was easily arrived at. There were many people who wanted me to go to another city and keep playing.

Benirschke said he would have no trouble keeping busy in retirement. He is a partner in a travel agency and a limousine service, and he recently joined a marketing company.

Benirschke's father, Kurt, a native of Germany, is a professor of pathology at the University of California at San Diego and has won international acclaim for his work. His duties prevented him from attending Wednesday, but Benirschke's mother, Marion, was there and recalled how Rolf had gravitated into football.

"Rolf had played soccer in the northeast {he was born in Boston}, and when he was a senior at La Jolla {Calif.} High School, one of his friends asked him if he could kick a football. He said he would give it a try, and in the second game he played, he kicked a 44-yard field goal.

"His father wanted him to go to Stanford and study to be a veterinarian. So what happened? He went to UC-Davis and played both soccer and football. Sometimes both teams played the same day, so the team physician flew him from one game to another. One day he was late for the football game, and they almost didn't let him in. They said he didn't look like a football player."

After kicking 29 field goals in 43 attempts in college, including 10 in a row at one point and 14 of 19 as a senior, Benirschke was drafted in the 12th and last round in 1977 by the Oakland Raiders. The Chargers picked him up on waivers before that season.

As it turned out, Benirschke retired as the third-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history. He made 146 field goals in 208 tries for a .702 average, topped only by Eddie Murray of Detroit at .749 and Nick Lowery of Kansas City at .733. He is the Chargers' all-time scoring leader with 766 points and holds 15 club records.

Benirschke did all this despite being stricken in 1978 with an illness that threatened his life. His weight plunged from 174 pounds to 123 and he was thought to have Crohn's disease.

He played again in 1979, but the illness recurred and knocked him out after four games. He came back for a complete season in 1980, and in 1982 the illness was finally diagnosed as ulcerative colitis.

"There was a point where I didn't think I'd make it," he said. "I certainly didn't think I'd ever play football again. I had this terrible stomach pain, then it subsided, and then it came back.

"They operated twice, and I had complications. My mother and father were at the hospital every day, and they helped me through. Once I got out of the hospital, Phil Tyne, our strength coach, walked me through my recovery. I owe a lot to a lot of people."

For his comeback, Benirschke was honored as hero of the year by the NFL Players Association and voted most courageous athlete by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association. The Chargers initiated a blood drive to help him through his illness, and the drive now is one of the nation's largest.