By DAVE HANNEMAN
Ben Roethlisberger remembers a time when they were handing out football jerseys and they asked him what number he wanted.
He said No. 7, because that’s the number his idol, quarterback John Elway, wore.
An NFL Hall of Famer, Elway threw 300 touchdown passes in his pro football career. Last January, in a 30-17 AFC championship game loss to New England, Ben Roethlisberger threw his 301st.
“At this point in my career, somebody would come up to me almost every week and say, well you passed this guy in (total) yards or that guy in touchdowns,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s such an honor to be up there, to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys. Any time my name gets mentioned with those guys, some of the greats, it just means I’ve played a long time.”
It’s been an epic journey for a guy who, when he was very young, imagined himself becoming a spy and later, as a 1,000-point all-Ohio selection in basketball, possibly playing hoops in college. But the lanky kid with a strong arm and a strategist’s knowledge of defenses was destined to be a quarterback.
Big Ben’s strength was a knack for making the most of an opportunity, whether it was side-stepping a defensive end and stiff-arming a linebacker to completing a crucial third-down pass in a high school playoff win over Toledo Whitmer, or going from third-string to starter and winning his first 14 games when injuries sidelined Steelers starting quarterback Tommy Maddox and backup Charlie Batch early in his rookie season.
Life was better than good in the NFL spotlight.
In 2005, still just 23 years old, he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl title when he guided the Steelers to a 21-10 win over Seattle in Super Bowl XL. Three seasons later he won another, driving the Steelers 88 yards in the final two minutes of the game and capping a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII with a 6-yard TD pass to Santonio Holmes with just 35 seconds on the clock.
A Pro Bowl selection in 2007, Big Ben was a rising star in the NFL ranks. In 2008, he signed an eight-year contract with the Steelers valued at over $100 million. He made appearances on late-night TV shows, and was much sought after for endorsement deals.
Heroic figures in all the classic tales must face adversity, though, and Roethlisberger faced his in 2010 when off-field incidents led NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend the Steelers QB for six games (later reduced to four) for a “pattern of behavior and bad judgment” that he said violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
It proved to be a turning point in Roethlisberger’s life.
“There was that ‘Big Ben’ thing. Everywhere you go people are telling you how great you are,” Roethlisberger said during the Steelers’ 2010 training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. “I’ll be the first to admit it. I did get caught up in it. But that’s not who I am and that’s not who I was raised to be, so we had to make some changes.
“I’m closing a chapter in my life, and that includes a number of things — lifestyle, people, all kinds of things. I’m excited for the new beginning. It’s a new chapter in my life and I think it’s going to be a good one.”
If fame and fortune blurred the image between Big Ben the NFL football icon and Ben Roethlisberger the person, faith and family brought it back into focus.
And it started with a return to his roots, in Findlay, and a visit with Greg Creech, the pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church that Ben attended as a youth.
To this day, Ben still points to that as a turning point.
“My parents instilled in me how important faith is, and for me to be able to pass that down to my kids, to live that kind of life, is very important to me,” said Roethlisberger, who also had Creech perform the ceremony when he married Ashley Harlan in 2011.
“A lot of it is maturity. As you get older you understand things, you understand life, you understand what’s important. It’s about putting things in perspective.
“You can say that early on, football is what I did and who I was. But it’s hard when that’s the only thing you have. Now it is much easier for me to put that in perspective. Football is still what I do, but it is not who I am.
“I love playing the game, I love playing the sport for the fans, for myself, for my family. But at the end of the day, I come home to an amazing family, I have a great relationship with the Lord and those are the things that matter most to me.”
Roethlisberger will be one of six local and area standouts recognized today at Owens Community College when the Hancock Sports Hall of Fame welcomes its 33rd class of inductees. Joining Roethlisberger on the dais will be his sister Carlee, a two-sport all-Ohio selection in volleyball and basketball at Findlay High; two-time all-Ohio football player and state discus champion Mike Dillon; former McComb three-sport standout and 1973 U.S. Amateur golf qualifier Terry Grose; current Adrian College women’s basketball coach Kathy Lee Morris, a Vanlue native; and University of Findlay women’s basketball career leader in scoring and rebounding Mianda Watts.
It’s been some years since Big Ben called Findlay home. But in some ways, it always will be.
“Pittsburgh is home now because my wife, my kids, my family are there,” he said.
“But I was raised here, and I’m excited to be coming back, excited to be seeing people I haven’t seen in a while.
“I appreciate all those people who always supported me and embraced me as a Findlay kid. That means a lot to me, and I’m grateful to them for that, more than they will probably ever know.”
Inducted into the Miami of Ohio Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Mid-American Conference Hall of Fame in 2015, Ben will be making his third hall of fame induction speech today. The way his career is going — he’s among the top-10 quarterbacks all time in passing yards (10th, 46,814), TDs (ninth, 301), wins (eighth, 123) and career quarterback rating (fourth, 94.1) — it won’t be his last.
Roethlisberger, who turned 35 in March, hinted after the playoff loss to New England that he might consider retiring. He informed the Steelers’ front office earlier this month, though, that he would be returning for a 14th season with the team.
“I spent a lot of time thinking and praying about it,” Roethlisberger said.
“I have three young ones now (two boys and a girl), and they’re awesome. They’re growing like weeds. They’re so much fun. Every day is a new adventure with them.
“I don’t want to play myself into the ground. I don’t want to be that guy who, 10 years from now, can’t get out there and throw the ball with my kids.
“At some point I’ll look back and probably just shake my head. But I don’t want to do that yet because when I do that, it will mean I’m done playing, and I feel I still have some stories left to write.”
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