EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the first in a five-day series about individuals from this area who play or coach in the National Football League. The NFL’s regular season begins Thursday.
By DAVE HANNEMAN
By the time Ben Roethlisberger joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004, men with Hall of Fame names like Bradshaw and Harris and Swann and Lambert and “Mean Joe” had carved out an impressive history for the organization.
As the new kid out of Findlay High School and the Mid-American Conference, Roethlisberger was determined to not only add to the legacy, but put his own stamp on it as well.
“When I got to Pittsburgh, it was Terry Bradshaw. Everybody said, ‘This is what you have to live up to,'” Roethlisberger said.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t need to be Terry Bradshaw. I need to be the best Ben Roethlisberger I can be.’
“Terry Bradshaw was a great quarterback and had a great career. But the message I always wanted to make was, ‘Don’t try to fill someone else’s shoes; believe in yourself and make your own path.'”
Fourteen years later, Roethlisberger’s size 13 cleats have churned out a Hall of Fame-caliber career highlighted by two Super Bowl championships (2006, 2009) in three Super Bowl appearances. His 148 career wins are the seventh-most of any quarterback in NFL history and his .676 winning percentage (148-71) is fourth-highest of any NFL quarterback with at least 100 career wins.
Not bad for a guy who was the starting quarterback just one year in high school, and in college didn’t attend an FBS power school that played in front of a national prime-time audience every Saturday.
Truth be told, Roethlisberger credits that small-market, Midwest background for much of his success.
“It’s the work ethic. It’s blue collar. It’s what this area is all about. That’s why Pittsburgh worked so well for me. It has that same kind of work ethic,” Roethlisberger said in June during a celebrity softball game he set up in Findlay to raise funds to benefit Findlay High athletics and the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation. Over the years the foundation has contributed around $2 million to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as well as K-9 and service dog units for police and fire departments throughout the U.S.
“I’m from Findlay, Ohio. I’m not knocking Findlay, Ohio, but it’s not the biggest city in the world,” he said. “I went to Miami of Ohio. I’m not knocking Miami of Ohio, but it’s not the biggest (college) in the world, either.
“I don’t care who you are, you have to understand (that) your ability can only take you so far. The next step is: What is your work ethic going to be? Are you going to take that extra step? Are you going to say, ‘I’m tired and I don’t want to work today.’ Are you going to go home and rest or are you going to go work out? Are you going to throw a ball, catch a ball, kick a ball?
“What are you going to do on days when you don’t feel like doing it?
“…At the time you feel like, ‘Man, I wish I didn’t have to do this.’ But when you look back at it you’re going to say, ‘I’m glad I didn’t take that day off.’
“That’s what a great work ethic will do for you. You can always find a way if you believe in yourself. If you believe in what you want to do, if you set your goals as high as you can, I mean, reach for the stars and see how far you can go.”
Following record-setting careers at Findlay High and Miami of Ohio, Roethlisberger, the No. 11 pick in the 2004 NFL draft, was thrust into a starting role when injuries sidelined Steelers’ starter Tommy Maddox and backup Charlie Batch.
Roethlisberger responded by winning his first 14 starts, quarterbacked Pittsburgh to the AFC championship game and was a unanimous choice as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Thirteen years, 186 games and two Super Bowl titles later, Roethlisberger knows he’s on the lee side of his career. His numbers — eighth all-time in passing yards (51,065) and completions (4,164); sixth all-time in TD passes (354) and fourth-quarter comebacks (29) — are Hall of Fame worthy.
Last season he became the first quarterback in history to have three 500-yard passing games and was named to the Pro Bowl for the sixth time.
But Roethlisberger turned 36 in March, and that dreaded “R” word, retirement, has been mentioned a time or two in recent years. One of the first occasions was after the 2016 season ended with a 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC championship game.
It popped up again — indirectly — when he said, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” after throwing five interceptions, including two pick-sixes, in a 30-9 loss to Jacksonville last October.
That loss dropped Pittsburgh to 3-2 on the season. But Roethlisberger and the Steelers rebounded to win eight straight games, go 13-3 in the regular season and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Another loss to Jacksonville, this time 45-42 in the second round of the playoffs, despite 469 yards passing and five touchdowns by Roethlisberger, ended the Steelers’ season. And while no one was outspokenly talking retirement, a lot of people had to be thinking it, considering Roethlisberger’s age and the fact that while he was climbing into the NFL’s top 10 in several career statistical categories, he also last season became the fifth-most-sacked quarterback (477) in NFL history.
He’ll likely pass No. 3 Dave Krieg (494 sacks, 19 seasons) and No. 4 Randall Cunningham (484, 16 seasons) on that black and blue list this season, leaving only Brett Favre (525, 20 seasons) and John Elway (516, 16 seasons).
The only other active quarterback among the top 14 on the sacked list is New England’s Tom Brady (452), and he’s played four more years than Roethlisberger.
Historically, the Steelers have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL. But time stops for no man or machine, and at some point Pittsburgh’s front office knew there would come a transition.
That’s one reason Pittsburgh drafted Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round of the 2017 draft and Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph in the third round this year.
Landry Jones, who is entering the final year of his contract after backing up Roethlisberger last season, gives Pittsburgh a proven sub and a fourth quarterback on the roster.
The competitive fire still burns hot in Roethlisberger, though.
He has, in fact, hinted he’d like to play possibly three more seasons, and he backs up that line of thinking with some sound reasoning.
“My linemen are all back, and that’s a big factor for me,” said Roethlisberger, who was sacked 21 times last season, the third-lowest total of his 14-year career.
“Those guys are playing as well as anyone. I think they are as good, if not the best, line in the NFL. As long as they’re in front of me, I’ll keep trying to give it a go.
“I’ve had no surgeries in the offseason, which is always a good thing. I credit a lot of that to my line. I feel as healthy as I’ve ever been between seasons. I’ve even slimmed down some, but that’s partly from chasing three young kids around, too.”
As usual, Roethlisberger is setting his immediate goals high.
“Only one team wins its last game,” he said. “So any time you don’t win the Super Bowl and let the confetti rain on you, it doesn’t end the way you want it to.”
As impressive as Roethlisberger’s past seasons have been, he’s not looking in the rearview mirror just yet. Doing that, he says, would not be doing justice to the season just ahead.
“At this point, I just want to take it one year at a time,” Roethlisberger said.
“The key thing is, I never like to cheat this year. If I look forward to the future and how many more seasons I might play, then I’m not focused on this year and I’m not giving this year everything I have.
“I can’t predict the future. I just want to go out there, give it everything I have and at the end of the season I will evaluate it all, do a lot of praying, talk to my wife and family, and figure out what the next year entails.”
WEDNESDAY: Dean Pees.
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