The 2012 season did not go quite according to plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers, nor for Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. An ominous black cloud descended on the team all the way back in the spring, when offensive coordinator and Big Ben best friend Bruce Arians was unceremoniously dumped by the team. Under the guise of a “retirement”, Arians was shown the door. This created a friction between Roethlisberger and team officials that had not been present before, a friction that only grew once Arians quickly took a job with the Indianapolis Colts and was replaced by the intense Todd Haley. The media jumped on the Roethlisberger vs. Haley conflict from day one, and as they and the fan base stirred the pot on the new dynamic of the Steelers offense, more was happening in the Roethlisberger world.
The quarterback and his wife, Ashley, announced that they would soon be parents for the first time. The grown-up portion of his life in full bloom, Ben became noticeably more sentimental in interviews and for the first time, fans began to start preparing themselves for the possibility of life without #7 behind center. While that may be a ways off still, there is no doubt that the events of the past year, combined with another serious injury (this time a rib cage issue that came within inches of affecting the heart) and the birth of his first child – a son, Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger Jr. has changed the quarterback immensely. When we write and read about professional athletes, it is very easy to forget that these are people who have the same concerns as the rest of the world, minus the financial stress. The injury Ben sustained against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10 was scary, but the added pressure of knowing his wife was less then a week away from the birth of their child added a perspective that could only be understood by a parent. Now that the 2012 season is over, and the Steelers are making golf plans instead of holding playoff practices, we are left to wonder exactly which Ben Roethlisberger will show up in Latrobe this summer.
Steelers fans – more so than any other fanbase – tend to envision a personal connection to the players on their team. When our players get hurt physically, it hurts us mentally. When our players lose a heartbreaking game, we carry around that heartbreak on our sleeve for the rest of the week. When the team experiences joy (such as the happiness which comes from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy), our fans allow themselves to cry tears of joy right along with them. When a player becomes such a deep part of the local culture, as Ben Roethlisberger has, it is almost as if he is our neighbor. We expect to turn that milk aisle at Giant Eagle and see #7 digging for better dates on the skim milk half gallons right along with us. We envision him cleaning up dog poop at 2:00am, taking the garbages down to the curb on pick-up day, arguing with his wife over the remote control…..a normal Pittsburgh man. We are tuned into the sub conscience of this all-time great, and we have all seen a major change in the way he goes about his business and conducts himself in public.
He came to us as a lanky kid out of tiny Miami University of Ohio, clean cut and looking more like an NBA forward than an NFL Quarterback. He was the first major prospect the Steelers had invested in behind center since Terry Bradshaw. In between, Steelers fans were subjected to two decades of Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, and of course Kordell Stewart. The man Ben would replace as the Steelers starter, Tommy Maddox, became the most popular fellow in town during his amazing two and a half year run with the team. Ben Roethlisberger was drafted on April 24, 2004 with the 11th pick in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. He signed his first professional contract on August 4, a six-year $22.26 million deal that prompted then head coach Bill Cowher to call him “a franchise quarterback” before he ever took a regular season snap. Originally designated the 3rd string QB, Roethlisberger shifted up to the backup role after Charlie Batch was injured in the preseason. Tommy Maddox would start the season for the Steelers, but just six quarters of football later, Maddox was hurt and the Era of Big Ben began. The Steelers would lose that game to the arch-nemesis Baltimore Ravens, but little did we all know that it would be the last time the Steelers would taste defeat until deep into the frozen depths of January.
The Steelers plan to allow Roethlisberger to sit behind Maddox and Batch for a season and learn the offense was shot, and a nervous Steeler Nation turned our attention to #7 and his very diverse playing style. That 2004 season was amazing on so many different levels, from the unexpected MVP-caliber play of the 22-year old phenom to the unheard-of back-to-back wins over the undefeated New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive home games over Halloween week. All told, Roethlisberger helped orchestrate SIX come from behind wins in 2004, including the AFC Divisional playoff game against the New York Jets. He was named the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the Steelers quickly became a team that had the look of a Super Bowl contender once again.
It wasn’t just his play on the field that intrigued us, it was also his immediate leadership and football maturity. On a team loaded with veteran superstars, Roethlisberger seemed to almost immediately earn the respect of his peers. We all looked on like proud parents as he developed into a professional player and an icon to the city of Pittsburgh in just a few short months. In 2005, he would lead the Steelers back from a 7-5 hole to lead the team into the playoffs. Under his guidance and the emotional support of the retiring Jerome Bettis, the Steelers would finally put the nail in the coffin of “One for the Thumb”. The Steelers would win eight straight games, including three road playoff games and Super Bowl XL to achieve the goal that so many had fell short of in the past. Roethlisberger would save the season one final time in Indianapolis, making a shoe-string tackle on a fumble recovery that secured the road win against the heavily-favored Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional round. Despite a lackluster performance in the Super Bowl versus Seattle, Roethlisberger cemented himself into the forever lore of a great sports city by delivering the elusive fifth Lombardi Trophy. In doing so, he secured the legacy of Jerome Bettis – who retired on stage holding the hardware in a stadium in the town he grew up – a classic sports moment if there ever was one. He helped wipe the cobwebs off of the coaching legacy of Bill Cowher, who wanted nothing more than to hand Dan Rooney that Lombardi since the day he was hired to coach his home town team in 1992. The win also allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to regain a piece of their dominant past, becoming just the third team to win five Super Bowls. It was a magical season that would not have been possible without the 2004 draft pick of Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger would accomplish another feat in 2008 that had eluded every Steelers QB since Heinz Field opened in 2001. He guided the Steelers to an AFC Championship Game victory over the hated Ravens in the frigid confines of the “new” stadium. While it may not seem like such a major achievement to fans outside of Pittsburgh, those who had suffered through horrendous losses in the AFC title games at home in 1994, 1997, 2001, and 2004 were beginning to doubt it would ever happen. When Troy Polamalu returned a Joe Flacco interception for the game securing TD, the sense of relief set off a celebration that will forever be remembered as one of the great moments in team history. A few weeks later, it was Roethlisberger leading a last minute drive – masterfully – to score the winning touchdown in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLIII. The victory over the Arizona Cardinals gave the Steelers an NFL-leading six Super Bowl titles, and it gave Ben his second in only his fifth NFL season. It seemed as though the winning would go on forever, and a second Steelers dynasty was ready to emerge.
Prior to the 2006 season, the first crack in the armor of Big Ben occurred. While riding his motorcycle in downtown Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger was involved in an accident. He was not wearing a helmet – not a crime, but not smart for a multimillion dollar NFL QB – and sustained injuries to his head, mouth, jaw, and teeth. The injuries were not serious, but for the first time in his career, fans began to wonder about the general mindset of their star QB. It was right around this same time that stories and pictures began to flood the internet of Roethlisberger partying with college students. Ben Roethlisberger had quickly morphed from small town college star to national celebrity, and the status change may have begun to hinder his decision-making ability it seemed. Even more stories poured out about Ben, from general cockiness to an inability to treat wait staff and service workers with respect around town. By the time Super Bowl XLIII was over, most people had forgotten about the accident and the rumors, as the hardware seemed to solidify that regardless of what Roethlisberger was doing off the field, he could deliver on the field – where it mattered.
The 2009 season ended up being a disappointing one for the Steelers coming off their Super Bowl victory. Injuries plagued the team, including Roethlisberger, who missed a Week 12 match-up with the Ravens, an overtime loss that would eventually secure the Steelers missing the postseason. Despite the lackluster season for the team, Roethlisberger played very well. He threw for over 4,000 yards, the first Steeler QB to ever accomplish that feat, and was selected to the Pro Bowl as a first alternate, although an injured shoulder prohibited him from attending. Following the 2009 season, the real trouble began in the personal life of Pittsburgh’s biggest celebrity. Two very public accusations of sexual misconduct were raised against the Pittsburgh quarterback. The first one, filed on July 19, 2009, claimed that Roethlisberger had forced himself onto a Lake Tahoe resort worker in his hotel suite while attending a golf outing there in 2008. The case began to fall apart as soon as it hit the mainstream media, with the details and stories of all involved conflicting and the lack of evidence due to the long time span between the alleged event and the actual report causing authorities to abandon the case. Just a few months later in March 2009, another woman claimed that Ben had forced himself onto her while at a college bar in Milledgeville, GA. This case became ever more of a national newsline, and eventually led to Reothlisberger being suspended for the first six games of the 2010 NFL season. The suspension would be reduced to four games, and served. No criminal charges were filed due to a lack of evidence, and despite what many detractors will continue to say to this day – Ben Roethlisberger was never charged, nor found guilty of any alleged sexual misconduct. Regardless, the stain was now on the record of Ben Roethlisberger. It seemed that his life needed to be evaluated on a personal level, and that frankly, he needed to pull himself out of any situation that could result in “allegations”, whether truthful or simply made up.
After the events of 2009-2010 died down, Ben Roethlisberger made many conscious changes to his lifestyle. He embraced his religion, he began doing even more charity work (although he was always a generous person with his time and money, he turned it up a notch), and he began to do every requested interview to answer as many questions about the past legal issues, becoming an open book for all to see. Ben Roethlisberger grew up quite a bit between 2008 and 2010, and he once again led the Steelers to the brink of a championship. The Steelers would lose Super Bowl XLV to Green Bay, but getting back to the big game served as a marker in the life of Big Ben – a moment in time that quantified just how far he had come as a professional athlete, as a teammate, and most of all, as a man.
Much has changed with the Pittsburgh Steelers over the past two years. The team would go 12-4 in 2011, but lose in the first round of the playoffs to an upstart Denver Broncos team. The Arians saga seemed to take a lot out of Roethlisberger, and his subsequent bickering with Todd Haley was a product of that saga. The Steelers sagged to an 8-8 finish in 2012, and for the first time we have begun to hear Ben answer questions about retirement. While he seems to be a ways away from any legitimate retirement concerns, the facts remain that Ben Roethlisberger will be 31-years old at the start of the 2013 season, heading into his tenth season at the helm of the Steelers offense. He has been hit more than any other TWO quarterbacks in the NFL combined over the past six seasons. He has battled injuries to his ankles, knees, shoulder, fingers, neck, and many that we probably don’t even know about. Ben Roethlisberger is the definition of warrior in the football sense, but when do the injuries become a major concern for a man who is now married and the father of an infant son (Little Ben)? The eight-year extension that he signed in 2008 runs through the end of the 2016 season, which gives him three more full seasons to build on a resume that should land him as a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee. His desire to win a third Super Bowl is obvious, but more so it seems that the past year has simply taken its toll both mentally and physically on Roethlisberger. With the team entering a transition phase in terms of veterans leaving and younger players beginning to move up the depth chart, it is possible that the Steelers have another middle of the road season ahead of them in 2013. A 100% healthy Ben Roethlisberger could change that, as his presence on the field gives the Steelers a chance to win every Sunday. While the finish to this past season was dreadful – game-losing interceptions, missing more time with the shoulder injury, and of course missing the playoffs – it was the way Ben seemed to be disconnected from the game and the fans that really caused the greatest concern across Steeler Nation. Perhaps a full offseason of healing his body and mind and spending time with his wife and son will be just what the doctor ordered, and Roethlisberger will return fresh and ready to go after that seventh Lombardi this summer in Latrobe.
Or perhaps these are the waning days of the Big Ben Era in Pittsburgh. Either way, this year – 2013 – is the virtual crossroads in the career of one of the greatest players to ever wear the black and gold. Hopefully, the organization will ensure that Ben Roethlisberger gets to go out the way that he has always wanted – as a Steeler, and as a Champion. In this era of free agency and salary cap issues ripping franchise players away from their teams, if there was ever anybody who deserved to finish what he has started, it is Ben Roethlisberger. He has given it ALL to Steeler Nation – 29 4th quarter comeback victories, including two playoff games and one Super Bowl, a career .714 winning percentage, a slew of franchise and league records, and of course two Super Bowl rings. Maybe now is the time that we all pay him back for what he has given to us.
Whether he comes out and announces his retirement tomorrow or plays for another five years, Ben Roethlisberger deserves our respect and admiration. He is a player that we will all tell our grandchildren that we saw play, just like the stories we all grew up on about Bradshaw, Swann, and Lambert. Enjoy him while he is here folks, for there will never be another Big Ben Roethlisberger.