Ben Roethlisberger’s path: From nearly a Bill and starting in a hurricane to Steelers legend and future Hall of Famer

Editor’s note: This story was published Jan. 18, 2021. Ben Roethlisberger announced his retirement Jan. 27 after 18 seasons with the Steelers.

The ending to Ben Roethlisberger’s career in Pittsburgh could easily have had a different beginning — in New York. Not New York City, but Buffalo, N.Y.

There, after the Giants selected Philip Rivers at No. 4 in the 2004 NFL Draft and swapped him with San Diego for Eli Manning, the Bills plotted to leap ahead of the Steelers and pick Big Ben.

The clock and draft choices ticked off as teams passed on the quarterback from Miami (Ohio) University. Steelers coaches and executives rubbed their hands together in anticipation of snatching him at No. 11. There was a potential spoilsport, however, by the name of Tom Donahoe, Buffalo’s president/general manager who was Pittsburgh’s personnel boss throughout the 1990s.

The Bills had the No. 13 draft slot and desperately wanted a quarterback. And Donahoe wanted Roethlisberger.

“I saw him play a game live in college on a Thursday night,’’ Donahoe told The Athletic earlier this month. “It was freezing and winds up to 50 mph. He threw the ball like it was sunny and 80 degrees.”

Donahoe knew the Steelers likely would draft Roethlisberger, so he agreed to a trade with a team picking ahead of Pittsburgh to grab him for Buffalo.

“We were talking to another team and thought we had a deal,’’ Donahoe said. “At the last minute, they tried to change the terms, and it did not get done.”

Roethlisberger thought the Giants would draft him. Tom Coughlin, their coach, told Ben’s college coach, Terry Hoeppner, that if the Chargers drafted Manning, the Giants would draft Roethlisberger.

“Ben was sure he was going to New York,’’ recalls Leigh Steinberg, Roethlisberger’s agent. “San Diego drafts Manning, and at that point the Giants had 15 minutes.

“I said, ‘They’re going to make the trade (with the Chargers for Manning).’ Ben said, ‘No, I’m going to New York.’”

Little did Roethlisberger know, the team in upstate New York was plotting to grab him.

“Five minutes go by on New York’s pick, then 10 minutes,’’ Steinberg said. “It’s like water torture time because every minute seems like an hour. Drip, drip, drip, 11 minutes go by, 12, and the anticipation at our table is he’s going to New York, but I know it’s not going to happen.”

Before time ran out on the Giants, the trade with the Chargers was announced, “and it was like a pin going into a balloon,’’ Steinberg said.

Such are the things on which careers and sports history revolve. Roethlisberger could have gone out to a loving sendoff in Buffalo or in metropolitan New York City for his last home game instead of in Pittsburgh.

Donahoe did not wish to identify the team he was dealing with, other than to say it was not Jacksonville, as some have surmised. The Jaguars were one of six teams between the Giants and Steelers who had a shot at Roethlisberger. They all passed. The Bills drafted wide receiver Lee Evans at No. 13 and then traded up 21 spots to get their quarterback at No. 22: J.P. Losman, who started 33 games over five seasons in Buffalo and never again.

In Pittsburgh, incumbent Tommy Maddox was not happy his team drafted a quarterback in the first round.

“We had a heated discussion the day after the draft in my office,” Steelers coach Bill Cowher recounted to The Athletic. “He expressed his displeasure, saying he was misled, that no one ever said we were going to draft a quarterback. I said, ‘Who knew he was going to be there?’

“I said, ‘Listen, this is your job. Competition brings out the best in everybody, and I expect it to bring out the best in you, too. It’s still your job to lose.’”

Pittsburgh’s plan was to not play Roethlisberger his rookie season, and let him sit and learn behind starter Tommy Maddox and No. 2 Charlie Batch.

“The ideal thing was for him to sit there and learn the offense and not force-feed it to him,” Cowher said. “Watch Tommy prepare and watch Charlie as the backup, how he prepares for gameday.”

Batch hurt his knee in training camp, and the initial prognosis was he’d miss a month or so.

“Now Charlie gets hurt, and Ben’s No. 2,’’ Cowher said. “Charlie was supposed to come back in like four weeks. So we figured we’ll get by for four weeks with Ben as the backup.”

But Batch’s knee was damaged more severely than initially thought, and he was declared out for the season after the surgery. He was watching the Steelers’ second game in Baltimore at home on his couch when Maddox left with a right elbow injury in the third quarter, and Roethlisberger replaced him.

“I’m going, ‘Are you kidding me? That was supposed to be me,’” Batch said. “It was a tough pill to swallow then, not that it would have all panned out, but just having the opportunity at that time.”

Instead, 2004 — and beyond — was to become the Big Ben Show, and Batch would serve as one of his backups for seven seasons after that. But on that day in Baltimore, Cowher and the rest still had no idea what was to come. Maddox would heal and return, perhaps as the starter again. Right?

Roethlisberger replaced Maddox in the third quarter and, contrary to folklore, his first pass was not intercepted. It was incomplete to Plaxico Burress (who would later hook up for Roethlisberger’s first NFL completion, for 21 yards). Linebacker Adalius Thomas intercepted Roethlisberger’s second NFL pass.

Mark Whipple, in his first NFL job that season as Steelers quarterbacks coach, greeted the rookie as he came off the field.

“He came to the sideline and said, ‘Hey, that’s the same way I started my college career, when I threw a pick to Larry Foote,’” Whipple recalls. “It really didn’t faze him.”

Roethlisberger recovered and threw two touchdown passes, 3 yards to Antwaan Randle El and 12 yards to Hines Ward. With the Steelers trailing by 10 late and on the move, Chris McAlister picked off a pass and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown, sealing things with 2:56 left.

“We were doing some of the two-minute stuff, and he started moving us,’’ Cowher said, “but then he had the pick-six to McAlister, and that was a miscommunication. That’s when I shut it down. I said he’s the only quarterback we have right now, let’s run the ball and get out of here and just think about moving forward with Ben as our quarterback in Week 3.”

Back in Pittsburgh that week, the media was interviewing guard Alan Faneca when one of them asked the future Hall of Famer a bit too enthusiastically how excited he was to see the rookie quarterback get his first start. Faneca didn’t hold back.

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“Exciting?” Faneca responded then. “No, it’s not exciting. Do you want to go work with some little young kid who’s just out of college?”

Faneca’s reaction was not surprising after seeing his quarterback of the previous two seasons go down injured.

“Ben and I had a brief discussion about it when I came back for my coaching stint during the summer time,” Faneca, who spent time as a Steelers coaching intern at training camp after retiring, told The Athletic. “He understood where I was coming from as a veteran, a guy who is trying to get to the Super Bowl and win the big one.

“You’re not excited when your starting quarterback goes down. Just like anytime in the last decade, nobody would have been excited had Ben gone down and gotten hurt just so somebody else got a chance to play.”

So the Steelers headed to Miami, taking their stormy quarterback situation into a hurricane. Literally.

Hurricane Jeanne struck South Florida the day before the Steelers scheduled game against the Dolphins on Sept. 26. Ben Roethlisberger’s first NFL start became memorable for other reasons as well.

“We were flying into Miami, and everyone else was flying out,” said Cowher, who distributed flashlights to his players that night because they had no power at their hotel.

The game was moved from Sunday afternoon to night, but that did not help the conditions much at Pro Player Stadium, where the Marlins baseball team also played and where there was still a dirt infield. Only, it wasn’t dirt.

“There was a torrential downpour,’’ Cowher said. “We couldn’t run in the infield because it was nothing but mud. We actually had to call plays based on using the grass and not the infield. That’s Ben’s first start!”

This time, his first pass in his first start was intercepted. James Farrior recovered a Dolphins fumble on the first offensive play of the game, and on the second, Patrick Surtain intercepted Roethlisberger. It would be that kind of game, and Roethlisberger’s stats looked much like those in his finale this year at Heinz Field — 12 of 22 for 163 yards, one interception, one TD pass to Ward. The Steelers won in the slop, 13-3.

Roethlisberger’s first victory was followed by 12 more in the regular season. He remains the only quarterback to go 13-0 as a rookie. Maddox got healthy but did not get his job back until he started the meaningless (for Pittsburgh, anyway) finale, appropriately, at Buffalo. The Steelers upset the Bills to finish a franchise-best 15-1 and deny Buffalo a playoff berth.

“I said I’m not taking this kid out,’’ Cowher said of Roethlisberger. “I learned a long time ago you can lose your job to injury. If someone comes in and does better, that old adage of not losing your job to injury, that didn’t apply anymore.”

Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and was lucky to run his rookie record to 14-0 with a home playoff victory against the Jets in overtime. He wasn’t so fortunate against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. He threw three interceptions that day, and New England won, 41-27 at Heinz Field.

His second season, 2005, would be epic. He was 9-3 as a starter, missing four games to injuries. He directed the Steelers to eight consecutive victories — four at the end of the season to squeak into the playoffs and four in the postseason that ended with a victory in Super Bowl XL.

He had the lowest passer rating of any winning quarterback in the Super Bowl at 22.6, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. But that wasn’t his whole story. He had passer ratings of 148.7, 95.3 and 124.9 in the three previous playoff games, as he led the Steelers to upset victories on the road at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver.

“In Denver, he played unbelievable,’’ Whipple said. “We came out throwing against Indianapolis — to Heath Miller, Jerame Tuman, a post throw or seam throw to Hines Ward — and we went up 14-0. And then he probably made the greatest tackle of any quarterback in the history of the game.”

No probably about it.

The Steelers held a three-point lead and were about to put the game away with a first down at the Colts’ 2 with 1:20 left when Roethlisberger handed off to Jerome Bettis. Linebacker Gary Brackett lowered his helmet into the ball, and it popped loose backward.

Cornerback Nick Harper scooped up the ball and had clear sailing to the end zone and what likely would have been an Indianapolis victory. Somehow, though, Roethlisberger ran with him and made a shoestring tackle at the Colts’ 42.

Perhaps Harper was slowed a bit after he was cut with a knife the day before by his wife, who was charged in the incident.

“We have to give Mrs. Harper an assist,’’ declared Bill Hillgrove, the Steelers’ play-by-play man. “If Harper was healthy, he might have scored, but he wasn’t, and Ben recovered enough to keep playing football. I know Ben probably didn’t tackle a lot of people in his day, but he made a tackle there, and that saved the game.”

Which saved the Steelers’ run toward their first Super Bowl victory in 26 years.

“I had no idea how he was able to pull that off,’’ Faneca said. “I’m sure he thinks about that play quite often.”

Said running back Willie Parker, “That tackle definitely set us up for that Super Bowl, because if he didn’t make that tackle, we lost. Game is over. He had huge plays like that.”

Another one would come in Super Bowl XL versus Seattle, in which Roethlisberger did not have a good day passing but ran for a touchdown and made one crucial play on another score. Roethlisberger handed off to Antwaan Randle El, who ran to his right and threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward, who would win the game’s MVP. Roethlisberger threw a block to spring Randle El free to make the throw.

“Think about those playoffs,’’ Cowher said. “Two of the biggest plays he had was the tackle in Indianapolis and the big block he threw for Randle El when he threw the touchdown pass to Hines Ward. He was more than a quarterback — he was a football player on the field playing the quarterback position.”

Said Hillgrove, “In his career, he was a shortstop, a point guard and a quarterback. I once told that to Dick Vitale, and he said he was going to steal it. Shortstops, points guards and quarterbacks are born, they’re not made. That describes Ben to a T. He has those intangibles for those important positions.”

Roethlisberger got tickets for Steinberg — his lead agent who later turned the business over to his fellow agents, cousins Ryan and Bruce Tollner — to Super Bowl XL after refusing to do so for the AFC Championship Game in Denver.

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“I asked Ben if he’ll leave the tickets at will call, and there was silence on the other end,’’ Steinberg recalled. “I said, ‘Ben, is there a problem?’ He said, ‘Yes; last year you came to the AFC Championship against New England, and we lost.’ I said, ‘Ben, there were 70,000 other people there, too.’

Replied Roethlisberger, according to Steinberg: “I’m sort of superstitious. I do my ritual before every game and all that.”

Steinberg: “I said, ‘You mean you won’t be leaving tickets?’”

Roethlisberger: “You can come to will call, but you’ll be waiting there all game.”

Indeed, Roethlisberger is superstitious and has his pregame rituals. One developed before his first start in Miami and, probably because the Steelers won that night, continued. He and Whipple would take the field before games, and Roethlisberger would throw to his quarterbacks coach. If there was bad weather, they would do it in the stadium concourse next to the Steelers locker room.

“I don’t know why we did it — he wanted to,’’ Whipple said. “I’d give him reminders on third-down situations, and he would throw it. Typical Ben, I had to wear gloves. He drilled me in the nose one time when I wasn’t ready for it.”

As Roethlisberger’s first quarterbacks coach, Whipple had a hand in his development.

“I think I got him at the right time. He really listened,” he said. “He was great. I think I was able to give him confidence when he was young. It was a hard year for me; I had to learn a new offense and had to teach it to Ben. I appreciate the help I got from Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch that year.

“Ben’s different from other guys. I probably wrote him more notes and letters during the season than I ever had. … Ben’s not a guy who will take hard coaching. He takes it (when) you have a ton of respect for him.”

Before he would win his next Super Bowl, Roethlisberger was hospitalized and in serious condition following a motorcycle accident in June 2006. A local newspaper earlier that year displayed a photo of Roethlisberger on his motorcycle, sans helmet.

Bill Cowher then had a talk with his quarterback.

“I heard he was riding around town on a motorcycle,” Cowher said. “I said, ‘Make sure you wear a helmet.’”

He ignored the advice and collided with a car in Pittsburgh, was thrown helmetless off the bike and sustained multiple head injuries that required surgery.

“I was at my vacation home,’’ Cowher said, “and I came up and saw his mom and dad and I said, ‘Thank God, he’s alive. He’ll learn from this.’ Sometimes a headstrong guy is going to do it his way.”

It indeed was an example of how Roethlisberger was headstrong, or some might say hard-headed. He would buck advice and sometimes do the opposite of what coaches or others would suggest. Because he was so talented and would often make big plays when he went against their advice, they walked what Cowher would describe as a fine line with him.

“We butted heads a little bit early in his career,” Cowher said, “because I wanted to develop him as a quarterback, not just do the easy thing and take off outside the pocket and just start making plays, which he did. But at the same time I didn’t want to stop him, so I had to play good-cop, bad-cop with (offensive coordinator) Ken Whisenhunt.

“I used to say, ‘You got to go through your progressions.’ I then said (to Whisenhunt), ‘Make sure, Whis, to tell him that I still like what he’s doing when there’s nothing else there; he’s making good decisions outside the pocket, too.’”

The difference with Roethlisberger running out of the pocket from other quarterbacks? He wasn’t looking to run when he did so. He kept looking downfield for open receivers.

“People would say, oh, he’s just playing backyard football,” Batch said. “No, that’s how he plays. When he extended plays, it put receivers on notice that, man, be open. Because he’s not looking to take off and run, he’s looking to take off and throw.

“This is not a knock on Kordell (Stewart) and his running ability, but … any time Kordell would kind of step up, Hines (Ward) would go into blocking mode. … Now Hines has to work to get open because Ben’s not looking to run the ball. That’s something that receivers had to learn, even Plaxico Burress.”

Said Cowher, “Ben had a great vision of the field. He could see the field so much better than so many other quarterbacks I had. … He just had a great feel for seeing the big picture, seeing the whole field and at times he would get off scripted, but he could see things develop, see things happening.

“That was his strength in the fourth quarter because he wasn’t going to be denied. He was so competitive. He was gritty, he was determined. He was a guy who’s like, ‘I’m not throwing this ball away.’ He’d have two guys hanging on him and he’s still going to try to make that completion.”

His linemen had to get used to blocking for Roethlisberger’s style of play.

“You couldn’t get frustrated,” Faneca said, “because at the same time, he probably saved your rear end from getting a sack. There’s a reason if all of a sudden the guy you’re blocking is trying to escape outside. You have to adjust and react accordingly.”

The one thing Faneca never saw in Roethlisberger was a lack of confidence or indecisiveness, starting as a rookie.

“He owned it, man,” Faneca said. “He got in there and grabbed it by the reins and went after it. Nobody looked into his eyes while he was calling a play and said, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ.’ There was no moment like that. He came in and took charge.”

Roethlisberger would miss the first game of the 2006 season, not because of the accident but because of an appendectomy. The Steelers would go a listless 8-8, and Cowher bowed out as coach.

Two years later, Roethlisberger was back in the Super Bowl, and this time, he wasn’t along for the ride — he was the driver. Everyone knows what happened on the final drive: After a holding penalty, Roethlisberger marched the Steelers 88 yards. He hit Santonio Holmes for 40 yards to get in field-goal range to tie it, and then Holmes dropped a would-be touchdown on the left side. Then came Holmes’ toe-tapping, 6-yard touchdown catch in the right corner to win it.

It was Holmes’ ninth catch for 131 yards. Roethlisberger completed 21 of 30 for 256 yards with that one touchdown and an interception in the second quarter. Holmes was voted the game’s MVP over Roethlisberger.

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“If it wasn’t for that second-quarter interception that was on a tipped ball, I think Ben would have been Super Bowl MVP,” Batch said. “If it wasn’t for that drive, that Steelers defense is not remembered. That was the No. 1 defense, but they gave up a 64-yarder to Larry Fitzgerald. That defense isn’t remembered if Ben doesn’t lead the drive.

“That point was a way for people to change the narrative, from where they said Ben only wins because they run the football and play good defense. That second Super Bowl victory was directly because of what he did on that drive.”

Roethlisberger completed 5 of 7 passes for 84 yards and ran once for another 4 on that drive. It should have been 5 of 6 for 84 yards except Holmes dropped the pass before his touchdown catch.

“Now, I don’t believe Santonio is the MVP if Santonio catches the pass on the play beforehand to the left side,’’ Batch said. “If ‘Tone’ makes that catch, it’s not as spectacular as putting two feet down in the back of the end zone, and Ben is the MVP of the Super Bowl.”

The image of Roethlisberger sitting alone on the Steelers bench after his final home game reminded everyone how he and Maurkice Pouncey sat there together after the playoff loss to Cleveland a year earlier.

The two close friends had always talked about a pact they had to go out together, but Pouncey felt differently that day.

“It would have been a nice story that way, but I think his story was a lot better for him,” Pouncey told The Athletic. “He deserved that.”

Roethlisberger told Pouncey on the bench that day that he wanted the two of them to do one more year together.

“He was just trying to convince me, and I was just trying to tell him, man, I’m hurting,’’ Pouncey said. “It ain’t that I don’t want to play, you know, I just felt that I wasn’t the same player. I couldn’t come back in my mind to be an average player. It would eat me up every single day, know what I mean? I just couldn’t live with that.”

They are in a group chat together with former Steelers linemen Al Villanueva, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster, and they get together to chat often.

But, “It was hard at first because I know he was still mad at me,” Pouncey said, laughing. “I was trying to text him earlier in the season, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m still mad at you. But it’s all good.’ He understood.”

Pouncey watched from his home in Florida as the new, young Steelers offensive line struggled throughout much of the 2021 season. Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times, the most in eight years.

“And he stood up for those guys,’’ Pouncey said. “Those guys are going to appreciate that more than anyone can ever imagine.”

“Franchise quarterbacks who are older would have complained the whole time. They would have said something to the media like, ‘C’mon guys, step up, you got to block better,’ or something like that. He did not do that one time.”

Roethlisberger’s 18-season career ended Sunday in Kansas City with a blowout wild-card loss to the Chiefs. It was remarkable the Steelers even got that far.

His team never experienced a losing season over his career, and he ranks among the top quarterbacks in many categories including yards, comeback victories and victories overall. He’s also one of 12 quarterbacks to win two Super Bowls. Only four have won more than two.

He came back in 2021 to try to win a third, and it did not work out.

“The stereotype is the quarterback walking off into the sunset as he leaves winning the Super Bowl, but that rarely occurs,’’ Steinberg noted. “The point is, he played his whole career as a starter. … There were very few down spots. Who can claim that?

“Pittsburgh was a perfect spot for Ben. It was like a marriage made in heaven, a shot-and-a-beer-type town, and he fit that mentality.”

Said Faneca, “He’s going to put on a gold jacket one day. A lot of what he’s done has gone unappreciated by most of the NFL for most of his career, taken for granted. He played with the likes of Brady and Peyton Manning going back and forth. Ben was a little bit of an afterthought a lot of times.”

The Steelers coaching staff coached the AFC in the Pro Bowl after they lost in the conference championship of 2004. Whipple’s quarterbacks in that game were Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and then-Charger Drew Brees.

“Then you realize how good Ben was,’’ Whipple said. “Guys on our staff realized that, too. Ed Reed was in the Pro Bowl when I first met him. He just looked at me and said ‘Ben Roethlisberger, that guy’s special.’”

Bill Hillgrove called the entire careers of Dan Marino at Pitt and Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers and saw similar qualities in each.

“The will to win, their spirit of indomitability. I see that in both of them,” Hillgrove said. “Ben’s just the ultimate competitor and that, believe me, in sports takes you a long way.”

Said Parker, “The way he went out, he went out like a champ. He didn’t win a championship like Jerome (Bettis) did on his exit, but it gave me chills watching everything that took place (in his last home game). I’m just honored to have shared a huddle with him for the six seasons that I did.”

Pouncey had the same reaction.

“It gave me the chills to see him running around the stadium like that,” he said. “When they introduced him out of the tunnel, you couldn’t even hear them say his name. All I could hear were people screaming. All the memories and great times he gave all the fans there.

“He’s a true Steeler, bro.”

We’ll let his first NFL coach put the final touches on Ben Roethlisberger’s career.

“This guy was a competitor,” Cowher said. “You look at his 18 years, there’s only two quarterbacks who had more fourth-quarter comebacks: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. To me, that’s when he was at his best.

“I watched this from afar for 15 years, but I witnessed that particularly in his second year. You watch in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, he was the one in charge, making the calls, making the throws. He thrived in time-pressure situations.

“He always wanted the ball in his hands, kind of like Michael Jordan with the game on the line.”

(Top photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images))

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