In no time, Ben is big
When forced into the lineup, hometown hero Roethlisberger quickly became a Steel City star
PITTSBURGH -- Back in Findlay, Ohio, only a four-hour drive northwest of here, there has been a reluctant but inexorable swing in allegiance. Home to Cooper Tire and Marathon Oil, Findlay is decidedly conservative and positively, beyond a doubt, Cleveland Browns territory.
The Findlay highway department doesn't actually use painted paw prints to denote lanes, but no one would be surprised if some of the local Dawg Pound zealots forced it to a vote.
But just as he's changed football fortunes here along the Monongahela, Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has altered the NFL dynamic in his western Ohio hometown of 40,000.
"Yeah, it's really kind of crazy; what's going on?" said Fritz Wink, manager of the Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar on the eastern edge of Findlay. "I mean, dang, we've got older women coming in here on game days, wearing his No. 7 jersey and Steeler caps -- all the gear -- and I'll bet most of 'em don't have the slightest idea of what football's all about.
"But that's the way it is right now -- everyone's got Ben on the brain."
Now the NFL's hottest young quarterback -- anointed early in the season by Bill Parcells as the game's best rookie QB since Dan Marino -- the 22-year-old Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Sunday night will take on the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Now only five-plus years removed from quarterbacking the Findlay Trojans varsity, Roethlisberger (roth-ulz-burger) was a wide receiver until switching to quarterback his senior year, a sensational season that landed him a full ride down state at Miami of Ohio, where RedHawks coach Terry Hoeppner lured him to the Mid-American Conference with the chance of taking over almost immediately as the starter.
Roethlisberger was a first-year redshirt at Miami, then put together a storied college career the next three years, enticing the Steelers to make the 6-foot-5-inch, 241-pounder the No. 11 pick overall in last spring's NFL Draft. According to Jerry Snodgrass, Findlay High's longtime athletic director, many of the local Browns devotees were devastated when Cleveland, with the No. 6 pick, passed over Findlay's favorite son.
"They really took that hard," said Snodgrass, who also was Roethlisberger's basketball coach for seven years, up through and including the sensational point guard's junior year in high school. "And now, to see what he's doing with Pittsburgh? It's just driving Browns fans nuts. A pal of mine has seats in the Dawg Pound, and when Ben played there [directing a 24-10 Steelers victory Nov. 14], I couldn't go with him if I wore any of my Steeler stuff, or I might have been pummeled. That's OK. I wore my Steeler underwear."
Local boy makes good
The Roethlisbergers moved to Findlay when Ben was in the fifth grade. His father, Ken (these days a vice president of production for Filtech, which makes parts for Honda), was once a promising quarterback for Georgia Tech, until a knee injury made him more a baseball player than a play-caller. It was Ken's work that brought the Roethlisbergers to town.
Ken and Ben's biological mother, Ida, divorced when Ben was an infant. Ben, in a recent published report, revisited the day, when he was 8 years old, that Ida died from injuries sustained in a car crash. Although his parents were divorced and he lived with his father and stepmother, Brenda, Ben had remained close to Ida, and was waiting for her to pick him up for a weekend visit when word came of the crash.
Some 14 years later, when Roethlisberger tosses a touchdown pass for the Steelers, he points to the sky for Ida.
"That's a double meaning," he told the Los Angeles Times. One intended to give praise, said Roethlisberger, and the other for his mother.
Ken and Brenda still live in the same one-level brick ranch in Findlay where Ben grew up, and Ben's sister, Carlee, is a standout performer on the Trojans' volleyball and basketball squads.
"You're talking about one great, rooted, friendly, and loyal family," said Snodgrass. "You see Carlee play now, and just the way she is on the court and everything, you can tell she's Ben's sister. She's a sophomore, and the team's leading scorer, and you can see her passing up shots she probably should take -- but she's more concerned with her teammates and how they feel. That's very much the way Ben was."
Ben was known for similar acts of kindness during his high school days. According to one published report, on graduation day at Findlay, he donated his cap and gown to a mentally challenged classmate.
Roethlisberger, recalled Snodgrass, grew up with the idea of one day becoming a secret agent, perhaps working for the FBI. To Snodgrass, that conjures up the idea of an escape artist, a trait he saw Roethlisberger display time and again on the basketball court and football field.
"When you look at that wish, I mean that's so him," said Snodgrass. "You know, sly and undercover, always finding ways to do things that are beyond the norm. He's like a James Bond 007 or an FBI agent, thinking behind those sunglasses, `How am I going to get out of this one?' "
Snodgrass saw that 007 trait mostly on the basketball court. Roethlisberger finished as Findlay High's all-time leading scorer with 1,095 points, averaging 26.5 per game his senior year. A point guard, he was known for his determined play and his penchant for tossing up shots from all over the court.
"There's a direct parallel to how he plays football," said Snodgrass. "He was a little unorthodox with his shot, but he had an uncanny ability to score. It didn't matter . . . inside, outside, he'd throw that ball from anywhere, and he'd usually score. Boy does he love basketball. I'd bet if he's driving around Pittsburgh, and he sees a basketball game going on, it takes everything he has not to stop and get in the game."
He may be the Steelers' star quarterback, his likeness now molded into a Gladiators of the Gridiron action figure, but back in Findlay, said Snodgrass, he's just Ben.
"Just an ordinary, grounded guy," said the Findlay AD. "He was here at the school before the draft, and he walked right down the hallway, high-fiving the kids. They're all yelling, `Hey, Ben . . . Hey, Ben,' and he's just fivin' 'em. It was just great."
They're eating it up
Connie Pagliapietra, who describes herself as "somewhat of a manager" at Tony's, a popular Findlay eatery, didn't have her NFL allegiance swayed in the slightest by Roethlisberger.
A bit of a maverick in Browns country, she has always been a Steelers fan. The fact that a local boy is now leading her team's offense just spices things up -- like the barbecue sauce that Tom Brown, owner of Tony's, uses on the restaurant's Big Ben Burger.
"I've got eight of them on the grill right now," said Pagliapietra, reached at Tony's by phone yesterday at lunch time. "People love them. When I first heard that Tom was going to use barbecue sauce, I don't know, that sounded nasty to me. But really, they're awesome."
To assemble a Tony's-style Big Ben Burger: pile two 8-ounce beef patties on a 5-inch sesame bun, and top the patties with lettuce, tomato, and Tony's BBQ sauce. The culinary concoction is not complete, said Pagliapietra, until a cookie-cutter-like kitchen tool carves out No. 7 in the top bun. The tiny No. 7 flag on top makes it official. The cost: $7 (are you following along?). And there's a seven-cent charge (still following?) to drop a slice of cheese on Big Ben.
"Ben's folks were in the other night," said Pagliapietra. "And they brought Ben's grandfather. He had one and he said he loved it."
Across town, Roethlisberger's success has changed the way they do business at Buffalo Wild Wings. According to Wink, the manager, a contingent of some 20 Steelers fans, calling themselves the Black and Gold Brigade, came to him prior to the season, hoping to reserve a niche in his restaurant whenever the Steelers played.
"Fine," said Wink, who figured he could devote one of the restaurant's six big-screen televisions, and maybe a couple of the other 45 smaller sets, to the renegade Steeler bunch. "We'd love to have you." Loyal Browns fan that he may be, Wink even said it with a straight face.
But, just as any toddler knows what happens when you give a moose a muffin, the culture inside the sports bar rapidly changed when big Ben Roethlisberger, the pride of Findlay High School, began a run that now has him with a mesmerizing 14-0 record as the Steelers' starting quarterback.
Wild Wings, once an unofficial Browns sports bar, morphed into a black-and-gold-bleedin' Steelers bar. The joint was so jammed last week that Wink dropped a satellite kitchen in the parking lot, where he served up grilled bratwursts and steaming baked beans.
"It was 5 degrees out there," said Wink. "Lemme tell ya, a lot of work for not a whole lot of return."
Inside Wild Wings, where it's much warmer, all 51 TVs are tuned these days to Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns fans that remain -- those who don't spend their days e-mailing Roethlisberger's stats to the Browns' website -- have learned to coexist in what was once their sports den.
According to Wink, the place turned sullen last Saturday when the Steelers were on the verge of losing to the Jets, but the noise was deafening when Big Ben's team won in overtime.
"You should have seen their faces -- like deer caught in headlights," Wink said, recalling when the Steelers were on the wrong side of the score. "When they came back and won it, it was like being in the stadium."
Adding to the experience, said Wink, is a CD that one customer brought back after going to a game in Pittsburgh. The disc includes a song about the Steelers and Roethlisberger, and the lyrics, "Here we go . . . Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl." When the Steelers are on the march, and TV goes to a break, the crowd at Wild Wings belts out the Steelers' impending visit to the Super Bowl with gusto.
"Hey, I'm a huge Browns fan," said Wink, who kiddingly calls the overdone ode "That stupid Steeler song."
But even though he may have grown up in a different county, with a different NFL heart, Wink is on the bandwagon, too.
"Like everyone else, I guess," he said, "I'm rooting for Ben -- because he's from here."
Talk of the town
Roethlisberger appears to have settled in nicely as the latest resident sports superstar in the Steel City, where there hasn't been his like in a Steelers uniform since Terry Bradshaw. He's on an unprecedented roll, with the 14 victories, and he's only one year into a six-year pact that could pay out $42 million.
Because he wanted Pittsburgh to feel even more like Findlay, Roethlisberger recently bought a dog, a rottweiler he purchased from a breeder in Germany. His nickname in high school was "Rotty". His new companion is Zeus.
According to veteran Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, there is an "eerie sort of calm" about Roethlisberger. He keeps his cool under pressure and already has established a trademark toughness, allowing him to shake off hits and withstand defenders' tugs, allowing him to stand that extra second or two in the pocket.
It's a subtle but significant change in style when compared to his predecessor, Tommy Maddox, who unwittingly abdicated the job Sept. 19 when he tore an elbow tendon in the second half at Baltimore. In stepped Roethlisberger, out went the 33-year-old Maddox.
"Tom's got that Arena Football experience, and because of it, a quick release," said Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca. "But Ben's always got this, `I'll-hold-it-for-a-split-second-longer' kind of mentality. Because of that, he'll stay with it a little longer out of the pocket."
Faneca wasn't initially overwhelmed at the prospect of Roethlisberger taking over the job. In two seasons as the starter, Maddox hadn't been great, but all things considered, he had been reliable and effective. For a squad that is struggling, as the 6-10 Steelers did in 2003, losing a proven veteran for a raw rookie wasn't immediate cause to rejoice.
"No, I'm not excited," said a blunt Faneca, immediately following Roethlisberger's relief appearance, what now stands as the club's last and only loss (30-13 to the Ravens). "Do you want to go to work with some little young kid who's just out of college?"
But what a piece of work it has been since. Guiding a run-based offense, Roethlisberger finished the regular season with veteran-like effectiveness when he did go to the air, connecting on 196 of 295 tosses (66.4 percent completion rate), good for 2,621 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Making the job a little easier has been coach Bill Cowher's offseason plan to have the Steelers run more, which had Messrs. Maddox and Roethlisberger directing a show that ran the ball 618 times for 2,464 yards -- far outdistancing the 357/1,299 put up by their opponents.
"I think there was something to say in getting back to what we felt was the foundation of this team -- that we had to establish the run," said Cowher, who based the ground game on the collective legs and backs of Bettis and free agent pickup Duce Staley. "I've always thought that you can develop a passing game, but it's harder to develop a running mentality."
Against the Jets last Saturday night, in Roethlisberger's first postseason game, the Steelers had trouble establishing anything. They flirted with a disastrous upset at the hands of the underachieving Jets, in large part because Roethlisberger (17 for 30, 181 yards, 1 TD, and 2 interceptions) showed up with the record of an accomplished vet but the effectiveness of a raw rookie.
"If I go out there and play like a rookie like I did on Saturday, you lose the game," a self-deprecating Roethlisberger said earlier this week, following what turned into a 20-17 OT win over the Jets. "I'm lucky we have the defense we have, and have 10 other guys on offense that carried the team on Saturday. So I can't play like a rookie this [Sunday], or we'll definitely lose the game."
Mark Whipple, the former University of Massachusetts head coach who is now the Steelers' first-year quarterbacks coach, was one of the most adamant voices at the draft table when it came time for the Steelers to make the No. 11 pick last spring. He had seen Roethlisberger on tape and was impressed, but he was convinced of his potential after meeting him in person.
"Sometimes you just know when you see somebody," said Whipple. "I could tell right away that he understood what it's all about."
Not everything is so clear, as Roethlisberger found out this week. Given his struggles last Saturday, the postgame banter among media and fans focused on the glove that Roethlisberger wore on his throwing hand. Not a big deal, said Roethlisberger, because he often wore a glove in high school and college when the weather turned cold. He said it helps him grip the ball.
But here in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers last won a Super Bowl in January 1980, and haven't been to a Super Bowl since January '96, concerns about the glove have hovered over the team like the gray clouds of winter perpetually hover over this blue-collar town. A day or two after the Jets game, Roethlisberger went to a local mall, his lengthy to-do list in hand, and as he strolled along a voice nearby shouted his way.
"Get rid of the damn glove!" someone shouted at the rookie.
Roethlisberger stopped, looked around, but found no one.
"Get rid of the damn glove!" repeated the hidden heckler.
Whoever it was, he never came out from under cover. And the big kid from Findlay, Ohio, who grew up dreaming of being an undercover man himself, just kept moving.