Steelers QB Roethlisberger finds success in second love

Sunday, February 5, 2006

DETROIT -- Something you might not know about Ben Roethlisberger: Football's not his favorite sport. Never was as a kid. Still isn't today.

"Basketball's my first love," the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback said. "I grew up playing basketball. But I thought I could go further playing football."

That's why, given an option, Roethlisberger might make a surprising choice by choosing to play in the NBA Finals rather than the Super Bowl, as he will do today.

After all, he's remembered in hometown Findlay, Ohio, nearly as much for being the high school's all-time leading basketball scorer with 1,095 points as he is for football.

Something else you might not know: He reached the Super Bowl in only his second NFL season, but wasn't No. 1 at Findlay until his senior year. Findlay coach Cliff Hite's son, Ryan, was the incumbent quarterback, so Hite kept his son at QB and moved Roethlisberger to wide receiver for two seasons.

Think of this: 25 NFL teams probably would love to have him as their starter, yet Roethlisberger played only one season at QB for Ohio's 18th-largest high school.

"I felt I should have been the quarterback," Roethlisberger said. "But what could I do?"

Of course, underestimating Big Ben seems to rather common -- one high school coach, 11 Big Ten coaches and 10 more in the NFL all did.

Some miscast him, others mispronounced his name -- then-Ohio State coach John Cooper and his staff never got it quite right, losing any chance to recruit him.

Others misjudged his talent -- the homestate Cleveland Browns took Kellen Winslow Jr. ahead of him in the 2004 draft.

So he ended up at Miami of Ohio and, a few years later, in Pittsburgh as a No. 11 draft pick.

Now, at age 23, Roethlisberger can do something Dan Marino and Dan Fouts never did. And what only one Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, has done: win a Super Bowl. He would be the youngest to do so, only six years since he was a high school receiver.

"I've come a long way," Roethlisberger said.

Back home, where a large street banner wishes him luck today against Seattle, no one calls him Big Ben. He's still known as Rotty, a takeoff of his last name. There is a Big Ben Burger at Tony's Restaurant (approved by Roethlisberger agent Leigh Steinberg, by the way), but it's mostly for the out-of-towners who wander by.

"Every coach wants a winner a kid who puts you on the map, and he did," said Jerry Snodgrass, the Findlay High athletic director and Roethlisberger's former basketball coach. "But he wasn't this untouchable kid with his nose up in the air. He was a star in high school, football, basketball, baseball, but he never acted like one. He was just Ben."

Ask the Steelers how they've won seven games in a row, how they came back from that 7-5 record in December to play in the sixth Super Bowl in franchise history, many will point to No. 7.

His numbers in his last two games, against the Colts and Broncos, show why: 40-of-53 for 472 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Those are the numbers of a champion.

"He's the reason we're here today," wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Added Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: "If I had a fantasy team, he would probably be my first pick at the QB position."

The folks in Findlay knew all about this Winning Ben years ago.

Snodgrass remembers the day he made cuts for the varsity hoops team during Roethlisberger's sophomore season. He called in each player, sat him down and explained the decision. Ben got good news: he was on the team.

Snodgrass expected him to smile, to sigh with relief or, the coach said, "Maybe fall off his chair, because we don't keep too many sophomores."

He didn't.

Instead, Snodgrass said, "He told me, 'That's good, coach, because I plan on breaking the school scoring record."'

Did, too, and as a point guard -- yes, this was one sport he found his natural position right away.

These days, there's another Roethlisberger on the way from Findlay: Carlee, a junior who averages 24 points and is being recruited by Division I schools.

Her homecoming chaperone last fall was her protective brother, who attended during the Steelers' bye week. As he said, "I wanted to make sure what guys she was with."

Roethlisberger's friends and acquaintances pay attention when he dates a celebrity like LPGA golfer Natalie Gulbis or is pictured enjoying the nightlife many his age indulge in, if only because they don't remember him as craving attention or requiring celebrity treatment.

As Snodgrass said, "He wasn't a recluse here, but he was not a big partygoer on Friday nights. He was a family kid, he had his friends, but he wasn't big on the high school scene."

The millions he's made in signing bonuses, salary and endorsements haven't changed his hometowners' perception of him, either, though this might. He's already pocketed a $250,000 bonus for getting Pittsburgh to the AFC championship game and will make another $500,000 if he wins the Super Bowl -- more than his base salary of $305,000.

When he finally got around to playing QB at Findlay, Roethlisberger threw for 54 touchdowns and ran for seven more, all in one season. Fans still recall the game against Napoleon when the Findlay Trojans trailed 28-24 with 33 seconds remaining, no timeouts left and the ball at their own 33. Two long Roethlisberger passes won the game with a second to spare.

Another high school flashback: On the first day of varsity practice, all Findlay quarterbacks are taught an unusual drill for a skill position player -- how to tackle.

It's a twofold lesson: They pick up a valuable football skill, and they instantly learn the dangers of throwing a bad pass.

That drill may have saved the Steelers' season when Roethlisberger made his near-miraculous tackle as Colts cornerback Nick Harper was returning Jerome Bettis' fumble in the final two minutes of Pittsburgh's 21-18 divisional playoff win. The kind of play that wins championships.

Roethlisberger's 26-4 record matches that of former Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica as the best start-of-career 30-game record in NFL history but, overall, his statistics don't compare to a Peyton Manning, a Marino, a Bradshaw. The Steelers don't care because they don't ask him to throw 40 times a game or pass for 400 yards. They ask him to win.

"When I first met his college coach, Terry Hoeppner, right after Ben was drafted by the Steelers, I remember saying, 'It won't be long until he has those offensive linemen eating out of his hand,"' Snodgrass said. "Mrs. Hoeppner rolled over laughing, because she knew exactly what I meant. Ben is a born leader."

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