National Football League
Ben's gift hard to quantify, easy to marvel at
National Football League

Ben's gift hard to quantify, easy to marvel at

Published Feb. 5, 2011 6:38 p.m. ET

After seven seasons and enough trouble to derail most careers twice that long, Ben Roethlisberger still does one thing better than anyone who ever stepped between the white lines: He extends plays.

It's a gift that's hard to quantify, but easy to marvel at, just one manifestation of a stubborn streak a mile long that goes to the core of who Roethlisberger is, not just as a quarterback, but as a man. Time after time, at that moment in a play when all seems lost, he emerges from a swarm of angry defenders like a drowning man breaking the surface, eyes locked on the horizon and the football defiantly still in his grasp.

Roethlisberger ducks beneath some would-be tacklers and shakes off others, sometimes with seemingly no more effort than it takes to free a coat snagged by a door handle. Every so often, though, he absorbs the full brunt of the collision and careens toward the next one, like a pinball.

''I don't know where a lot of things I do came from. I just think it's playing the game,'' Roethlisberger said earlier this week. ''It's not like, obviously, you do drills where you practice things like that.


''A lot of things, I think, it's just having that clock that goes off in your head and says, 'It's time to get out of here, get out of the pocket - run, scramble, do what you got to do.''

It's never as easy as that, though.

''He's so dang big and strong,'' said John Elway, one of the best ever at the position and a pretty fair escape artist himself, ''that I can't think of another quarterback that was harder to bring down.''

It's no coincidence that Roethlisberger still wears No. 7 in honor of his boyhood hero, even if their career arcs couldn't be much more different. Elway lost the first three Super Bowls he went to and eight years after the last of those, won two in a row. Roethlisberger became the youngest quarterback to win the NFL's biggest game in only his second season, then did it again just two seasons later.

A third win would give Roethlisberger entree into an exclusive class that includes Troy Aikman and Tom Brady. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana are the only QBs to win four.

''I'm the wrong guy to ask whether it's better to win them early or late,'' Elway said. ''I was just thrilled I got there and won one before I ran out of gas.

''But I'll say this: What Ben better watch out for is never to take those things for granted. No matter how hot your team looks, things can turn around in a hurry,'' he added. ''Then it can seem like forever before you get back.''

Yet the obstacles strewn in Roethlisberger's path along the way to his third Super Bowl this Sunday against the Green Bay Packers had nothing to do with his teammates. He put those there himself.

''When you're faced with challenges in life you find ways to try to overcome them,'' Roethlisberger said. ''Just like when there were doubters and naysayers that challenged me in a football sense. It challenges me to rise above.''

He almost didn't get the chance. Following a booze-fueled birthday outing with several teammates last March, Roethlisberger was hit with a second allegation of sexual misconduct in less than two years. Though neither incident resulted in charges, Commissioner Roger Goodell slapped him with a four-game suspension.

To Steelers fans, the recklessness was nothing new. They already had their faith sorely tested by a motorcycle accident in 2006 during which Roethlisberger fractured his jaw and nose, lost two teeth, and nearly bled to death - ''I was 30 seconds from dying,'' he said soon after.

This week, he deflected question after question about past problems and any need for redemption with no more thought than he devotes mid-play to the defenders strewn on every side of him.

''The time for reflecting is probably after the year. I can't reflect now,'' Roethlisberger said. ''I have to think about this game.''

Every game was important to Roethlisberger growing up. His parents divorced when Roethlisberger was 2, and he spent most of his early years with his father, Ken, and poured himself into sports. His mother, Ida, died of injuries sustained in a car crash when Roethlisberger was 8. All these years later, after every touchdown he scores, Roethlisberger points to the sky to honor her memory.

Many of the people he competed against growing up in the small northwestern Ohio town of Findlay remember him as a competitor whose best sport was hoops. He didn't start his first football game at quarterback until he was a senior, but made up for lost time in a hurry. Roethlisberger threw for six touchdowns in that game, piling up more than 4,000 yards and 54 touchdowns by the end of the season. By the time he finished his college career at Miami of Ohio, he was neither polished nor an orthodox pocket passer. But there was no arguing with the results. He was an All-American.

''His style isn't the prettiest thing and (pro) scouts tend to like conventional guys,'' said Montana, who won his four Super Bowls with the 49ers dynasty nearly two decades ago. ''He throws it end over end, too, and doesn't seem to worry about where it goes. But he gets it done.

''Take me,'' Montana added, ''or to use a better example, someone like (Michael) Vick, who will make his fair share of plays by making guys miss. But to be able to push guys away, or peel them off, the way Ben does, is absolutely unique. He's one of the few guys who makes as many big plays out of the pocket as he does standing back there.''

Kurt Warner, perhaps the most classic pocket passer in the NFL since Dan Marino, said Roethlisberger's unconventional style brings unconventional benefits.

''It's easy to see why his teammates rally around him, why they stay so loyal. The simple truth is guys love playing with a quarterback like that precisely because they know they're going to get chance after chance to make that special play that changes the complexion of the game.

''Coaches might say, 'We'll take that pretty guy, the guy that passes well in the pocket,' because it means less wear and tear. It also means the upside is limited.

''But players will follow a guy like Ben anywhere,'' Warner said, ''because they know he'll do anything and everything to win when it's all up for grabs.''


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist at The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)


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