PITTSBURGH—Randy Fichtner watched the big kid with the strong arm and the sense of invincibility that is the province of the very young and immediately grew worried.
So Fichter, then the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterbacks coach, suggested to Ben Roethlisberger that he might want to think about getting rid of the ball a little sooner. Push the tempo a little faster. Don’t take so many risks. Absorb fewer hits.
In other words, play it safe.
“And I’ll never forget, he looked at me and says, ‘Randy, then I wouldn’t be me,’” Fichtner, now Pittsburgh’s offensive co-ordinator, said Thursday. “And from that moment, I knew that there’s a reason why he’s been Big Ben.”
Improbably, all these years later, Roethlisberger is still here. Still playing. Still throwing. Still performing. And while he’s learned a thing or two about discretion during his 17 seasons in the league, the 20-something who seemed to welcome the punishment he received on a weekly basis has become the 38-year-old poised to set a mark that’s a testament to his durability and his adaptability.
When Roethlisberger runs onto the Heinz Field turf Sunday to lead Pittsburgh (2-0) against Houston (0-2), it will be his 221st game in the NFL. No Steelers player — not Terry Bradshaw or Joe Greene or Mel Blount or Jerome Bettis or all the rest — has played more games in black-and-gold. Maybe it’s fitting that when he takes his first snap, he’ll break a tie with Hall of Fame centre Mike Webster for the most appearances in franchise history.
Roethlisberger credits his unexpected longevity on his faith and the fact he plays for one of the most stable teams in professional sports. Oh, and being built like a tight end more than a quarterback helps.
“God made me a bigger man than most quarterbacks,” Roethlisberger said. “So I think I can take it and I’m just enjoying playing this game.”
An appreciation renewed by an unexpected year away from the sport.
Roethlisberger tore three flexor tendons in his right elbow last September and didn’t play for 364 days. He could have opted to retire with his two Super Bowl rings, hang out with his wife Ashley and their three children and let the clock start on his likely Hall of Fame induction.
Instead, he opted for (at least) one more go-round, even if it makes him by far the elder statemen on an offence filled with skill position players a decade or more younger. When Roethlisberger came on in Week 2 of the 2004 season to replace an injured Tommy Maddox, rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool was six. JuJu Smith-Schuster — the longest-tenured receiver on the team — was seven.
“Obviously, he still wants more,” Smith-Schuster said.
Whether Roethlisberger would give himself a chance to chase it is another matter. He won his first Super Bowl in 2006 at 23. Four months later, he broke his jaw and nose when he crashed his motorcycle while not wearing a helmet. He developed a reputation as one of the best improvisers in the league, a reputation that often came at a heavy cost as his six-foot-five, 240-pound frame took shot after shot from opposing defenders.
“Ben being Ben” they called it. Fichtner, however, worried about the long-term effects. Roethlisberger was sacked an average of 47 times a season between 2006-09. Looking back, Roethlisberger doesn’t see a spotty offensive line so much as a quarterback who didn’t know when to throw it away.
“I did take a lot of beating early on,” Roethlisberger said. “A lot of that was my fault.”
A phase Roethlisberger eventually moved on from thanks in part to the arrival of offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley in 2012 and the team’s substantial investment in the group that protects him.
Centre Maurkice Pouncey arrived in the first round in 2010. Guard David DeCastro followed in the same round two years later. Roethlisberger began throwing more than ever and landing on the ground less than ever. He has been sacked more than 30 times just once over the last seven years, a span in which he’s won a pair of NFL passing titles while being named to the Pro Bowl four times.
Though the Steelers are off to a solid start, Roethlisberger isn’t exactly thrilled with his play even as he’s thrown for five touchdowns against just two interceptions. On Tuesday, he lamented his footwork. On Wednesday, he didn’t throw but instead worked with quarterbacks coach Matt Canada on a series of drills designed to sharpen his form from the ground up.
“He’s not the old dog that can’t learn new tricks,” Fichtner said. “He wants to win. And that’s just the bottom line. … If we want to talk about everybody improving early in the season much like you would if we had a pre-season, that means everybody and he takes that as personal as anybody because he wants to win and he wants to lead a group.”
It’s a job he plans on holding onto indefinitely. While Roethlisberger insists he’s taking things year to year, the Steelers haven’t exactly scoured far and wide for his long-term replacement. Sticking around, however, does have its drawbacks. As tends to happen when you’re officially the old guy in the locker room … by a lot.
“So my only question to that was Ben with the Steel Curtain (defence)?” defensive end Cam Heyward said with a laugh. “It seems like he’s playing forever. It’s a testament to what he’s done and you don’t just get there by playing those games. You have to be worthy of that record. You’ve got to win at an all-time high level. … To keep doing it and be consistent in that approach, it’s uncanny. There’s only about 10 or so guys that are able to do it that long.”
And only one that has been able to do it in Pittsburgh: the quarterback who used to play like there was no tomorrow has turned into the quarterback who tries to savour each tomorrow that comes.