THE EARLY DAYS
Ben Roethlisberger ended his successful college career in style. He passed for 376 yards and four first half touchdowns as Miami (Ohio) gained a 49-28 victory from the GMAC Bowl over Louisville.
After the win he announced he would be entering the draft. “I feel the time is right to embark on the next challenge,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ll always be grateful for the wonderful experiences of the past four years.”
The Miami Redhawks extended their winning streak to thirteen games and Roethlisberger enthused, “The unbelievable team success of this season has fulfilled so many of my collegiate goals.”
THE 2004 DRAFT
As the Steelers approached the 2004 draft, the question on fans’ minds was whether they would take a quarterback with their first round selection. Tommy Maddox was their current starting quarterback. After producing a 10-5-1 season in 2012 when he took over from Kordell Stewart, the team had slumped to 6-10 to give them the eleventh pick in the draft.
There was some depth with quarterbacks in the 2014 draft. Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers, both quality players, were available in addition to Ben Roethlisberger.
Ten teams would select before Pittsburgh so there was no guarantee one of the top trio would still be around for the Steelers, so there was some talk about taking offensive tackle Shawn Andrews. The Steelers apparently preferred Rivers, but believed he would be gone when their eleventh pick was on the board.
Leading up to draft day, the focus had centred on Eli Manning. San Diego had the first pick and needed a quarterback, but Manning had said he wouldn’t play for the Chargers and negotiated with the Giants. When draft day arrived, the Giants traded up to get their man and San Diego selected Rivers.
Six other teams then made their choices before Pittsburgh was on the board. Six teams that could have change theirs and Steelers history, but Ben Roethlisberger was now part of Steeler Nation.
At his first press conference in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger spoke about Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch, “Whatever they are willing to help me with I am going to take it all in because I want to be the best I can be and I am going to need those guys to help me. Hopefully, as much as I can help them with competing.”
It was confirmed he would wear the #7 shirt. As an admirer of John Elway, Ben had worn that number since he was a high school freshman in Findlay, Ohio.
Roethlisberger wasn’t prepared to take a back seat to the quarterbacks selected before him in the draft. Prophetically, he said, “I feel that once I get on the field, my will to win is much greater than both of them.”
The Steelers did take their tackle in the third round, Max Starks.
For the Steelers, the 2014 season began with Tommy Maddox at the helm and a 24-21 win over the Oakland Raiders. Week 2, the Steelers went to Baltimore.
With 11:53 left in the third quarter and with a lethargic running game, the Steelers trailed 20-0 when Ben Roethlisberger came on for the injured Tommy Maddox to make his NFL debut.
Ben finished with 12 completions from 20 attempts for two touchdowns and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Before his injury, Maddox had fared far worse and a Ravens’ win had never been in doubt.
That was Ben’s humble beginnings and triggered Ron Cook for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to despairingly forecast that the Steelers season was finished with the loss of Maddox for the season.
Backup quarterback Charlie Batch had been injured during preseason so Cook questioned how many teams survived the loss of their top two quarterbacks? He also suggested that Roethlisberger was just not ready to take over a team that had divisional championship aspirations.
The ever enthusiastic Hines Ward said, “I don’t see why this has to stop us. I think we can still win the division.”
With a week to go before travelling to Miami for their next game, the Steelers were now looking for a backup to Ben. Brian St. Pierre was signed and then Mike Quinn added to the practice squad. Former Steeler Neil O’Donnell told a Nashville TV station he had been called by Bill Cowher and asked if he was interested in signing with the Steelers, but he declined the offer.
Not everyone was thrilled about the prospect of Ben’s first start in the NFL. “Exciting?” Alan Faneca replied to a reporter’s question. “No, it’s not exciting. Do you want to go to work with some little kid who’s just out of college?” Putting his concerns in perspective, Tommy Maddox was Faneca’s friend and roommate.
Hines Ward was more pragmatic. “Big Ben’s our quarterback now. It’s going to make it very exciting. That’s why we drafted him. The guy’s getting his early opportunity and I’m sure he’s going to make the most of it.”
“I have to show these guys I can lead this team,” offered Roethlisberger. As the week progressed, his teammates realised that he was now the man and rallied around Ben.
The fans were now waiting to see how their team with a new leader would perform in Miami. The storm clouds were gathering, but not all for Ben Roethlisberger. Hurricane Jeanne was gathering speed as it approached the Florida coast with the risk of disrupting the schedule.
During the week, Maddox reported back to work with his right arm in a sling saying he would be standing on the sideline in Miami to help the rookie quarterback. “Whatever I can do to help, that is what I’m going to do,” Maddox said.
Gerry Dulac predicted there could be easier games for Ben to make his start because the Dolphins can play defense.
“It will be less disruptive, less anxiety, and seems to be the right thing to do,” commented Coach Cowher as the Steelers decided to travel to Florida twenty hours earlier than scheduled because of the impending hurricane. The storm was scheduled to make landfall early Sunday morning.
FLINGING IN THE RAIN
Ben was certainly not going to have an easy introduction to pro football in the Florida sunshine. With the team’s travel plans brought forward and then with the kickoff time put back seven hours to be played late evening, the pressure on the young man was intense.
The delay gave him more time to think about his impending debut as the starting quarterback for one of the most cherished franchises in the NFL. With the media frenzy surrounding the event, the disruption and the circumstances, only a person of strong character could have come through it all.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “With a steady, heavy downpour throughout the first half, quarterbacks had trouble throwing; runners could not run. “ The conditions were so bad; the NFL came under fire for allowing the game to go ahead.
“It was muddy, it was wet, but it was fun,” Ben told reporters after the game. “Talk about getting thrown into the fire, playing in a hurricane and against that defense.”
“He’s very comfortable in the pocket; he can elude and, when he scrambles, he’s looking downfield,” Bill Cowher said in barely contained admiration and identifying a trait that Steeler fans have now come to accept from Ben. “He’s got good vision and that big third down play to Plax was probably one of the biggest plays of the game.”
Gene Collier highlighted, “Nearly three hours into this sloppy dance, there were two amazing signature flings from Big Ben that stretched a skinny Steelers lead into a 13-3 victory, and both came with the new starter running laterally across the gravy-coloured mud of the baseball infield.”
That was fling one wrote Collier. An 18-yard strike to Plaxico Burress on third and 12 from the Steelers’ 36 with 8:35 left.
Fling two, with just 6:16 to play, had breath-taking athleticism hanging from it on both ends. Roethlisberger spun to his left, faking a pitch to Duce Stay, whirled and rolled right just outside the Dolphins’ 10. He looked toward Hines ward, running parallel to him a yard deep in the end zone. He looked… he looked… he fired! And the diving Ward caught is fastball in the front corner of the end zone.
The one ray of sunshine in the torrential rain was Ben’s ability to lead his team to a win. He had weathered the storm and now the Steelers were Ben Roethlisberger’s team.
Week 4 - Cincinnati>>>