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Big Ben gets larger with every win
Seattle Times staff reporter
PITTSBURGH — You cross the Fort Duquesne Bridge, hang a right, go up the hill on Allegheny and take another right on Western. Negotiating an icy sidewalk, you're shortly at Peppi's, a sandwich joint, ordering the obvious:
It consists of grilled steak and sausage, melted cheese mixed with an egg, lettuce, tomatoes and onions on a long French roll, and no, the average guy who isn't a lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers can't eat it all.
That's precisely the phenomenon of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' second-year quarterback. It's difficult to get your arms around how big a figure he is in this football-batty town.
There he is, splashed on a video board at the Mellon Arena, sitting in a suite next to beloved, just-retired Mario Lemieux. Fans of the NHL Penguins, who have had precious little to cheer about, cheer this.
In the airport, a fellow boards a shuttle train wearing a replica Roethlisberger jersey. His wife wears a Roethlisberger jersey. Their son, maybe 6, wears a Roethlisberger jersey. You sense that perhaps they like the Steelers, and Roethlisberger.
For a quarterback who two years ago was reliving his favorite games against Bowling Green and Marshall of the Mid-American Conference, Roethlisberger casts an outsized shadow here.
There was a TV story in Pittsburgh last week about a couple who named their baby Ben because he was born two weeks premature — during the Steelers' victory over the Broncos.
That's nothing. A couple near Pittsburgh was so enamored of Roethlisberger as a rookie they went one better, naming their son "Seven" — his number.
A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story put his rookie-year endorsements at $4.5 million. He pitches not only footballs, but everything from barbecue sauce to life-size wall posters to beef jerky, magnets and buttons.
This was the locker-room scene last week, as the Steelers returned to practice after their AFC championship victory at Denver. Cameramen and newscasters milled about, buzzing over the proper strategy to get close enough to him for his appointed few minutes with the media.
He appears, walking toward his corner stall, which is between an open locker and that of second-year offensive tackle Max Starks. They do this sort of thing to young guys. They would never put Jerome Bettis or Hines Ward next to Roethlisberger. The combined crush would rival a European soccer crowd gone bad.
"I'm not doing anything right now," Roethlisberger advises. Of course not. There's a good 20 minutes left in the half-hour player availability. If he milks the minutes down to the final 10, he's got an excuse for cutting it short.
"We'll let you know when he's ready," says a flack for the Steelers.
The cameras know the drill. A little later, a TV-cam crescent forms, maybe 20 of them, and Roethlisberger materializes once more and the lights come on. Papal proclamations are probably not received with so much fanfare.
For the next eight minutes, he delivers answers that are mostly as mindless as the questions.
"Dan Marino told me, just enjoy it."
"I did have some people calling about tickets. I turned my cell phone off, with a message that said, 'If you're calling about tickets, I'm not giving you any.' "
"This is what everybody dreams about."
"That's it," announces the PR man when the eight minutes are done. At that, Roethlisberger retreats and picks up a mini-volleyball. He whips it playfully across the spacious room toward Ward, who is himself being interviewed.
The man throwing that pass is the one whom Steelers coach Bill Cowher has referred to as the key to Pittsburgh's fate in these playoffs. Two years ago at this time, he was looking forward to testing by NFL teams, fresh from an announcement that he was leaving Miami of Ohio a year early for the league.
One can imagine eyes rolling among the Steelers vets on Sept. 19, 2004, when Tommy Maddox injured his elbow against Baltimore, ushering in Roethlisberger. He was supposed to be third string, but Charlie Batch had already been lost for the year with a knee injury.
"You didn't know what to expect," said offensive tackle Marvel Smith. "[You think] he's a rookie, he's going to struggle, everybody's going to have to pick it up, it's going to make everybody's job that much tougher.
"It wasn't like that. He came into the game and managed to make plays."
He kept making them, of course, all the way through a dreamy season in which Pittsburgh went 15-1. But Roethlisberger's youth finally ran him down, and it ended drearily with Pittsburgh at the doorstep of the Super Bowl, in a two-touchdown home loss to New England. In two postseason games, he threw five interceptions.
Roethlisberger has said both that he grew overconfident and also burned out, unused to the rigors of the pro season.
"I looked over there at Heath," he said, referring to rookie tight end Heath Miller in that locker-room scrum the other day, "and he almost looked asleep. That's how I felt last year."
He threw for 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions in the 2005 regular season, interrupted by midseason arthroscopic knee surgery that cost him three games. Then in December, something happened.
"I guess it was the big game with Chicago," said Ward, referring to a Dec. 11 matchup with the Bears that Pittsburgh had to have. "At the time, Chicago was the No. 1 defense, being compared to the '85 Bears."
Roethlisberger quarterbacked the Steelers to that win and three more to close out the regular season, but it has been in the playoffs that he has opened eyes. He has thrown for seven scores with one interception, and more than that, Cowher has seemed to entrust him with the future.
In those must-win final four games of the regular season, Roethlisberger threw a conservative 18 passes a game; he's thrown an average of 24 in the playoffs.
Roethlisberger has even elicited some audacious comparisons to New England's Tom Brady, and if Pittsburgh wins, would match Brady's feat of having guided a team to the title in his second season. He would also be eight months younger than Brady, who was about 24 ½ when the Patriots quarterback accomplished his first.
Roethlisberger, simply put, may be the most important player in the Super Bowl.
Last week, the Broncos talked about wanting to put the game in Roethlisberger's hands, before he threw for 275 yards. Surely, there is some thinking within the Seahawks' braintrust that they can goad a 23-year-old X factor into some mistakes.
"Each playoff game this year, I think that's what they've tried to do," says Smith. "It doesn't seem to work for the other teams."
The suggestion leaves Hines Ward bemused.
"It's not like he hasn't done it before," he shrugs. "Maybe the whole world hasn't caught onto him."
That's not the case around Peppi's, or Pittsburgh.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
Height: 6-5. Weight: 241.
Born: March 2, 1982 in Lima, Ohio.
College: Miami (Ohio).
Draft: 2004 — 1st round (11th pick) by the Pittsburgh Steelers
Personal: Not married.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company