Rooted Rookie

The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger looms large for his simple nature as much as his 12-0 start.

December 23, 2004|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could be cocky. He has been named NFL Rookie of the Week eight times. He has the rookie record for completion percentage in a game, and is on pace to break the team mark of 62.1 percent for a full season. He is undefeated in 12 starts, and has the Steelers a game away from securing home-field advantage in the playoffs.

But success hasn't changed the youngster from Findlay, in central Ohio. On the field, he has been the model player. Off the field, he's a pretty good citizen, too.

"Life has changed a little bit," Roethlisberger said. "Obviously, I can't leave the house as much as I used to because I'm getting recognized at places I go. It's better they recognize you for doing good things instead of bad things. ... I will never lose my roots."

Roethlisberger, 22, is the most publicized young quarterback in the league. Bigger than Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Byron Leftwich. He has appeared on Letterman. In Pittsburgh, there's a sandwich named after him. Yep, you guessed it: The Roethlisburger.

But on the field, there's very little flash. After a touchdown pass, he shakes the hand of his receiver and goes to the bench. When he discusses his success, the first words out of his mouth are praise for the receivers, offensive linemen and running backs. He constantly talks about being blessed and thanking the Lord for having such a supporting cast.

"Ben has come in and done a very good job for us at quarterback," said Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher. "He has grown each week, and the team has grown with him. He is a very mature, very poised person."

He's still a kid who misses eating his mom's cheese potatoes and father's flank steak. He loves golf, often shooting in the 80s, but will occasionally dip into the 70s. In Findlay, he has become somewhat of a legend. When Pittsburgh selected him No. 11 overall in the draft in April, all the stores in town sold out of Steelers' merchandise within 48 hours.

There is nothing complicated about Roethlisberger. His first love is basketball followed by golf. He loves watching movies, especially Bad Boys II and Gladiator.

He appears sincere and humble. When an automobile dealer invited him to sign autographs recently, Roethlisberger stayed two hours and signed more than 800 photographs. He held conversations with everyone who approached him.

"The Lord has blessed me tremendously, and when I have talented offensive linemen, running backs, tight ends, receivers around me, it helps a lot," said Roethlisberger, whose father, Ken, is vice president of a plant that makes Honda parts, and mother, Brenda, teaches yoga.

"I like my upbringing. I like the way I was raised: hard work, dedication, loyalty. I think those are things that my parents instilled in me that I can carry onto the team."

Actually, Roethlisberger is starting to carry the Steelers (13-1).

When starter Tommy Maddox went down with an elbow injury in Week 2 against the Ravens, there were many who thought the Steelers were finished with a rookie quarterback. But from his first series, Roethlisberger looked comfortable in the pocket.

Cowher wasn't shocked, but surprised.

"There is no question he had the physical attributes you're looking for," Cowher said. "He's a big, strong kid who could make all the throws. He is a great athlete for a man his size. We were in the ideal situation where we didn't have to rush him; he could sit behind Tommy and learn. But he has done everything to win games. He has had a lot of experiences in his short career."

Roethlisberger, despite being 6 feet 5 and 241 pounds, moves well in the pocket. He can either be the drop-back prototype passer, or he can throw on the run.

He is the fourth-ranked passer in the AFC, having completed 182 of 276 passes for 2,400 yards, 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a rating of 96.3. He is the perfect complement for the Steelers' run-first, pass-second offense.

Roethlisberger has a full complement of weapons in running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, a mobile but punishing offensive line led by All-Pros Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings, and a good receiving corps with Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El.

But last week against the New York Giants, Roethlisberger carried the offense, completing 18 of 28 passes for 316 yards, the first 300-yard game of his career. Now he wants to take another step Sunday against the Ravens.

"They have such a great defense from top to bottom. It's the best defense in the league," Roethlisberger said of the Ravens. "We know it's a big game. You hear it from fans, hear it from the community. If you're going to win any game, it's got to be the Baltimore game. I just see myself as being extremely lucky to have these guys around me."

And the Steelers seem just as fortunate to have Roethlisberger.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (8-6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-1)

Site: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Steelers by 5 1/2

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