Ben Roethlisberger’s not done yet

THREE HOURS BEFORE what was likely his final regular-season game, in a concrete tunnel outside the locker room in M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger grabbed a football and started to throw. It’s been his routine for much of his 18 years: He finds a quiet space in the gut of a stadium where he loosens up before strapping on his pads, just him and an assistant coach, away from cameras and fans. Sometimes he talks, jokes or confides; other times he says little. He has a designated tunnel in nearly every venue. Occasionally, it’s more than a tunnel: Before Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers in 2011, Roethlisberger warmed up in something closer to a parking lot under AT&T Stadium. Trucks and carts moved around as he threw, and he dodged them as if they were pass-rushers. For this game, against the Baltimore Ravens, space was tight. He threw standing still, then off quick drops, then out of a faux shotgun. He was dressed in black sweats, a black shirt and a black hat. Most people passed by completely unaware. The few who noticed him were instructed by security to point their phones elsewhere. Roethlisberger rarely threw longer than about 10 yards. The ball snapped out of his hand, even at close range, spirals spinning under fluorescent lights. He finished up with a series of rapid tosses, firing quickly, with little time to find the laces, throwing over and around imaginary targets. After about 10 minutes, he was ready to go. He suited up in his road Steelers whites and walked onto the field, for what figured to be the last time.

OF COURSE, IT ended up not being the last time. And if Roethlisberger and the Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, there will be yet another last time. Still, there is no doubt that this is his final run, the close of an 18-year career — and no doubt that there are things to sort out.

There are athletes whose careers inspire a profound sort of ambivalence in the end. Impressive accomplishments peppered with unremarkable stretches. Transcendent flashes of talent weighed down by episodes of troubling conduct. Tensions with fans and teammates woven in between moments of signature style and dramatic finishes. Questions of legacy muddled and complicated. Ben Roethlisberger’s has been such a career. He has played at a Hall of Fame level, putting up staggeringly good numbers and a 66% winning percentage as a starter, an iconic player for an iconic franchise who has had a slow roll to end his career. But along with the triumphs, his time at the helm of the Steelers also has been marked by troubles, including accusations of sexual assault. When one considers all of this — what it says about him and those who have watched him for almost two decades — it’s hard to find clarity, hard to simply, neatly sum him up.

Roethlisberger had a certain quality and ethos: He viewed himself as indestructible. The way he held the ball until the last second and invited punishment was not only part of his style and charm, not only essential to his own industrial artistry, it was part of his identity — and no doubt part of his problems. When he walks away, the game will be diminished — not because he was a perfect ambassador, or even close, but because there is, it’s fair to say, nobody else in the league quite like him.


IT WAS FITTING that Roethlisberger’s final regular-season game was against Baltimore, whose fans have consistently had their souls ripped out by him. The contests between these two teams are usually violent and thrilling. “It’s never dirty, it’s just old-fashioned football,” as Roethlisberger puts it. This one got off to an ugly start, in the rain. On Roethlisberger’s first pass, his receiver lost a shoe. On Pittsburgh’s second drive, Ben’s coach-quarterback radio appeared to fizzle out. On fourth-and-short, the Steelers committed a false start. Toward the end of the first quarter, Roethlisberger threw a prayer into double coverage that was intercepted. When the stadium video boards showed Trevor Lawrence throwing a touchdown pass for the Jaguars against the Colts, Steelers fans in attendance cheered, knowing a Jacksonville upset of Indianapolis would inch them closer to a playoff berth. But it was a long shot. The season, and Roethlisberger’s career, seemed destined to end quietly — and without a playoff win since 2017.

Roethlisberger and his family have been planning for that end for a while. A few years ago, Ashley Roethlisberger, Ben’s wife, asked Randy Fichtner, then a longtime Steelers offensive coach and one of her husband’s closest confidants, for a favor. The Roethlisbergers were building out a man cave, and she wanted one of the bathroom walls to be filled with chalkboard X-and-O sketches of the vital plays of Ben’s career.

They picked three.

Roethlisberger’s first NFL touchdown pass: against the Ravens on Sept. 19, 2004, to Antwaan Randle El from 4 yards out.

Roethlisberger’s touchdown run in Super Bowl XL: against Seattle on Feb. 6, 2006, giving the Steelers a 7-3 lead they never relinquished.

And Roethlisberger’s most famous play: against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, on Feb. 1, 2009, when he hit a toe-tapping Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone from 6 yards out for the last-second win.

Fichtner drew the plays out by hand. For the game-winning touchdown pass against the Cardinals, he pulled out the game plan from that Super Bowl, which is now in an office shelf alongside many others. “My life’s work,” he says.

The Steelers had blown a double-digit lead to Arizona and trailed 23-20 with 2:30 left. Roethlisberger came onto the field with 78 yards to go. He was, at the time, a superstar who had appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and at the Grammys. He was also someone looking to improve on a poor individual showing in Super Bowl XL. He’d gone 9-for-21 for 123 yards and had two passes intercepted in a close win over Seattle. And four months later, he had wrecked his motorcycle, validating quiet rumblings around the league that many of the qualities that made him special as a player — supreme confidence, durability, recklessness, the belief he was indestructible — were liabilities for a franchise building around him. He had improved each year as a quarterback, but his career lacked a signature moment. Five completions and a 4-yard scramble set the Steelers up at the Cardinals 6-yard line with 49 seconds left.

The winning play — Gun Doc Left F Short 62 Scar Flasher Z Level — was actually called twice in a row. The first time it was run to the left, and Fichtner thought Roethlisberger’s throw on that play was better than the game winner. Roethlisberger pumped right, then threw left to Holmes on a corner route, and the ball breezed just over the defenders and right through Holmes’ outstretched hands. The next play, Gun Doc Left was run to the right, and it became one of the most iconic throws in Super Bowl history. Roethlisberger dropped back, started to feel pressure, shuffled right and threw a late but once again perfect pass to Holmes, who caught it for six, and the game.

On the surface, the play looks like an example of Joe Montana-level command under pressure. But it’s pure Roethlisberger, his own brand of winging-it heroics. He drops back and turns to the right, maybe too early, and pumps his arm, eager for an opening that’s not there, and then pumps it again, still locked in on Holmes and the corner of the end zone, looking nothing off. He scrambles a couple of steps to his right in search of an angle, then fires on a line toward a bank of photographers as much as in the direction of his receiver. And somehow, getting both feet down while still rising up to grab the ball, Holmes makes the catch. Roethlisberger later admitted that he had forgotten that a field goal would tie the game. He said he thought the pass would be intercepted but threw it anyway, and later called it “the dumbest throw ever.” But the dumbest throw ever gave him a second ring, and was perhaps a throw only Ben Roethlisberger could make, would make. And at the time, it seemed to put him on the verge of replacing Tom Brady as the AFC’s premier winner.

He would go on to play 12 more years of great football, but without another championship, and in a weird way, the pinnacle plays of his career were not the defining ones — at least in Roethlisberger’s eyes. In the lead-up to his final regular-season game, he said that one of his personal favorite moments wasn’t in a Super Bowl, or even in the playoffs. It wasn’t even a completion. Facing the Ravens years ago, Roethlisberger had a broken nose, and on a pass play in the fourth quarter, Baltimore defensive end Terrell Suggs closed in on him in the red zone, clawing at him from the front, trying for a strip sack. Roethlisberger clutched the ball, backpedaled away from Suggs, refusing to fold, and delivered a stiff arm, creating just enough space to toss a legal throwaway as he fell to the turf. Two plays later, he threw what ended up the deciding score. From a winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl to an incomplete pass in the regular season, there was always a gap between how Roethlisberger saw himself and how others did, both those closest to him and those who didn’t know him at all, both as a player and as a person, and as his fame exploded and his behavior worsened, that gap itself came to define him as much as any play.

THERE WAS SOMETHING different and rare about the Ravens game this past Sunday: Roethlisberger’s uniform was wet but clean. He threw mostly short and quick passes, taking what the defense offered, wiping the glove on his throwing hand dry after each one. He wasn’t hit much. But then on third down in the third quarter, the Ravens showed blitz from the right but pressured from the left. Roethlisberger held the ball. Defensive back Kevon Seymour and linebacker Chris Board met at Roethlisberger, corralling him and driving him hard into the ground, as if for old time’s sake, landing on shoulders that were already sore. Roethlisberger’s willingness to wait until the last fraction of a second to throw has always been his biggest source of pride, regardless of the cost — and regardless of how the coaches felt about it.

Midway through the 2011 season, before Pittsburgh played New England, Fichtner asked Roethlisberger to sit down for a chat. Fichtner closed the door. Earlier that day, Fichtner had been in a meeting with Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians, then the offensive coordinator. All three men were worried about the rate at which Roethlisberger was being hit. It was not just the fault of the offensive line. Roethlisberger was being Roethlisberger, holding the ball too long, sacrificing his body not just for the big play but even for the mundane one. He was just 29 years old, but the totality of the punishment left him older in quarterback years. So Fichtner was bracing to have a talk with Roethlisberger about the iron law of quarterbacking at an advanced age, a version of which John Elway later delivered to Peyton Manning after the former Colt signed with Denver: You can’t be the tough guy you used to be.

“Hey, man,” Fichtner said, “we gotta consider getting rid of the ball quicker. Throwing the ball away. Little bit less extension, you know?”

Roethlisberger looked at Fichtner, then stood up.

“Hey, Randy, with all due respect, this is how I play. And if I don’t play the way I play, I’m not playing.”

The rest of the week, Roethlisberger refused to talk to Fichtner, who had spent years working in close proximity to Roethlisberger. He had never seen Ben so angry. “He totally shut me out,” Fichtner says. Fichtner loved Ben, and knew that for as big as he was, for as tough as he was, he just always seemed to be in pain. Days before the Super Bowl against the Packers, Fichtner had noticed Roethlisberger limping at practice. Turns out, Roethlisberger had gotten a splinter in his foot while playing pool on a hardwood floor at a friend’s house the night before. Fichtner started “giggling but not giggling,” he later said. “We’re a day before the Super Bowl, and he’s got a full limp.” Roethlisberger played, of course, with no noticeable crutch.

On that Sunday against the Patriots, Roethlisberger threw 50 times for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked five times. But the Steelers won, and the following Monday morning, Roethlisberger saw Fichtner and said, “Hey, Randy, how you doing?” as if nothing had happened, as if his coach hadn’t offered a suggestion designed to help his quarterback — as if he hadn’t insulted Roethlisberger’s essence.

ROETHLISBERGER’S WILLINGNESS TO collect punishment was so pronounced that it obscured other elements that made him special. He is a smart player. Once, against Cincinnati, the Bengals had a defense in which one of the deep safeties would creep toward the line of scrimmage shortly before the snap. Roethlisberger diagnosed the defense, and as he started to call out signals, he pointed to the Bengals safety and waved at him to start to come down, unafraid to tip off the Bengals that he knew exactly what they were up to. The safety flipped him off as he crept down.

Still, as a quarterback, Roethlisberger was more instinctual than technician, and that created its own problems for defenses. Some opposing coaches privately admitted that there was no quarterback they enjoyed facing less than Roethlisberger, including Brady and Manning, men whose successes were most often rooted in discipline. Roethlisberger’s genius was rooted in navigating chaos, and under the cold lights, with his uniform muddied and his eye black smeared, bearded cheeks squeezing out of his helmet, with the chilled breath of the linemen fogging the line of scrimmage, with “Renegade” blaring through the speakers, he would lay waste to anyone’s pretenses of what a great quarterback should be, standing in the pocket wide and vast, pumping, pivoting, daring the walls to close, starting to scramble, with a defender pulling his jersey, never fast but somehow just quick enough, eyes always downfield until he saw one of the legions of great Steelers receivers in a slimming gap, and he’d raise his arm — with a release both looping and effortless — and get him the ball, not always on a line, but with just enough anticipation to arrive safely for a first down and, just as important, a chance to do it all again.

OF COURSE, IT’S never been — and isn’t now — simple to observe or appreciate Roethlisberger strictly in terms of how he manages the pocket. He was twice accused of sexual assault, once in 2009 and again in 2010. He was suspended in 2010 by the league for six games, later reduced to four, for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy and was ordered to undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation. Roethlisberger denied the accusation in each case, and neither resulted in criminal charges. He settled a lawsuit in 2012 regarding the 2009 case. The cases nevertheless underscored a perception of him, particularly in the first half of his career, as someone who, as he once said in a 2010 ESPN interview, saw himself as “invincible … untouchable and better than other people.”

In the years since, Roethlisberger has often appeared to be someone who knew that he needed to change, and at times as someone who resented the perception that he needed to atone for things he insisted were not true. Gaps between how he was seen and how he wanted to be seen, on field and off, persisted. He got married and started a family. He began to speak of his faith, sometimes a little too deliberately. He increased his charity work, both for children suffering from disease and for law enforcement in the Pittsburgh area. And at the same time, he still came off like a jerk at times. He criticized some teammates publicly, and they criticized him right back. He felt burned by his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, after locals criticized him in the media in the wake of the sexual assault accusations, and S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated noticed that Roethlisberger changed his hometown in the Steelers’ media guide to Cory Rawson, a place that does not exist. Roethlisberger became so prolific at blocking people on Twitter that stories were written about it, and a handle, @blockedbybigben, launched.

Most great quarterbacks possess a petty ruthlessness under a Madison Avenue veneer. Roethlisberger seemed through the years to have a hard time balancing the impulses, even if that meant creating enemies where there were none.

It’s impossible to know to what extent there was a transformation in Roethlisberger. Only he knows. But as his career aged, he seemed to want a truce. He reconciled with Findlay, apologizing when he was inducted into the Hancock County sports hall of fame in 2017. He unblocked most of the people he had blocked. Most of all, he seemed to rely on the redemptive power of what fans saw on game day. He was an object of idolization to some and disgust to others, but no matter what you thought of him, it was indisputable that he was willing to suffer for his team, and by his suffering for his team, Steelers fans seemed to see him as willing to suffer for them. Even if you didn’t feel bad for him as he pulled himself off the turf, you felt something.

THE RAVENS GAME this past Sunday entered the fourth quarter with Roethlisberger appearing as he often has this season: a step slow, with a split-second differential between what he saw and what happened on the field. After the Steelers intercepted a pass in the end zone in the third quarter, Roethlisberger nearly gave it back when he threw late and into traffic over the middle, but the pass was dropped. When he moved, he did so gingerly, either because he was hiding pain or because that’s just how he moves after 18 years, or both.

Some quarterbacks, especially Brady, take enormous pride in hiding injuries. Roethlisberger is more complicated. He has masked a lot of pain, and he has also discussed various injuries publicly over the years, making clear that he would tough it out to be there on game day. His body held up — despite separated ribs, a separated shoulder, a broken nose, sprained ankles, strained Achilles, knee sprains, concussions, torn ligaments, a broken foot, a broken thumb, dislocated fingers and a pectoral tear, among others — until it just couldn’t. During a two-minute drill against the Seahawks in 2019, he dropped back, pumped and fired as the rush closed in — and immediately grabbed his right elbow. It had bothered him for 14 years, and he pushed through it. This time, he came to the sideline with his arm draped to the side and said, “Get the doc.”

Reconstructive surgery on his elbow ended his 2019 season — and, for the next year, the working order of his entire career. In 2020, Fichtner, then Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, tried to save the quarterback from his own instincts. He called for quick passes, forcing Roethlisberger to play the old man game of read and react. Ten times in Roethlisberger’s career before 2019, he endured 30 or more sacks in a season. In 2020, he was sacked only 13 times, or 2.1% of his dropbacks, lowest of his career. “I had a chance to protect him,” Fichtner says. “And we protected him.”

Problem was, it didn’t work, for Roethlisberger or for the Steelers. Reports surfaced that the offense was too predictable, and that Roethlisberger had gone rogue, calling his own plays in the 2020 season finale against the Colts that won the AFC North for Pittsburgh. After the Steelers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Browns, Fichtner was fired. This past year, Roethlisberger mostly went back to playing the way he knew best. Entering the Baltimore game, he had been sacked 37 times — 6.2% of his dropbacks, highest in eight years, fighting through a hip injury that left his leg bruised almost down to the foot. As had so often been the case in his career, making adjustments was at war with the impulse to stick to what he knows and gut it out.

As the season went on, Roethlisberger knew this would be the last one. He started to ask the coaches if he could bring his kids to practice and meetings. On Saturday, Dec. 4, before the Steelers played the Ravens for the first time this season, 9-year-old Benjamin Jr. watched film of Friday’s practice with his dad and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan. Benjamin Jr. saw a play with receiver Diontae Johnson on a route that starts inside and breaks outside.

“Dad,” he said. “Diontae’s open!”

Roethlisberger ended up throwing it to someone else in practice. “I’m trying to spread it around,” Roethlisberger told his son.

The next day the Steelers called that play in the fourth quarter, down 13-12 to Baltimore. Roethlisberger dropped back and hit Johnson for a 5-yard touchdown in what would be a 20-19 win. The next day, Roethlisberger joked to Sullivan, “Can we bring Benjamin to all the meetings?”

MIDWAY THROUGH THE fourth quarter, the Steelers trailed Baltimore 10-6 and it appeared that we were watching the final minutes of Roethlisberger’s career. He later said that he was too emotionally drained after a home sendoff the previous Monday night against the Browns to consider that this might be his last game — or, more specifically, to consider all of the lasts in what seemed to be his last game. After the Browns game, he sat on the bench, walked around, trying to soak it all in. In the locker room, Tomlin asked all the players to stay put, in a holding pattern. Usually after games, especially late ones, guys quickly bolt. This time they waited, and when Roethlisberger entered, the players applauded, and defensive tackle Cam Heyward presented him a huge bottle of wine.

The night before the Ravens game, Roethlisberger’s father, Ken, texted his son to ask how he was doing, and Roethlisberger replied that he was fine, almost surprised that someone would wonder. But now, as the clock was ticking down, he was aware of all of the stakes — that the Colts, who seemed impervious to losing such an important game to such a bad team, were indeed going to lose, and that this might not be his last game after all.

Sullivan wanted to keep Ben loose, not too deep in his own head, so on the sideline he told him, “Hey, fourth quarter — chance to climb up those comeback stats.”

“Of course you’d think of that,” Roethlisberger said with a laugh.

But then Roethlisberger got the ball with just over eight minutes left and slogged out a 50-yard drive in 10 plays, capped with a touchdown pass to Chase Claypool. Roethlisberger always points to the sky after touchdown passes, in honor of his mother, Ida, who died in a car crash when he was 8. He pointed for the last time in the regular season. Baltimore later tied it, and the game went into overtime in the hard rain. The Ravens punted, and on came Ben. The Steelers plodded down the field, until they stalled: fourth-and-8 at the Baltimore’ 41. After a timeout, Roethlisberger came to the line and saw that the Ravens were set to both blitz up the middle and clog the middle of the field. The Steelers had the worst play called against it, with two inside routes. But there was no time to change the call, and Roethlisberger was called upon to do what all great quarterbacks do in abundance: figure it out.

Roethlisberger took the ball, and he knew immediately that he had to somehow float a pass over 6-foot-8 All Pro defensive end Calais Campbell to receiver Ray-Ray McCloud over the middle.

He reared back, and it was an epic breakdown in fundamentals. Rather than keep his left arm in tight, Roethlisberger wagged it to the side, making his chest stick out, this bear with the game and his career in his hands, trying to get the ball to rise and then drop over Campbell’s arms. At first glance, it looked haphazard — but then, a replay camera caught his eyes from the field level. Maybe more than any great quarterback of the past 20 years, Roethlisberger’s eyes always give him away — making clear when he is happy for others, happy for himself, feeling lucky, or annoyed, or angry, or even when he is transparently performing for the cameras. Now he was locked in. The spiral was tight, and the ball landed in McCloud’s arms for a first down, almost exactly as Roethlisberger had practiced it warming up in the tunnel. A few plays later the Steelers kicked the winning field goal. It was the 57th winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career, behind only Brady.

After the game, the cameras swarmed Roethlisberger. Tomlin approached him, gave him a quick hug and delivered an audible slap on the rear that might have stung both hand and ass. Roethlisberger strolled to the tunnel, stopping to give fans his gloves and wristband. What at the beginning of the day seemed like a certain end turned out to be a resourceful improvisation in the midst of chaos in a career with many of them, and when he spoke of being thankful for football after the game, of how special the game is seemingly on a basic human fulfillment level, it didn’t come off as canned or perfunctory but as sincere as he has in his entire public life.

AN HOUR LATER, Roethlisberger emerged from the locker room in an overcoat and hat, one of the last players to board the bus. He walked alone, tugging his own suitcase. Nobody approached him, not for an autograph, or a picture, or a handshake, not even to congratulate him. When he had entered the stadium hours earlier, he had done so in a mask. He wasn’t wearing one now. You could see him wince with every step. He stopped to pick up a bag of barbecue and continued to the bus. The mood inside was festive, players and coaches celebrating the beginning of an extended season, and career. As teammates walked past Roethlisberger’s seat, they told him, with certain clarity, You’re not done yet.

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