The Coming of Big Ben Roethlisberger

Hey, wait a minute! It wasn't supposed to be this way! The guy with the big, recognizable name and the big pedigree was supposed to be the next big thing in the NFL. The 2004 season was supposed to be the dawn of Manning-mania in New York, or at least be the beginning of Phil Rivers leading the charge in San Diego.

What happened?

What happened was that Manning had a far less than auspicious NFL start and Rivers hardly ever had an opportunity to prove he could do anything other than diligently study a clipboard while strolling the sidelines.

Putting it more succinctly - the big names fizzled. Being more direct, what happened can be explained in one word: Roethlisberger! As in Big Ben Roethlisberger - the Cinderella story of the 2004 NFL season.

Even as you sit reading this issue of SMR, fans are frantically scooping up anything that bears his image or name. The Madison Avenue crowd, waving their 24-karat gold Monte Blancs, are trying to get his signature on contracts as desperately as fans, waving their Sharpies, are trying to get his signature on anything.

Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback, who back on draft day must have felt a bit drafty and left out in the cold as he waited by the phone for his fate to be decided while watching the San Diego Chargers grab Eli Manning and then trade him to the Giants for Philip Rivers and three draft picks.

"It motivates me that people still (have) doubts about me," Roethlisberger has said about that draft. "They still disbelieve. I like that."

Who are these people who still disbelieve? I mean come on! This guy has chalked up more wins than any rookie quarterback in NFL history!

"It still goes back to (the fact that) people obviously thought Eli and Philip were better than me," Roethlisberger said. "And they might be, I don't know. But not in my mind."

Roethlisberger, who was finally offered a chance to step in from the cold when the Steelers selected him in the 11th round, has changed a lot of minds. He did it by winning games - a whole lot of games.

And what about Eli Manning, son of the great Archie Manning?

Well, by mid-December Manning had yet to win in four starts for the Giants and had chalked up a stunningly inept performance against the Ravens, completing only four of 18 passes along with two interceptions.

Roethlisberger
Photo Courtesy of Icon sports Media

As Roethlisberger and the Steelers prepared for their late season meeting with Manning and crew in East Rutherford's Giants Stadium, Ben told the press he hoped to have the chance to talk to Manning. "I would love to talk to him and find out how his experience is and compare it to mine," Roethlisberger said. "I would love that. I'm sure I'll ask him how everything's going. He might not want to talk to me. I don't know."

If Roethlisberger was basking in the sweet underdog justice of seeing Manning fizzle, he was not letting on. "I'm just happy we're winning," he said. "What he does, he does. As long as we keep winning, I couldn't care less what anyone else does."

When Roethlisberger and Manning finally did meet on December 18, the Steelers rookie quarterback threw for a season-high 316 yards which included four passes that set up Jerome Bettis' game-winning 1-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.

At the final gun, as the teams ran off the field, the scoreboard read: Pittsburgh Steelers -33, New York Giants -30. Roethlisberger had led the Steelers to their 12th straight win - a team record, and perhaps even sweeter than the record was that they had handed the Giants their seventh straight loss.

"He is an awesome quarterback," Pittsburgh receiver Antwaan Randle El told a huddle of reporters in the locker room after that game. "He has this great poise," said Randle El, who caught five passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. "You can have all the ability in the world but if you don't have the poise it won't happen."

For most guys who wrangle a job as a starting quarterback in the NFL at the tender age of 22 (not that there have been many), poise is typically a commodity as rare as humbleness. Roethlisberger however has proven to harbor a good deal of both. He is quick to give credit to his teammates, especially his linemen, wide receivers and running backs.

"Without them, I couldn't do anything," said Roethlisberger. "All I have to do is take the snap, hand the ball off or throw it. It's pretty easy. Thank goodness for them, they make it easy."

If there's one thing that Roethlisberger understands its making things easy. He has easily chalked up wins for the Steelers and both on and off the field has demonstrated an easygoing demeanor that has already earned him the respect of his veteran teammates.

"He's still a rookie and we've left some plays on the field," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "At the same time, he's done a tremendous job zinging the ball around and having fun."

The Steelers center, Jeff Hartings, has said that he has to constantly remind himself of just how young the guy is that he snaps the ball to. "He misses some defensive cues and doesn't pick up every blitz," said Hartings. "But he carries himself great and he understands that he can't do this by himself. Not all (quarterbacks) understand that. I think that says a lot about him."

Teammate Hines Ward agreed with Hartings, saying that Roethlisberger has certainly kept himself in perspective despite his phenom status. "Look at all the other quarterbacks in the NFL. They're not having success like Ben," Ward said. "He's never tried to step on any toes acting like he's a big-shot rookie, thinking he's better than everyone else. He goes out and buys us donuts in the morning. As a teammate, he makes you want to go out and work twice as hard for the guy."

Roethlisberger
Photo Courtesy of Icon sports Media

Nova Lanktree, a Chicago-based sports agent, also has praise for Roethlisberger. "He's a superstar in the making," said Lanktree pointing out that according to NFLShop.com, Ben's No. 7 jersey has shot up to the No. 3 spot in national sales. That means his jersey is outselling those of established NFL stars such as Brett Favre and Peyton Manning and is closing in on jersey sale leaders, Michael Vick and Terrell Owens.

Sports merchandisers also bowed in praise to Ben for giving them the chance to cash in on Roethlisbergermania by selling his autographed memorabilia at heavily marked-up prices. Web sites, such as exlsports.com and prosportsmemorabilia.com, have offered his signed jerseys for $349; helmets for $450; mini-helmets for $160 and footballs for $289. That's right in the range of what they get for items signed by Hall of Famers such as Namath, Bradshaw, Staubach and Montana!

And while many have already handsomely lined their pockets by selling Roethlisberger items, Ben will probably only see several hundred thousand dollars in endorsement fees from his first pro season, most of which came from a Campbell's Soup commercial, a Nike shoe contract and a promotional deal he made with the Topps trading-card company. Most marketing executives believe that will rapidly change. Conventional wisdom says that if Roethlisberger continues to play at his current level, he will be easily opening the door for his accent into the realm of the multi-million dollar pitchman.

"He's got the combination of humility, athleticism and charm, the "IT" that advertisers are looking for," said Lanktree. Ralph Cindrich, a Pittsburgh-based agent, agreed. "Roethlisberger could make millions from endorsements," said Cindrich. "But only if his career holds up."

Roethlisberger's agent, Leigh Steinberg, has said that he is well aware of Ben's marketing potential but has wanted his client to focus first and foremost on football. Steinberg said that they have been already offered numerous endorsement deals from big name corporations and brand names, but that they have mutually decided not to make any decisions until after the season.

One of the few marketing items they did agree to do was the "Big Ben" T-shirt that was so popular that well over 90 thousand shirts were grabbed up and stuffed into stockings for Christmas.

So, hey, wait a minute. Before we go any further here. Let's look back and see if we can find any clues that this guy would be the big break out star in 2004.

The story of Ben Roethlisberger began on March 2, 1982. He was born and grew up in the little town of Findlay, Ohio where by an early age he had become active in sports, especially basketball and football.

"Some kids just rise above the rest, and Ben was one of them," said Findlay Mayor Tony Iriti, who coached Ben in fifth and sixth grade football and who also served as a volunteer assistant coach at Findlay High School. "You usually don't expect a kid to make every play, but Ben always seemed to make things work. He has a lot of God-given talent and natural ability."

While the word "phenomenon" had been associated with him by the time he was mid-way through his high school career, Ben never really came into his own until, as a senior, he was named the team's starting quarterback. That was the year that the scouting staff from Miami (Ohio) University began taking notice of the tall, lanky kid from Findlay.

Roethlisberger
Photo Courtesy of Icon sports Media

Miami's Head Coach Terry Hoeppner made it no secret that he wanted Roethlisberger badly, but the overall feeling was to wait and see how he did in his senior year. "I didn't want to be the genius to offer this guy who never played quarterback a scholarship," Hoeppner has said of Ben. "(So) we waited until he played a game. In that first game, Ben threw six touchdowns (and that was) good enough for me," Hoeppner said.

Along with Miami, Ohio State University was also taking a close look at Ben, who had set state records for yards (4,041) and touchdowns (54). Miami eventually won the rights to him when Ben reasoned that he would have the opportunity to play first string at Miami being as that their starting quarterback, Mike Bath, would see his eligibility expire.

"(Choosing Miami) came down to what would be comfortable for me and what felt right," Ben has said. "I prayed a lot about it, talked to my family about it, and it seemed like the right fit."

Ben was named Miami's starting QB in 2001 and after a rather inauspicious start on the road he shined in the home opener completing 20-of-25 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

He would go on to throw for 3,105 yards and 25 touchdowns that season and then followed up with a sophomore season in which he threw for 3,238 yards and 22 touchdowns. By Ben's junior season, he had gained an exceptionally high level of comfort, command and poise and following a disappointing season-opening loss to Iowa, Ben went on to complete nearly 70 percent of his passes, breaking many of Miami's passing records, and leading the Red Hawks to a win in the Mid-American Conference championship.

"After we won the championship, (I felt that I had) accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish at Miami," said Ben. "So that's when it (became) a reality that I (was) going to get a chance to hopefully make it to the NFL."

Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 240-pounds, Roethlisberger possesses an incredibly strong arm and speed that is rare for a player of his size. Shortly after Ben was finally scooped up by the Steelers as their 11th pick, Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher told the local Pittsburgh sports media: "If you have an opportunity to get a good, young quarterback who has a tremendous upside, it's too golden of an opportunity to pass."

Cowher has since gone on to say how impressed he has been by how Roethlisberger handled himself while being thrust into the eye of the NFL hurricane of hype during his rookie season. Having grown up in a blue-collar, working class environment, Roethlisberger seemingly knew, instinctively, how to keep things in perspective. "I think that's why (Pittsburgh) has kind of embraced me," Ben said near the end of the "04 season. "I'm not a California surfer boy. They look at me as one of them."

Oh yeah, and the fact that he won a slew of games didn't do anything to hurt that embracing either!

Among the Ben Roethlisburger cards that collectors are most interested in are the 2004 Topps Rookie # 311, the 2004 Topps Chrome Premiere Prospects PP1, the Playoff Prestige # 159 Rookie Card, and the 2004 Upper Deck Rookie Prospects RPBR. The card that has so far gained the most interest and highest value is the 2004 Fleer Tradition # 351 that includes Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, all on the same card.