A leafy maple dominates the frontyard of Ben Roethlisberger’s boyhood home, where his parents and sister still live. The tree towers over the family’s single-story house, its branches forming a ladder that Roethlisberger climbed countless times as a child.
Long before he started putting down roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers, setting an NFL record by becoming the first rookie quarterback to start his career 8-0, Roethlisberger dreamed of working for the FBI. He once used a rope to fashion a makeshift zip line from the top of the tree to his porch, hoping to swoop gracefully out of the sky. Things didn’t quite work out.
“I was up in the tree and I had the pulley and everything ready to go,” he said. “The thing was, it was a really steep angle. I felt the weight and everything felt good to go. I kind of slid out of the tree. I got about three feet and the pillar on our porch ripped out. I hit the ground, the pillar hit the ground, and my friend was dying laughing.”
A decade later, Roethlisberger is a lot of things: a runaway rookie-of-the-year candidate, the poised leader of a 9-1 Super Bowl contender, and a fresh-faced, 6-foot-5 marketing gold mine whose No. 7 jersey is already among the NFL’s hottest sellers.
But secret-agent material he is not.
“He can’t go anywhere without being mobbed,” said his mother, Brenda. “Everybody wants an autograph or to say hello or give their best wishes. When he’s home, we do a lot of the shopping for him so he doesn’t have to go out.”
Funny, Roethlisberger didn’t feel like much of a star last May when he sat offstage with his parents at Madison Square Garden, waiting for his name to be called. He and several other prospective top selections had been invited to attend the NFL draft. He agreed, confiding to his friends and family he just didn’t want to be the last of the group to be picked. He was.
Before that, there had been daily workouts in Newport Beach with agent Leigh Steinberg’s other rookie clients. The group, mostly quarterbacks and defensive linemen, met at a park every morning to go through drills with specialized trainers and position coaches. They were wide-eyed kids, hopeful, uncertain and utterly anonymous to just about anyone strolling by.
Seven months later, Roethlisberger is a star, a 22-year-old from Miami of Ohio with his own action figure -- joining Eli Manning as the only rookies in the “Gladiators of the Gridiron” set -- and enough articles for dozens of scrapbooks, among them a New York Post back page headlined “Man of Steel” and a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoon featuring him superimposed on the city’s skyline over the caption “Roethlisburgh.”
“We have been deluged by endorsement offers,” said Steinberg, whose client list has included quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Drew Bledsoe and Steve Bartkowski. “They’re for soft drinks, water, candy, energy bars, a ‘Big Ben’ watch, automotive, vitamins and supplements. But the engine that pulls the train is his steady development as a quarterback.... I’ve been through this with a number of outstanding quarterbacks. The difference is, no one had this instantaneous success.”
Fifteen years before Roethlisberger neared the NFL mountaintop, he discovered one of life’s greatest depths.
Brenda Roethlisberger, you see, is not Ben’s biological mother. His parents divorced when he was 2, and although his father married Brenda two years later, Ben spent every other weekend with his mother, Ida. One day, when he was 8, he and Brenda waited in front of their home for Ida to pick him up. She never arrived.
“Brenda and I were actually outside, shooting baskets, waiting for her,” Ben said. “We shot baskets for a long time, no big deal. Maybe she was running late. Then we started throwing the football. We started playing all these sports trying to pass the time.”
Afternoon turned to evening. Still, no Ida.
“It started getting dark and we were wondering what was going on,” he said. “My dad got home, we went inside. To the best of what I remember, I remember my dad being on the phone -- he got a call from my grandmother, my real mom’s parents. She said that my mom had been in a [car] wreck and it was pretty bad and that they would call back soon.
“Then the next thing I remember about the whole situation was, my grandparents decided to pull the plug because she was going to be a vegetable. So they actually decided to pull the plug and make it easier on her.”
Roethlisberger seldom discusses the death of his mother. He never talked about it with Steinberg, Steeler owner Dan Rooney, or even his basketball coach at Findlay High, Jerry Snodgrass, a close friend of the family.
Ken and Brenda Roethlisberger gave brief details of the situation recently, but asked that Ben decide how much or little they shared about the tragedy.
“It’s tough,” Roethlisberger said. “I didn’t get to see her or anything. I didn’t get to see her for the two weeks before that. So it was tough. She was in the hospital far away, we didn’t get a chance to get over there.
“I remember a few things about the funeral. I remember being in the funeral home and one of my cousins coming up to me and saying, ‘It’s OK to cry.’ And then I just remember crying like crazy after that. It’s tough for a young kid.”
Roethlisberger refers to Brenda as his mother, not his stepmother. She has been a parent to him as long as he can remember. She even looks like him, tall and athletic, traits she and Ken passed along to Ben’s younger sister, Carlee, a 6-foot sophomore at Findlay who spends her falls playing volleyball and winters playing basketball.
"[Brenda] has been a mother to me,” Ben said. “She’s been wonderful to me since Day 1.”
His memories of Ida are more snapshots than moving pictures in his mind.
“From what I remember ... she was a beautiful blonde; I think that’s where I get my beautiful blond hair from,” he said with a laugh. “She was just a real pretty, sweet woman.”
Now, whenever Roethlisberger throws a touchdown pass, he points to the sky.
“That’s a double meaning,” he said. One to give praise. One for Ida.
With the closest NFL team a two-hour drive east, Findlay used to be Cleveland Brown country. Not anymore, not with so many No. 7 Steeler jerseys cropping up all over town. When Pittsburgh’s playing, the line at BW-3’s, a popular sports bar, wraps around the building.
A few weeks ago, at one of her volleyball matches, Carlee Roethlisberger blushed when a boy she’d never met approached her, asked whether she was Ben’s sister, then dropped to a knee and asked for her hand in marriage.
“There are tremendous pockets of Steeler fans, and they’re out in the open now,” said Snodgrass, Roethlisberger’s basketball coach and now athletic director at Findlay High.
Surrounded by farming towns, Findlay is a community of 40,000 that’s home to a university -- the University of Findlay -- the headquarters of Cooper Tire & Rubber, and two major divisions of the Marathon Oil Corp. Many people here feel safe leaving their doors unlocked, and yet there are some big-city touches, such as the meticulously restored Victorian mansions that line Main Street.
The Roethlisbergers live a few blocks away, but their home is far more modest.
“We want to try to stay as normal as possible in this situation,” said Ken Roethlisberger, vice president of production for a company that makes filters for Honda. “But it helped a lot when we changed our phone number, got an unlisted number.”
Somehow, though, the calls keep pouring in. When agents were recruiting Ben, they had their quarterback clients call on their behalf. Carson Palmer called. So did Joey Harrington.
“It wasn’t annoying, it was just time-consuming,” Brenda said. “We’d end up spending 20 minutes to a half-hour talking about things. Then you’d look up and it’s time for supper, the kids are coming home, and it was just nuts.”
Ken was a quarterback at Georgia Tech whose football career was cut short by a knee injury. During his last two years in college, he concentrated on baseball.
His father, also named Ken, was a traveling salesman who eventually started a sporting-goods store in nearby Lima, Ohio, so he could spend more time with his kids.
“That’s something I’ll always remember, and I’ve always told Ben that story too,” the younger Ken said. “What is important? Is it the job? Not really, it’s the family. I think those values have been passed along to Ben.”
Brenda grew up on a farm in Kansas. She’s lively, friendly and still loves the sound of a slamming screen door, says it makes a place feel alive. She won’t even let Ken fix the spring on theirs. That’s why they chuckle at the rumor that tore through town that Ben had bought them the biggest house in Findlay.
“People always say, ‘What’s the first thing you’re going to buy? Are you going to buy your parents a house?’ ” Roethlisberger said. “My parents don’t want that, they don’t need that. My parents are completely happy with the things we have, and that’s the way I was raised as well. If they wanted that, I’d do that for them. Growing up, we didn’t have all the money in the world, but we were always taken care of.”
That’s not to say Roethlisberger doesn’t enjoy the fruits of his six-year, $40-million contract. He drives a luxury SUV and a Mercedes-Benz, and he lavishes some nice gifts on his family. He recently gave Carlee a DVD player and $200 to buy some movies. In his typically practical way, Ben advised her she’d get more for her money by buying used movies instead of new ones.
“We get a lot of clothes from him,” Ken said. “They’re all XXL, though.”
That’s about the size of Ben’s heart. After he had graduated from Findlay High, for instance, he was told of a mentally challenged student who didn’t have the money to buy a cap and gown for graduation. So Ben gave him his.
“I remember the kid’s name was Russell,” he said. “I shook his hand and I’m not sure if he was fully aware of what was going on. The teacher, it brought a tear to her eye. It’s just one of those things that you don’t want people to feel left out or different.”
Roethlisberger was certainly different as a kid. He wanted to be a James Bond-type secret agent, and constantly tested himself with daring physical challenges. He had a trampoline in the backyard and used to jump onto it off the roof. Often, he tried to jump back onto the roof, and once nearly tore off the rain gutter that way.
“My dad always made me get up on the roof to put up the Christmas lights, clean out the gutters and all that stuff,” he said. “So in the winter, when there was snow on the roof, I’d actually slide down the roof right to the end and then stop myself. I was kind of a daredevil.
“I always think when I watch ‘Fear Factor’ and all those shows where they do the stunts, I always think I’d be real good at them. I do all those things well.”
Of course, as the rookie records continue to fall, Roethlisberger has discovered an even more impressive way to put himself -- and Findlay -- on the map.
Not so long ago, his hometown was hurting. In 1981, the year before Ben was born, Marathon Oil was facing a hostile takeover by Mobil. That, presumably, would have cost Marathon a significant number of jobs and probably would have been a devastating blow to Findlay. A short time later, Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel stepped in, bought Marathon, and kept it in Findlay.
So, according to many people who live here, Pittsburgh played a role in keeping this town afloat.
Twenty-three years later, Findlay is returning the favor.
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Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger -- the only quarterback the Steelers have taken in the first round in 24 years -- is on pace to shatter the Steelers’ single-season mark for passer rating (minimum 150 attempts):
*--* Quarterback Season Passer rating Ben Roethlisberger 2004 101.6 Terry Bradshaw 1975 88.0 Neil O’Donnell 1995 87.7 Tommy Maddox 2002 85.2 Terry Bradshaw 1978 84.7
Roethlisberger has been the NFL’s most efficient quarterback in the fourth quarter this season. A look at 2004’s top quarterbacks during the fourth quarter:
*--* Quarterback Team 4th quarter rating Ben Roethlisberger Pittsburgh 123.1 Daunte Culpepper Minnesota 120.4 Drew Brees San Diego 115.3 Michael Vick Atlanta 106.1 David Carr Houston 91.7
Source: Stats Inc.