Much Ado About Ben
Let’s get this out of the way first. The day is coming when Ben Roethlisberger is going to leave the game, either because he walks away of his own free will, as Heath Miller did, or because he gets carried off the field because of some sort of career-ending injury.
And let’s not fool ourselves that the transition to a new quarterback will be smooth or easy. It might be. The Steelers might pick up another developmental prospect in the third or fourth round and he turns out to be Dak Prescott, or at least who we think Dak Prescott is at the moment. It’s funny how often the second season for these young phenoms doesn’t go as well as the first one. Or even the second half of the first season, as we saw with Carson Wentz this year.
It could happen that way. But it probably won’t. More likely, the Steelers will have to mortgage the farm to move up in the draft, and will then have to hope they have better luck than is frequently the case. There are no guarantees in the NFL.
However, for the moment my intention is not to speculate about the post-Roethlisberger era but to think about what drives him and what this might say about how soon he is likely to walk away. Because where it gets interesting, I think, is that what drives Ben has been evolving over the past several years.
There is no doubt that Ben is a competitor. He wants to win. Brett Keisel, one of the players Ben was closest to during Keisel’s years on the team, commented some years back that it didn’t matter how stupid the competition or how pointless the activity, Ben had to win. Ping pong, air hockey, Go Fish, you name it—if it was possible to do it in a competitive fashion, Ben was right there looking to win.
This is scarcely an unusual trait in a quarterback. In fact, I would be shocked to hear of a good quarterback who didn’t have a pretty strong competitive instinct. After all, there has to be something keeping you back there trying to throw the ball when a number of large men are doing their best to annihilate you.
A story I’ve always enjoyed about the quarterback Ben most tried to model himself upon, John Elway, deals with his NFL debut. It didn’t go well. I expect most of you know the story. As Elway noted in 1996:
Elway…recalled this fall that as a Bronco rookie in 1983, his debut was traumatic.
On his first play, he looked across the line and saw middle linebacker Jack Lambert of the Pittsburgh Steelers glaring at him.
“He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself,” Elway said. “I’m thinking, `You can have your money back. Just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant.’
“I can’t tell you how badly I wanted out of there.”
Obviously Elway recovered from the shock and went on to a great career, doubtless one propelled by a great desire to win.
I have referred more than once to the incident in the AFC Divisional Game against the Ravens in 2010. The Steelers were down a lot of points at halftime—about 14 of them, if I recall correctly. The sideline camera captured Ben rallying the troops, telling them what had already happened didn’t matter, etc. The words were more or less what you would expect (although perhaps not from Tom Brady, who would presumably have been threatening his receivers with dismemberment if they didn’t step it up), but what jumped off the screen for me was was Ben’s intensity. Without raising his voice he willed his disheartened troops to go back out and fight. And fight they did, of course, and won the game.
So has Ben lost some of this fire? I suspect so. In the intervening six years since that game a lot of other things have entered his life—a wife, three children, and perhaps some perspective as well. I’m sure Ben is still a competitor and still wants very much to win, but it isn’t the only thing that matters in his life anymore.
A couple of incidents are telling. His first child, Ben Jr., was due in November of 2012. There was quite a reasonable chance his wife would go into labor on a Sunday morning, and when he was asked by the local media whether he would miss a game to be there for the birth, he said “of course.” Which was the right answer in my opinion, and to my surprise the opinion of a majority of Steeler Nation.
And as any of you who have children can doubtless attest, parenthood changes you in ways you never would have suspected. As he told WDVE Radio about six months later:
It puts things into perspective. For me it’s like what’s important. You don’t really know love until you have a child and it’s pretty cool. I got up early and he was awake so we were playing this morning before I left to go to practice. The changes you see every day are just awesome!
The second incident happened during the 2015 season. Ben self-reported a possible concussion during the Seahawks game, noting later that for the first time he “thought about his family.” This of course represents not just a change in his perspective but a sea change in the NFL, especially in terms of the new level of knowledge about the long-term effects. As Roethlisberger said afterwards:
I have played through many injuries but the brain is not an injury you want to play with. I didn’t feel right, it doesn’t make you less of a man or a football player to come out of the game.
When you’re done you want to be a husband or father, and if I have these brain injuries it’s not worth it.
As it happened he was indeed concussed. The Steelers lost that game 30-39. So I think it is fair to say Ben no longer values winning over anything else.
I also believe that not only has the desire—actually, I would say the need—to win taken a lesser place in his worldview, but I believe there is evidence to suggest that the reasons he wants to win have changed.
There is, of course, the legacy factor. Roethlisberger really wanted to have more Super Bowl rings than Terry Bradshaw. Perhaps that has changed more out of necessity than anything else. To win three more Super Bowl rings beginning at age 36 would be quite a feat. Even the great Tom Brady hasn’t done it, yet. (He had three rings prior to age 35 and has a loss and a win since.) I think it is entirely possible that Ben has looked at the probabilities and decided that perhaps it isn’t an attainable goal.
But there is still a legacy factor. Again, I believe the driving force behind it has changed. I think he does really want to win another Super Bowl, but for a rather different reason than holding the Steelers’ record, or league record, or whatever. I think it is to do with his legacy as a person more than as a quarterback.
As the SI article of about a month ago attests, there are plenty of people who can’t let the whole “Ben’s a jerk” narrative go. The really shocking thing about that article wasn’t that it was some sort of click bait piece on TMZ, but an in-depth piece by one of SI’s most respected writers. The other shocking part was the complete lack of evidence said writer was able to muster to suggest that Roethlisberger was anything but a completely changed man. And yet it was published.
I ran into an example of just how widespread this perception of Roethlisberger is just a few days ago. I was having lunch with my mother and some long-time family friends, and the daughter of one couple, whom I hadn’t seen in many years, was also there. We discovered a mutual interest in football, and when she found I was a Steeler fan, she asked, as delicately as she could phrase it, about whether Ben was still a jerk. I was happy to assure her that he is a changed man. I was even able to cite the following comment to an old “Character (Ac)Counts” article on Ben from my Behind the Steel Curtain days:
I have been reluctant to weigh in at times on Ben because I know some family members personally and it can’t help but skew my perception. However, what I can say is all of your insights into who he was and who he is [are] spot on with their feelings as well. He truly has changed off the field, even by the (ac)counts of those closest to him.
as a result, I believe Ben’s concern about his “legacy” has as much or more to do with the public’ perception of who he is now as opposed to who he was then as it does with his hardware. Back in 2010, during the run-up to the Super Bowl, many thousands of words were written about his misdeeds, and many attempts were made by the media to draw out of him some sort of “True Confessions” episode. Ben steadfastly refused to address it, much to the disgust of a number of media members, saying he would only talk about football. His belief was that words meant nothing—a changed life would speak far louder.
It may have spoken to Steeler fans, but obviously there is still the perception among NFL fans that “once a douchebag, always a douchbag.” In fact, Roethlisberger’s steadfast refusal to speak about the change in his life was the subject of a much different sort of article than the SI one. Last summer, Post-Gazette writer J. Brady McCullough noted:
There is no way to know exactly who Ben is today, which is why he is careful about seeming like he’s trying to push a narrative. He would rather not try at all to win back the public than be viewed as a phony — a decision he made six years ago that still impacts him.
What is for sure is that his circumstances have changed: He’s a 34-year-old man who is building a home for his family, up near Sewickley. He loves being outside, whether it’s mowing the grass at home by himself or hunting, fishing or golfing with his dad and his tight circle of buddies. He goes to church regularly on Sunday mornings, even on some game days with later kickoffs.
Ben isn’t going to reveal much about his faith, because what good could come from him talking publicly about his relationship with Jesus Christ? His pastor, Jamie Kendrew of Christ Church at Grove Farm in Sewickley, wants him to start using his platform. He believes Ben has a beautiful, impactful story to tell.
But, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t ready. He’s waiting on the perfect time, that moment when his personal and football journeys converge to put him and the Steelers back on the big stage. Then, the whole world would have to listen.
In a nice piece of irony, considering recent events, the author added this. After relating the story about Ben’s first meeting with Jim Kelly (let’s just say it didn’t go well) McCullough wrote:
He may not have gotten a revisionist piece written in Sports Illustrated, but he did earn the respect of his childhood idol, Jim Kelly, who invites him up to Western New York every winter for snowmobiling.
At any rate, I think the article, which I hope all of you will read if you missed it when it came out, reveals why it is that Ben will return in 2017. Simply put, I believe what is driving him now is the desire to win a Super Bowl so that he can tell his “redemption story.” Of course, many will refuse to believe him.
People can, and often do, change, but a change of this magnitude isn’t easy for people to believe. There is this, though – if he hasn’t changed he has pulled off one of the more successful acting jobs in recent history. But it’s remarkably difficult for people to let go of their self-righteous anger with a public figure who has shown his feet of clay. And of course if you don’t like the Steelers there’s even more reason to hold on to the narrative.
I don’t know Ben Roethlisberger any better than I did in 2013 when I wrote the BTSC piece. Which is to say, I don’t know him at all. I have spoken literally two words to him – “bored yet?” (He responded a good bit more graciously than I deserved, although my question wasn’t meant to be as rude as it appears.)
He could stun me—and pretty much everyone else—by announcing tomorrow that he is retiring. But somehow I don’t think that is going to happen. I think he sees a window open for a few more years to cap his career with a third ring and, more importantly, the chance to tell his story in his time and his way. I for one certainly hope he gets the opportunity – for his own sake as much as for the Steelers.