As noted earlier, my guilty Monday morning pleasure is Peter King at CNNSI.com.
Today’s is one of the better ones not only because it leads with the Steelers but because it is about their young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (and no, I can’t ever spell that by memory). What King writes about is the coming of age of a man and a quarterback.
When I watched Roethlisberger last year, I thought, “Flawed quarterback.” When I watched Roethlisberger on Sunday, I thought, “Franchise quarterback.”
I didn’t like his lackadaisical decision-making last year, or his declining accuracy, or what I’d heard his teammates say about his work ethic. Maybe it was right, and maybe it wasn’t. But Roethlisberger wasn’t the most popular guy in his own locker room last year, and he needed a change. He got it.
A change of coaches, to the blank-slate Mike Tomlin, who treated Roethlisberger as more of a team-leader type than did Bill Cowher — whether Big Ben deserved it or not. And Roethlisberger has responded. Through 10 weeks, he’s the NFL’s second-ranked quarterback, behind Tom Brady, and Sunday’s performance in a 31-28 win over Cleveland might have been the best of his career.
Not just his numbers, which were good but not Favrian: 23 of 34, 278 yards, two touchdowns, one interception. Pretty common numbers. But it was the way he played, and the way he came back under pressure, including a lumbering long touchdown run, that left Hines Ward shaking his head after the game.
“That was a John Elway game out there today by Ben,” Ward said by phone last night. “You remember Elway running [in the Super Bowl against Green Bay], like he wasn’t going to be stopped, and he went flying through the air. Today, you had to see the expression on Ben’s face on the touchdown run to believe it. I’ve never seen that look on his face before, ever.”
Why has the boy become a man? King isn’t sure. But one of his colleagues is. The boy became a man because he had to. His mentor died.
After Roethlisberger suffered multiple facial fractures in a June motorcycle accident and [former college coach Terry] Hoeppner suffered a recurrence of a brain tumor, Don’t Quit became a mantra for a quarterback and a coach both plagued by clouds of doubt. During one of many hospital visits, Roethlisberger and Hoeppner struck a pact: If one of them made it back onto the field, so would the other. “We talked about it a lot,” Roethlisberger says. “We even called ourselves the Comeback Kids. We were going to return — together — and be successful together.”
On June 19, 2007, Hoeppner died of complications from the brain tumor, leaving behind a wife, three children and four grandchildren. Roethlisberger, having lost his partner on the comeback trail, decided he’d play the 2007 season for both of them. Of course, he has other motivation too. Last year, in addition to the motorcycle wreck, he underwent an appendectomy, suffered a concussion on the field, threw 23 interceptions, missed the playoffs and fell from the ranks of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
In a world full of stories about athletes doing the wrong things, it is refreshing to see a story about someone who is doing some of the right things.