Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger makes videos during the team’s media day for Super Bowl XLIII on Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. The Steelers will play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday for the NFL championship.AP PHOTO
TAMPA, Fla. — Ben Roethlisberger was along for the ride, and he knows it.
While some teams win a Super Bowl because of their quarterback, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed not to lose one in Detroit three years ago despite Big Ben’s self-described bad game. Tom Brady, he wasn’t.
As nervous as a teenager taking his driver’s test, Roethlisberger was 9-of-21 with two interceptions and a 22.6 passer rating. He was so ineffective, the Steelers needed a wide receiver, Antwaan Randle El, to throw the pivotal touchdown pass as they beat Seattle 21-10.
Roethlisberger became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl at age 23, but he was as much relieved as he was happy. Not long after, the mood of a player better known for his competitiveness than his perfectly placed spirals began to change.
“I obviously got a little bit upset I didn’t play so well, I let the guys down and I didn’t help the team win the game,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday, a three-deep crowd huddled around his Super Bowl media day podium. “It fuels the fire that you want to come out and play a better game the next time. You have to get over the initial hoopla, the flash, the lights and just make it a game.”
Just a game. There’s no such thing to Roethlisberger, who is such a competitor that he rarely holds the door open for someone because he doesn’t want anyone — sometimes, even a date — beating him outside.
A friendly game of cards, a swat of the ping-ping paddle, a determined dribble of the basketball — almost anything sets off Big Ben, the man who refuses to lose. So imagine what a football game does.
Imagine what this second Super Bowl in four years is doing, the one he will play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals and coach Ken Whisenhunt, his offensive coordinator in that Detroit Super Bowl.
Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner doesn’t need to imagine. To beat the Steelers, he must outplay Roethlisberger, and he knows how difficult that can be. A classic pocket passer, Warner watches on tape how the 6-foot-5 Roethlisberger shakes off 300-pound defensive linemen, escapes a pass rush and creates a big play out of a broken one.
“He’s so much more athletic than me. He’s got a big, strong arm, he has an ability to make plays in and out of the pocket that’s so different from me,” Warner said. “I’m a guy that stays in there and is really built on just staying in there and making the forward pass as opposed to making a whole bunch of plays outside the pocket. He’s got great strengths outside of that part of it, which obviously I don’t.”
Their personalities are similar. Warner’s career has gone through numerous ups and downs, yet he persevered and now has a chance to win a second Super Bowl. So does Roethlisberger, whose competitiveness drives Pittsburgh’s offense.
“Ben needs to win,” said defensive end Brett Keisel, one of his best friends on the team. “I could be joking around, playing basketball, we could be playing H-O-R-S-E, and all of a sudden he wants to bet. When he bets, he just has this face, this look that comes over him that he’s going to win. Me, being the smart guy I am, I never bet.”
But Roethlisberger does on occasion. He was seen with friends celebrating his birthday last year at some of Las Vegas’ more expensive betting outlets, not long after signing a new contract guaranteeing him $36 million. Still, he believes in sharing the wealth.
During an off weekend in November, he took his offensive linemen to Chicago for an all-expenses-paid weekend. He treats them to dinner regularly, doing so again Monday night at a Tampa steakhouse — a team-building gesture that ignores the 46 sacks, the shoulder injury and concussion he absorbed this season.
That’s why Keisel and some other teammates say Roethlisberger’s near-fanatical will to win might be what sets him apart from most other quarterbacks. Roethlisberger has led 18 comebacks in the fourth quarter or later that won or tied a game, five this season.
“I hate to lose. I hate being second,” Roethlisberger said. “When it comes down to it, I want the ball in my hands and I want to win the game.”
And which NFL quarterback won the most games by age 26? Brady? Dan Marino? John Elway? Joe Montana? No, Roethlisberger, with 51. In a few days, he could join only Brady by winning a second Super Bowl before he turns 27.
Consider this, too: Roethlisberger has started during each of his five NFL seasons. Terry Bradshaw, against whom all Steelers quarterbacks are measured, didn’t become an unquestioned starter until midway through his fifth season, in 1974. Before then, Bradshaw endured several awful seasons, benchings for Terry Hanratty and Joe Gilliam, while he did a lot of growing up.
So much has happened to Roethlisberger during those five seasons: Going 13-0 as a rookie before losing in the AFC title game; winning the Super Bowl in his second season; the motorcycle crash that seriously injured him in 2006; the down season that followed; a comeback year (32 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) under a new coach in 2007; another Super Bowl appearance this season, despite a falloff in production (17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions).
“I have been through a lot,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s rewarding to get here, it would be more rewarding to win it. A lot of people find ways to doubt you and hate you and love you, and it’s fun to prove people wrong.”