By Jeremy Hritz
Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger, Sr. was born on March 2nd 1982, following a Steelers season in which the team went 8-8, despite achieving a record of 5-3 after 8 games. In 1982, as a result of an abbreviated season due to a strike, the team went 6-3, in what would be the final seasons for both Lynn Swann and Jack Ham, both who are forever cemented into Steelers’ lore. Also, ‘82 would be the first season the Steelers would employ a 3-4 defense, for which they have become known for, though it did not culminate in a division championship. Disappointingly, the season would end in the first round of the playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium against the San Diego Chargers.
Though nobody knew it at the time, the next Steelers franchise quarterback who would bring prosperity and hope to a city would be born, and despite the despondency of Steelers football post-Terry Bradshaw, it would be a small sacrifice to pay for the successes that would emerge in 2004 and beyond.
Fates’ Choice of Location
Imagine for a moment you could select where you are born and have the opportunity to grow up. The geography, climate, attractions, all of it, would be decisions your soul could make prior to birth. Visions of beautiful landscapes adorned by picturesque, snow capped mountains, or rolling beaches adorned by sandy symmetry, would be the choice of many.
The antithesis would be a cursed existence in a depraved and dilapidated community, replete with a dearth of social and occupational mobility, contrasted with an abundance of crime, violence, and hope. A purgatory of sorts, and a miracle should one escape from said hades to the aforementioned paradises.
In between, there are your Findlay, Ohios. The everyday places. The salt of the earth lands. Indifferent and open to interpretation, a mixture of hidden opportunities (they are there) and slightly-veiled pitfalls, the former can be found by those with the wherewithal to search relentlessly and with pride they are from such lands.
Findlay came into existence as a result of Colonel James Findlay, who established the future home place of Ben Roethlisberger in 1821. Prior to the Civil War, Findlay, Ohio served as part of the Underground Railroad, while in the 1880s, it became known for its natural resources of gas and oil, which eventually were depleted.
The Flag City, as it is known, is also home to the University of Findlay, which has a Division II football program, one in which Roethlisberger’s talents were too big for, taking his talents to another Ohio school, though also modest, Miami University.
While Roethlisberger has spent the last 18 years in the city of Pittsburgh, and almost as a result of reflex from his fixture at the Steelers quarterback position, the assumption is often made that Ben is from the city he has done so much for. Yet the reality is, he was born and raised an Ohioan, specifically one from Findlay.
Childhood and Unfortunate Tragedy
Roethlisberger has consistently demonstrated an ability to overcome adversity as an NFL quarterback over his lengthy career. From playing with a broken nose against the Baltimore Ravens after a blast from former nose tackle Haloti Ngata, or leading his team to one of his 35, 4th quarter come from behind wins, he has always shown the skill to absorb the difficulty and transform it into a positive outcome. Unfortunately for Roethlisberger, a tragic experience as a child would force him to develop such a transformational energy as a way to navigate and process trauma productively.
When Roethlisberger was only 2 years old, his parents divorced, and as part of the separation, visitations were coordinated between mother and father. His birth mother, Ida, left her family behind, not feeling suited for a full time parental role, leaving Ken with primary custody of Ben (Hackenberg, 2005). While nobody knows the emotional toll of the separation on Ben, the experience of abandonment most likely influenced his worldview.
On one particular occasion when Ida was traveling to pick Ben up for a visit when he was 8 years old, she was involved in a tragic car accident that resulted in her death. The heartbreak and sadness of this type of event for any human being is tremendous, but for a little boy who did not regularly see his mother, and who was waiting in anticipation of spending time with her, only to learn the horrific news, the impact is unthinkable. Research on the aftermath of the loss of a parent for a child indicates numerous potential negative outcomes; however, despite this, Roethlisberger persevered as a result of the support system in place from his father.
Roethlisberger’s father Ken is at the root of Ben’s athleticism, having played baseball as a pitcher and football as a backup quarterback at Georgia Tech. While he never achieved a fraction of the success of his son, his athletic journey and associations were assuredly motivating and inspiring for Ben as a young man. Ken remarried Brenda, a woman who Ben would embrace as his stepmother and develop a connection with to help soothe the ache left behind from the passing of Ida.
While internally, Roethlisberger’s navigation of such a tragedy is unknown, on the outside, it’s possible the pain he experienced resulted in his drive to excel in athletics.
Entering adolescence, Ben’s father was reportedly highly protective, conducting intensive reconnaissance on family’s that Ben would possibly go to their house to pal around with a friend or to stay over (Evans, 2010). Family friends of Roethlisberger shared insight into the family dynamic in a 2010 article in the New York Times: “Iriti said Roethlisberger could not spend the night at a friend’s house unless his father and stepmother had two days’ notice to check out the arrangement. Clayton Acheson, who played high school basketball with Roethlisberger, described him as sheltered.” It’s understandable that a family experiencing such a brutal tragedy would be so protective.
Whether it was an influence of the tragedy or not, Roethlisberger was intensely competitive, in even recreation games like pool and table tennis, a characteristic corroborated by past and current teammates. And that ethic was bolstered by a relentless work ethic as one of his childhood friends recalled him spending hours practicing basketball at a local sports facility (Evans, 2010). As a result of this competitiveness, Roethlisberger excelled in athletics.
While Big Ben is known for his football successes, he was also an outstanding baseball and basketball player in high school. As a senior, was named all-league and all-district in both sports, in addition to a team captain. In fact, Roethlisberger still holds the record at Findlay HS as the all-time leading point scorer in basketball. He carried on in his father’s footsteps as a multi-sport athlete, but it would be football where he would find his niche.
The Hall of Fame QB That May Have Never Happened
As a high school freshman, Ben played both wide receiver and quarterback, not seeing much action, and then Sophomore year, he served as a backup. It was not until his junior year that he began to make a name for himself on the gridiron.
But surprisingly, it was at wide receiver and not quarterback.
In his junior year, Ben caught 57 passes for 757 yards and 7 touchdowns, being named All-District. As a wide receiver, Roethlisberger was “always open,” according to his quarterback at the time, Ryan Hite, son of head coach Cliff Hite, and the player who infamously is known for starting at QB over a future NFL Hall of Famer (Curran, 2009). Hite, the former coach, referred to himself as a “knucklehead” for the decision. As the decision was described by Tom E. Curran that highlighted Hite, “The answer is simple. Hite felt Findlay’s offense was more potent with his son, Ryan (a senior that year), throwing to the 6-foot-4, 180(ish)-pound Roethlisberger (a junior) than the other way around. And, since Ryan was the incumbent quarterback for Findlay and the Trojans had gone from 1-9 to 7-3 the previous year, it didn’t make sense to flip everything. The insinuations of nepotism don’t hold much water when the details are really examined.”
Hite explained Ben’s time as a receiver: “People in the past would ask me, ‘What was Ben like as a receiver?’ I would say, he’d always come back to the huddle and always say he was wide-open,” Hite said. “And I’m standing back there as the quarterback like, ‘OK, yeah, sure. Sometimes, yes, but whatever. You’re always wide-open, yeah.’ And then, when I made the transition, man, I was wide-open every single play, too. It was weird. So I finally got it” (As quoted in Brown, 2010).
As a senior, Roethlisberger took over as the starting quarterback, leaving the receiver role behind. The shift paid dividends, as Roethlisberger led Findlay to 10 wins and contended in the state playoffs. The inexperienced QB flourished, and what could have cosmically resulted in another near miss and cruel joke on the Steelers quarterback future was averted, as the legend of Big Ben was born.
Roethlisberger started only one year, but it was a year of colossal achievement for both the player and the team. He threw for 4041 yards and 54 touchdowns and ran for 7 more, pushing his team into the Ohio state playoffs, where Findlay eventually lost to Grove City in the second round.
Statistically, Ben’s talent was undeniable, and the elements that earned him his reputation in college and in the NFL manifested themselves quite clearly.
His high school head football coach praised his vision of the field:
“I saw two things that set him apart,” says Hite. “First was his view. At 6-5 he could simply see so much better than anyone else. He saw things nobody else saw. And he had a knack for seeing the whole field. His vision is what made him such a good basketball player as well” (As quoted in Brown, 2010).
And he also acknowledged the “magic” part of Roethlisberger’s game, something showcased on the NFL biggest stages: his elusiveness.
“The other thing was his knack for escapability,” adds Hite. “It was almost ridiculous the way he could get out of trouble and make something happen. He learned to throw on the run here and in junior high. We didn’t have the most dominant offensive line and he ran for his life a little bit at both levels” (As quoted in Brown, 2010). If there was a characteristic early on with the Steelers that set him apart and helped him to lead the team to a 14-1 regular season record during his rookie season, it was his ability to avoid pressure and still keep his eyes downfield for the open receiver. This was always a part of his game, even at Findlay HS, being able to look beyond the pressure, sidestep a sack, and turn a loss or a catastrophic play into a triumph. In some ways, this may have been a catharsis for Ben, and an insight into how he was able to peer beyond the tragedy in his life to a larger good that was beyond, yet within his reach.
Roethlisberger’s performance senior year earned him the Ohio Division I Player of the Year Award, and the runner up recognition for Mr. Football in Ohio, an award that was won by Bam Childress who was signed by the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. Childress played minimally and was out of the league in 2008, the year Roethlisberger helped the Steelers win their 6th Super Bowl. So while Childress was Mr. Football, Ben would become a 2-time Super Bowl Champion.
Even though Findlay did not win a state championship Roethlisberger’s senior year, the season showcased his football mastery, and hypothetically speaking, it is intriguing to consider what could have been should Roethlisberger have been the starting quarterback earlier in his high school career? Would he have earned more recognition and notoriety amongst top-caliber colleges, and would he have been offered a variety of scholarships from football powerhouses? Steelers fans should be thankful his starting experience was limited to only one year because had he held that position for a longer time, quite possibly, he would have been out of the team’s draft range, and a new golden era of Steelers football would have not come to fruition.
At the heart of every story, there is a purpose, and in many situations, that purpose is not evident until time has passed, and reflection occurs. Roethlisberger’s unique path in high school football from productive wide receiver to prolific and elusive passer unfolded just as it should not only for his own success, but for the success of the Steelers franchise to the satisfaction of Steelers Nation.
But the journey to the city of Pittsburgh was still a few years away, as Roethlisberger had to show his senior year in high school as a quarterback was not a fluke, and that he genuinely was an elite passer. He would do that at a local university known more for its football coaches than NFL talent. And while the stage Roethlisberger performed was small in college football prestige, Ben’s talents and collegiate output were massive in every way, forcing the college, and professional football world to take notice. The lanky kid from Findlay, the one year wonder QB, was about to attack the MAC (Midwestern Athletic Conference), and begin his climb from a casually recruited signal caller to the 11th overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft.
“Roethlisbergers refuse to change their ways in spite of Big Ben’s stardom,” January 15, 2005. Hackenberg, Dave
“Roethlisberger’s hometown looks for facts,” March 11, 2010. Brown, Scott
“Ben Roethlisberger’s Journey to Notoriety,” July 29, 2010. Evans, Thayer
“The man who almost made Big Ben a WR,” January 26, 2009. Curran, Tom E.