Ohio high school QB who beat out Big Ben took different path in life

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Quarterback controversy is an inexorable football rite, one that often lends itself to ripe debate among fans. And sometimes even after the passers themselves have staked their positions on the field -- or the sideline, in the case of the loser -- the arguing can go on for ages.

But what position is a passer to take if the debate starts in the years after his career ends? If you're Ryan Hite, and you've had to suffer people wondering aloud how you ever started over Ben Roethlisberger at Findlay (Ohio) High almost a decade ago, you approach the question just as you have football and life -- stay out of the fray and keep the chains moving. "When I look back at my career at Findlay, my accomplishment was not playing over Ben," Hite said. "It was being part of one of the greatest turnarounds in school history."

Hite's proficiency as a two-year starter at Findlay in 1997 and '98 yielded him a slew of school records and widespread renown in this vintage northwestern Ohio town of 40,000. However, his enduring claim to fame outside of the city limits is as the Leroy Smith to Big Ben's Michael Jordan. When Roethlisberger succeeded Hite as a senior in 1999 and went on to smash state passing records, then MAC records as a three-year starter at Miami of Ohio, then NFL conventional wisdom after winning 51 games and two Super Bowls in his first five seasons as a starter with the Pittsburgh Steelers, more than a few people asked: how did Hite get the jump on Roethlisberger in the first place?

The easy answer is nepotism, a charge that chaps Hite's father, Cliff, formerly the Findlay High coach. "It's easy now to get on the ol' coach," says Cliff, now a state representative for the district that includes Findlay. "Mike Tirico burned me on national TV, and I went, 'All right, all right -- I'm that guy. I'm like Michael Jordan's basketball coach."

And just as in the infamous case of Jordan's high school coach, Pop Herring, picking Smith over MJ for the varsity squad, Roethlisberger's snub has been a popular topic for residual contemplation. The discussions have been most fertile in Ohio sports bars and during televised Steelers broadcasts, where breathless mentions of how Roethlisberger didn't play quarterback until his last year of high school were once the vogue.

While that claim is technically true, it overlooks the fact that Roethlisberger was indeed a fabled JV passer -- "he had eyes in the back of his head," Cliff recalled -- and that the coach knew exactly what he was doing when he picked his son to start over the future NFL star. Back then Ben was a 6-foot-5, 180-pound drop back passer with a big right arm. Ryan, a southpaw, was not as big -- just 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds -- but he was older and more accomplished. In his junior year he claimed Great Lakes conference player of the year plaudits after leading the Trojans to a 7-3 record -- a six-win improvement over the previous season.

Mindful of the slim odds Ryan's standout year gave him of becoming the Trojans' starter, Roethlisberger approached Cliff about moving to receiver -- but the coach wasn't having any of the kid's conciliatory gambit. "I told him I wanted the two of them to fight it out [for the starting job] over the summer, and whoever lost it would go to receiver," Cliff said.

Shrewdly, Ryan threw to Roethlisberger a lot and made him so good that the decision became easy for his dad. Later that fall Ryan threw for 1,733 yards and a school record 14 touchdowns -- some of those scores to Roethlisberger, a massive target with a talent for shaking defenders -- as Findlay High won its first Great Lakes title.

It would seem like quite the achievement until Roethlisberger took over the offense, which Cliff and his assistants changed from a run-first scheme to the spread to give the kid plenty of snaps to sling it. And he didn't pass up many of those opportunities, throwing for a state record 4,041 yards and 54 touchdowns as a senior while leading the Trojans to their first playoff victory and succeeding Ryan as conference player of the year.

While Roethlisberger went on to become one of the best college quarterbacks in the country at Miami and one of the premier passers in the NFL, Ryan's college career, while modest by comparison, was no less successful. Ryan went to Division III Denison and started as a freshman quarterback. But then, in an ironic twist, he was moved to wideout the next season and set the school record for most catches and broke the career touchdown mark two years later. He also lettered three times in baseball despite never having played at Findlay High -- he was Denison's PA announcer until the starting catcher recruited him out of the press box his sophomore year -- and sang in the school's all-male acappella group. "I was your prototypical Division III student-athlete," Ryan said.

In 2003, while Roethlisberger was garnering consideration for the Heisman, Ryan was graduating with a double major in religion and political science. The following year he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a master's degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, but was lured back home after a year by his father, who was eager for some coaching help at Findlay. Ryan was a volunteer receivers coach for a season, then got a paying gig as a tight ends coach at Ohio Northern University the next.

In 2006 he notched his first head coaching break at North Baltimore High, but left after winning only one game his rookie season to take a job as the offensive coordinator and track coach at Gallaudet University, a Washington D.C. school for the deaf and hard of hearing that was making the transition from a club team to Division III. While there, he learned sign language on the fly, going from only being able to sign his name in his job interview to full fluency in seven month's time.

That allowed him to take recruiting trips by himself -- "kids don't like it when you bring interpreters," he said -- and refine the kind of signal and pressure-based communication techniques that have become de rigueur in high-decibel college and pro game. "We might have been the only college in the nation that could call a play, decide we wanted to change the play, and change the play up to three times -- all in 25 seconds," says Ryan, who guided the Bison to a 4-6 mark in their inaugural NCAA season.

But after the '08 season, he was keen to be closer to his parents and two younger siblings and returned to Findlay yet again. In the wake of the move came a change in the family -- his sister, Ashlee, welcomed a daughter, Bailee, in January -- and a swap in careers. He ditched theology for financial planning -- which, he says, emphasizes "relationship building and life coaching" just as much as ministering did -- and the job demands have left him little free time to coach.

And yet he's nevertheless determined to make room for it. One of his Ohio Northern players was recently hired as the head coach at nearby Van Buren High, and he asked Ryan, 29, to join his staff. Much as that might seem as if now he's the Findlay High passer who's making concession -- "It's a bit of a role reversal," said Ryan of having a former student as a superior -- for Ryan it's just another cherished moment in what has been an unforgettable second homecoming. Sometimes, when he feels like basking in the moment, he'll wonder out to Donnell Stadium (Findlay High's lush home field), stand at the 50-yard line by himself and let his mind replay all the little steps in his journey -- from his varsity tryout, to his first game coaching alongside his dad, to now -- that led him to that spot.

Still, what might Ryan have given to trade spots with Roethlisberger? It's a question that would've seemed totally legitimate two years ago, after Roethlisberger had just inked one of the NFL's richest extensions (eight years, $102 million) and immediately proved his worth by authoring one of the greatest endings in Super Bowl history. But now, in the wake of Big Ben's many brushes with trouble and bruised reputation in Pittsburgh, there's no questioning which quarterback made the better choices -- especially off the field.

Unsurprisingly, Ryan even remains prudent when opining about Roethlisberger, whom he hasn't seen or talked to since his freshman year at Miami. "I give everybody the benefit of the doubt first," he says. But he doesn't second-guess himself, or the path he's taken in life. "I actually thought it'd be much cooler to be a third-stringer instead of an NFL starter," Ryan cracked. "I've got pretty good handwriting, can take stats pretty well and they've got to pay you the league minimum."

Still, he adds, "looking back at all of my experiences and where they've led me, I don't think I could trade that. It's made me who I am and I'm plenty fine with that."

Ultimately, who are we to argue?

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