Hey Big Ben, I have a quick question for you. I know you’re busy with a lot of radio these days, so I won’t take much of your time. I wonder, do you remember Tommy Maddox? You must not, or else you probably wouldn’t have questioned the Steelers’ decision to draft your potential successor after consecutive offseasons in which you hinted at impending retirement. And you certainly wouldn’t have pledged to withhold what would be some supremely valuable mentorship to Mason Rudolph, the 22-year-old quarterback your team drafted in the third round this year.
A refresher course for you, in case you forgot. In 2001, Maddox signed with the Steelers as journeyman backup to Kordell Stewart. He eventually replaced Stewart in 2002, starting his first NFL game in 10 years. Pittsburgh went 10-5-1 that year, with Maddox passing for 2,836 yards and winning the league’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. He was a sudden folk hero in the city. Though in 2003 the offense regressed, Maddox set a team record for completions in a season. He was 32 in the spring of 2004, four years younger than you are now, Ben, and he figured he had several more solid years of starting football ahead of him. He left the facility the Friday before that year’s draft believing, as he said the Steelers brass told him, that the team was “probably going to draft an offensive lineman” in the first round. The plan made sense to Maddox; he’d been sacked 41 times in 2003, more than all but three other quarterbacks in the NFL.
But the Steelers didn’t draft an offensive lineman. They drafted you, Ben, 11th overall out of Miami (Ohio). The plan for the 2004 season was for Maddox to start and for you to sit and learn. But he went down with an elbow injury in the third game, on his second dropback, and like Tom Brady stepping in for Drew Bledsoe you took the reins and never looked back, winning 14 starts in a row.
Behind the scenes, though, you’ll recall there were bumps. It was Steelers tradition for the rookies in each position room to deliver breakfast for the group on Saturdays. You declined to do that, according to your teammate Jerome Bettis. It was a small thing, but those little violations of the code add up, and you weren’t voted a team captain until 2008, two years after you led the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory.
It couldn’t have been easy for Maddox to watch you behave that way, considering how he’d clawed his way back into the NFL after being out of the game for three years selling insurance, and then playing for pennies in the AFL and XFL to earn another shot. To add insult to injury, when Steelers coach Bill Cowher was asked about his plans for the starting job once Maddox’s elbow healed, Cowher brushed it off: “I’ll just laugh at that question for now,” he said. You were so good, Ben, that Maddox became a punchline.
Still, Maddox was effusive in his public praise of you, and behind the scenes he was even more generous. He was upset at having his job taken away because of an injury, but he didn’t let you know that. He worked with you on the nuances of the pro game as you transitioned from an effective game manager to a bona fide field general. You kept asking questions of Maddox, and you kept winning, and he was proud of his role in that. “When you have a guy willing to come to you and ask questions and help him, and you’re able to see that success, yeah, I took a lot of pride in how he played,” Maddox said years later. “I wanted him to do well, be successful.”
You may not have been the best teammate, Ben, but you seemed to appreciate Maddox. You said so in January 2005, in an interview with USA TODAY’s Tom Spousta. ”He’ll meet me halfway out on the field to answer a question for me,” you said of Maddox. “I owe so much of my success to his help.” Who knows if you meant that, or if you simply knew it was the right thing to say. What’s indisputable is that Maddox went out of his way to help you when no one would have blamed him for going into a shell and letting you figure things out for yourself.
You were right about one thing back in 2005: You owe. In tutoring you, Maddox was acting as a minister of our beautiful game, a devotee of the code you flouted, and you owe it to him to either mentor the wet-behind-the-ears 22-year-old hoping to be the next Ben Roethlisberger, or, at the very least, answer his questions. Yet now, 14 years later, you seem to have forgotten that debt. ”If he asks me a question,” you said of Rudolph last week, “I might just have to point to the playbook.”
To his credit, the rookie handled your comments with veteran-like diplomacy, trying to defuse the situation: “If I was Ben, I’d probably say the same thing,” Rudolph said. “He’s a competitor. Obviously he has a lot of confidence in himself like I do, and yeah, he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer, and I would expect him to say that.”
Now, as then, a more gracious man is covering your ass, being the kind of teammate you decline to be. And just in case that means nothing to you, I’ll put it in terms you might understand: Along with your job, your legacy is at stake.
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