Can you hold my babies?" the young mother asked Ben Roethlisberger as the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie sensation walked out of a greeting card shop in the Robinson Town Center Mall one day early last week. "That way I can take your picture." ¬∂ The woman had an infant in her left arm and an even tinier newborn in her right and was holding each of them the way a reckless running back might cradle a football in the open field. She turned to her left so that Roethlisberger, a 22-year-old quarterback who is the toast of sports fans throughout western Pennsylvania and the talk of the NFL, could easily take the newborn from her. Temporarily speechless, he showcased his deceptive mobility, backpedaling into the store as though she were offering a package labeled anthrax. "Uh, you know, I've got a little bit of a cold," Roethlisberger said. "So it's probably not the best idea."
Just in time to lend a pair of helping hands, the woman's shopping companion showed up and took the newborn from its mother's arms. As Roethlisberger posed, both women ogled the 6'5", 242-pound quarterback while another shopper cooed at the newborn. "He's a week-and-a-half old," said the woman now holding the newborn. "He came out at nine pounds, two ounces, so we call him Big Ben."
Ah, so the child's name is Benjamin?
"No," she said. "His name is Dominic."
O.K., so parents aren't yet naming their babies after the NFL's most attention-grabbing rookie passer since Dan Marino, but all over the Steel City and the surrounding area, you can certainly find yourself a Roethlisburger: At Peppi's, for instance, the artery-clogging hoagie bearing that name (beef, sausage, scrambled eggs, American cheese) goes for $7, matching Ben's jersey number.
Such is the nature of instant success in a culture that worships star quarterbacks. Constantly in search of the Next Big Thing, NFL fans have winced as virtually every hotshot rookie signal-caller since Marino, who turned in a Pro Bowl effort for the 1983 Miami Dolphins, did a face-plant when forced into action. From Troy Aikman's 55.7 passer rating during the Dallas Cowboys' 1--15 season in '89 to Peyton Manning's 28 interceptions in the Indianapolis Colts' 3--13 campaign in '98, even the brightest prospects have flailed spectacularly at the start of their careers.
Now, six months after he was the 11th pick in the draft out of Miami of Ohio, six weeks after he was thrust into the Steelers' starting lineup when Tommy Maddox tore a tendon in his throwing elbow, Big Ben is officially on the clock. On Sunday, Roethlisberger ran his record as a starter to 5--0--among rookie passers only the Steelers' Mike Kruczek, who went 6--0 in 1976 (without throwing a touchdown pass), has won more consecutive games to start an NFL career--in leading Pittsburgh to a 34--20 victory over the New England Patriots. While ending the Pats' league-record winning streak at 21 games, Roethlisberger completed 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
Because his learning curve has been so steep, the Steelers, who wheezed to a 6--10 record in 2003, have emerged as the biggest surprise of the first half of the season. At 6--1, Pittsburgh is two games ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North and tied for the best record in the conference.
Dubbed the best rookie quarterback since Marino by Cowboys coach Bill Parcells in mid-October, Roethlisberger, with a 70.1 completion percentage and nine touchdown passes against four interceptions, is third in the AFC with a 104.7 passer rating, behind Manning and the San Diego Chargers' Drew Brees. Teammates and opponents alike have been blown away by his eerily calm demeanor, his ability to shake off adversity and his knack for making plays outside the pocket. Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were the first and fourth picks in the draft, respectively, but it's the kid from small-town Findlay, Ohio, who's large and in charge--and, it turns out, pretty spry for a wide guy.
"I think his strength and size have helped him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said before his team faced Roethlisberger. "You can't knock him down, and he can throw the ball as far as he wants to. There have been a lot of quarterbacks who have played 10 years and don't do as good a job."
Thus a trip to a mall near the Pittsburgh airport can cause quite a stir. Mindful that his low-key lifestyle is hard to maintain amid the public frenzy, Roethlisberger resolved to run all of his errands at once early last week and methodically compiled a long to-do list. Alas, the list was left at home, forcing him to do what he does so well on the football field--improvise.
After purchasing a thank-you card for the neighbors who keep baking him apple pies, then buying 10 identical very long, white Tshirts from Foot Locker ("You've got to have clean ones," he explained), Roethlisberger set off in search of an oversized bathrobe. He stopped to answer his cellphone, quickening his pace after a brief conversation. "That was Plaxico," Roethlisberger said.
In addition to being one of Roethlisberger's best friends on the Steelers, Plaxico Burress is a supremely talented fifth-year wideout who has been on the receiving end of some of the quarterback's spectacular throws. Like most of Pittsburgh's veterans, Burress, who on Sunday had touchdown receptions of 47 and four yards, did not immediately warm to the notion of a rookie's being thrust into the team's most high-profile position. That sentiment was enunciated most clearly by three-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who, when asked in the wake of his close friend Maddox's injury if he was excited about Roethlisberger's first start, snapped, "No, I'm not excited. Do you want to go to work with some little young kid who's just out of college?"
Roethlisberger made his first start on Sept. 26 in less-than-ideal conditions, facing the Dolphins' vaunted defense in Miami as the tail end of Hurricane Jeanne passed over South Florida. On his first play Roethlisberger forced a sideline pass to fullback Dan Kreider; the ball sailed straight into the hands of Miami cornerback Patrick Surtain. "We were like zombies on the sideline," Burress recalls. "We were saying, 'Not this'--because the average rookie would just go in the tank. Then it started raining and we thought, It's gonna be a loooooong night."
Roethlisberger laughed off the mistake, steeled himself and eventually threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to secure a 13--3 victory. The next week he led a late scoring drive to produce a come-from-behind 28--17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, then ran for one touchdown and threw for another in a 34--23 triumph over the Cleveland Browns. On the road against the Cowboys on Oct. 17, Roethlisberger completed his last nine passes and finished 21 of 25 in a 24--20 victory, one that featured a fourth-quarter comeback from a 10-point deficit.
"He is amazingly calm," says running back Jerome Bettis, a 12-year veteran. "I've seen a lot of rookie quarterbacks over the years, but I've never seen a guy come in with the awareness that he has, not only in understanding the plays, but also in staying relaxed." Roethlisberger demonstrated that he's tough, too, in the first quarter of the game against the Browns, rolling to his right and taking a ferocious hit from defensive tackle Orpheus Roye as he delivered a 48-yard completion to Burress. Two plays later he ran for a six-yard touchdown to give Pittsburgh a 14--7 lead. "I think everybody's been pleasantly surprised," says Faneca. "He's able to put everything else aside and make plays."
His transition, though, has not been seamless. "The first game [against the Dolphins] there were a couple of plays where the formation was flipped, and we were running plays the wrong way," center Jeff Hartings says. "But he has come a long way, and fast." As is typical for a raw quarterback, Roethlisberger has been blitzed frequently and bombarded with intricate defensive schemes designed to confuse him. "It's kind of funny, though," Bettis says. "He hasn't been rattled, and he's been burning the blitz. Now teams are kind of backing off and playing this guy honest." At the same time, Steelers coach Bill Cowher and his first-year offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, have simplified the offense, using running back Duce Staley (707 yards rushing in seven games) to set up the pass. With an above-average line and a premier receiving tandem in Burress and Pro Bowl wideout Hines Ward, Roethlisberger need not be the savior, despite media suggestions to the contrary. "Most rookie quarterbacks are put in a position where they have to win the game by themselves, and they're not ready to do that," Bettis says. "Ben's in a good spot, and when you look back on it, Marino had the same thing--a veteran team with a lot of playmakers."
Roethlisberger seems determined not to overstep his bounds, constantly deflecting credit to his teammates. Cowher has also been trying to downplay Roethlisberger's accomplishments, though the highly excitable coach has also been careful not to trample on the young passer's confidence. "I don't talk to him that much," Cowher says. "Whatever he's doing, I don't want to screw it up."
When asked at a press conference what would happen when Maddox returns from his elbow injury (probably early this month), Cowher simply laughed--but it's almost inconceivable that he would pull the kid whose six-year contract could be worth as much as $40 million with incentives and escalators.
In the meantime many Steelers fans have an insatiable appetite for all things Big Ben. This was abundantly clear when, shortly before picking out a new bathrobe at Sears, Roethlisberger was tracked down by a Foot Locker employee who had purchased a football and a Sharpie after spotting the quarterback earlier. Roethlisberger looked on calmly as the man struggled to get the pen out of its plastic packaging, uttered a couple of expletives and, finally, yanked the marker so hard that it broke in half. Then the man pulled a ballpoint pen out of his pocket, and Big Ben dutifully signed.
A few minutes later Roethlisberger pointed to a large blue stain on the side of his yellow Nike hoodie and observed, "That guy sprayed me with ink." Big Ben laughed as he headed for the sales counter. "Hey, as long as the guy is happy," he said. "If the fans are happy, I'm happy."