Ron Cook: Flashlights played key role in Big Ben's first NFL start in Miami 12 years ago
October 12, 2016 12:00 AM
Ben Roethlisberger's first NFL start was 12 years ago against the Miami Dolphins in the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You’ll never guess what Ben Roethlisberger remembers about his first NFL start 12 years ago in Miami in the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne.
“I remember being in the hotel losing power and having our night-before-the-game meeting with flashlights. They went out and bought a bunch of cheap plastic flashlights. I’ll never forget that.”
The memory clearly tickled Roethlisberger.
“I still have my flashlight. I might bring it with me this weekend for old time’s sake.”
The Steelers play Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins. The weather and field conditions should be much better than in 2004. Certainly, Roethlisberger is a much different quarterback. He is the leading candidate for the 2016 NFL MVP award and a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But in 2004, he was — to quote former teammate Alan Faneca — “some little kid just out of college.”
Roethlisberger was the Steelers’ No. 1 pick from Miami, Ohio, in 2004 and took over as their starting quarterback after Tommy Maddox’s elbow injury in Baltimore in the second game. Backup Charlie Batch was out for the season. Many of the team’s veteran players thought the season was doomed. Faneca wasn’t afraid to hint at it publicly when asked if it was exciting to play with a hotshot rookie quarterback. “Exciting? No, it’s not exciting. Do you want to go to work with some little kid just out of college?”
Roethlisberger was aware of Faneca’s comments and aware of his teammates’ disappointment in losing Maddox. “The nerves were definitely going. The pressure …”
That was just one part of the backdrop of Roethlisberger’s first start. Kickoff was moved from 1 to 8:30 p.m. because of the hurricane. “It was the rainiest day that I’ve ever experienced,” Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan. “The dirt on the baseball infield was a muddy mess. I remember any time they could, the grounds crew came out with that kitty litter or sand or whatever it is that they put down. It kept getting thicker and thicker. It’s your first NFL start, you have the weather, you have every element against you.”
So what does Roethlisberger, who wanted so badly to impress Faneca, his other teammates and coach Bill Cowher, do? He threw an interception to cornerback Patrick Surtain on his first pass.
“Yeah, my first pass was intercepted,” Roethlisberger said. “But maybe that was a good sign. My first pass in college also was intercepted.”
That was against Michigan in 2001. Roethlisberger broke his nose in that game but quickly forget about that pain. He couldn’t forget about the interception as easily.
“Unfortunately, it was intercepted by [future Steelers teammate] Larry Foote,” Roethlisberger said. “I never heard the end of that.”
The game in Miami ended better for Roethlisberger than it started. With the Steelers leading, 6-3, in the fourth quarter, he completed an 18-yard pass to Plaxico Burress on third-and-12 and a 20-yard pass to Hines Ward on third-and-4. He then threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Ward, who made a diving catch at the pylon. That iced the Steelers’ 13-3 win, stunning the Dolphins, who were coached by former Pitt man Dave Wannstedt.
Who knew, as the torrential rain fell that night, that Roethlisberger would become the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to start his career 13-0? Or that he would go on to take a 117-57 regular-season record as a starter into Sunday’s game? Or that he would lead the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins and an appearance in a third?
“Wow. I’d be lying if I said yes, I knew,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve been very blessed in this career to play this long and to stay healthy and to get a lot of wins. It means a lot to me to get wins because it’s for the Rooneys, my teammates and the fans.”
Roethlisberger is playing his best football. He said it’s because he’s completely healthy five games into the season — “Let’s all knock on some wood” — and because of his supporting cast on what could be the NFL’s best offense. He always singles out his offensive linemen.
“Those guys are the MVPs of our team,” Roethlisberger said. “When they protect the way that they have been and play as well as they have been and keep me upright … I know that’s one of their main goals every week, not to let me get hit.
“I feel like I’m seeing things really well. I’m seeing the field. I’m understanding our offense. I’m understanding defenses. I will always say that the way the line plays always will help me be as good as I can be. All those things put together, I would say I’m playing pretty well right now.”
Good enough to win the league MVP award?
“I don’t even think about it,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve been lucky enough to win two championships, and that’s all that matters to me. I’ll take a championship over an MVP any time.”
It seems as if just about everybody has noticed Roethlisberger’s success this season — and not just in the football world. He received a shout-out from Donald Trump Monday during a rally in Ambridge.
“Big Ben’s a friend of mine,” Trump said. “We played golf together. He once hit a shot that went dead right into a tree. It was a massive tree. The ball hit the tree so hard, I swear I said, ‘Ben, within two years, that tree is going to be dead.’ And you know what? Two years later, that tree was dead. He is a strong guy and he’s a good guy, too. Big Ben.”
Roethlisberger did not seem especially thrilled by the story. He declined a chance to endorse Trump in June after rumors that he would speak at the GOP convention.
“Well, we have played golf together. He’s not lying,” Roethlisberger said.
“I’m not a big political guy. Maybe when I’m done with football, maybe not. But I’m not into politics at all. I’m totally focused on football.”
The result is 117 wins and two Super Bowl titles. And counting.
Ron Cook: email@example.com and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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