Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enters the field for warmups before his team's game against the Browns at Heinz Field Sunday afternoon.
The Roethlisberger Years: a preseason game last month on the eve of his 11th NFL season.
The Roethlisberger Years: Draft Day 2004
The Roethlisberger Years: his mangled motorcycle in 2006
The Roethlisberger Years: the youngest QB to kiss the Lombardi Trophy in 2006
The Roethlisberger Years: his post-Milledgeville news conference in 2010
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
The Roethlisberger Years: a veteran leader at practice
Ben Roethlisberger celebrates with Chris Kemoeatu after authoring one of the great Super Bowl-ending drives to beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa - arguably the signature moment of his career (thus far).
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The first decade of Ben Roethlisbeger's NFL career appears as a kaleidoscope, bursting with color and breathtaking images here, there, everywhere.
From bright lights to dark shadows, from uncommon success to humiliation, it has been some ride for the Steelers quarterback, his teammates, his employers and his fans.
No one knows that better than Roethlisberger, who heads into his second pro decade against Cleveland today at the top of his game.
"In 10 years, I've had a lifetime worth of experiences, both on and off the field."
What can a decade yield for one quarterback? Three Super Bowls, two Lombardi Trophies, virtually every Steelers passing record, the only rookie NFL quarterback to go 13-0, no losing seasons, a horrific motorcycle accident, many broken bones and sprains, a four-game suspension, a wedding, the births of two children. Is he, at 32, a better man and quarterback for it all?
"I love where my life is right now with my family and with football," Roethlisberger said, reflecting one day this summer on all that has occurred since he embarked on his pro career as the Steelers' first draft pick in 2004.
The Steelers love where he is, as well. He delighted, frustrated and even angered many of them over the past decade, but they agree with his own assessment of where he finds himself today.
"I think Ben is in the prime of his career," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "He looks to be in great shape, looks good on the field. I think he's primed and ready to go."
Ready, even, to go places where he has not yet been? General manager Kevin Colbert thinks so.
"In his first 10 years, he's had a great amount of success," Colbert said. "But the intriguing part is we probably haven't seen his best yet. ... There's another level we hope we'll be able to see. I really do."
No one benefited more from Roethlisberger's early career than Bill Cowher, his coach his first three seasons. Maybe no one put up with more frustrations, either, from a quarterback who could be untamed both in his play and in his life. Cowher was at loggerheads with Roethlisberger about many things, including the severity of injuries and even over the coach's advice to him to not ride a motorcycle or to at least wear a helmet if he did. Roethlisberger defied him right up until his infamous accident in June 2006 that could have claimed his life.
In many ways, the young quarterback tested his coach's patience those three years they were together.
"Gosh, it's like a father when you're with your kid," Cowher recalled. "They tend to do things, kind of unbridled, but it's one of those things you don't want to take away from them."
Through a perspective of 10 years, the past seven on "The NFL Today on CBS," Cowher remains a fan of his former quarterback who helped deliver him a Super Bowl ring.
"Without a doubt, he is a high-echelon quarterback in the NFL. He's consistently productive and he has been one of the toughest players I have seen in the league," Cowher said. "I only coached him three years, but he played with a number of different injuries. I have never seen a more competitive guy on Sundays. He has a great feel for the game."
Roethlisberger, who played every snap last season, has missed nine games because of injuries and one, the 2006 opener, after an appendectomy. He was rested twice in meaningless season finales before the playoffs and suspended by the NFL for four other games. He should have missed more, including a couple in 2011 when he had a severe ankle sprain in the first half of the 13th game against Cleveland.
"It was a pretty serious injury," Colbert said. "I went down at halftime to sort of comfort him, to say, 'Hey, you'll be fine; in four, five weeks, you'll be good.' He's in there getting strapped up, talking to [quarterbacks coach] Randy Fichtner about what they were going to do in the second half.
"That was a very serious injury and he had no business playing through it in the second half."
He finished up the win against Cleveland and played at San Francisco the following week as the Steelers and Baltimore battled for the AFC North title down the stretch. They lost to the 49ers, and he was kept out of the following game before he returned to complete a 12-4 season.
There were many examples of that toughness, including his return to start training camp barely six weeks after he sustained multiple facial fractures in that 2006 motorcycle accident that required seven hours of surgeries. His head bounced off a car windshield and hit the street.
"He almost lost his life," Cowher said. "He went through training camp, but didn't take any hits. We had to ease him back into it. It took him at least half a year to feel comfortable back in that pocket, which was totally understandable."
There would be another offseason wreck four years later, only this time his personal and professional life hit the pavement, splattered in a humiliating incident in the college town of Milledgeville, Ga. There, in the early morning hours of March 5, a female student accused Roethlisberger of sexual assault in a bar bathroom. She later told prosecutors she did not wish to go forward with the case and there was no DNA evidence of an assault After a five-week investigation, the local district attorney announced he would not charge Roethlisberger, but scolded him, saying "Ben, grow up. Come on, you're supposed to stand for something."
That incident came eight months after another woman, in Lake Tahoe, Nev., sued Roethlisberger for what she claimed was a 2008 sexual assault that did not involve the police (they settled the civil suit out of court in 2012).
Apparently seeing plenty of smoke from the two incidents, even though no charges or proof was ever produced of a crime, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell nevertheless slapped Roethlisberger with a six-game suspension that he later reduced to four to start the 2010 season.
Milledgeville and its repercussions proved to be a crossroads for Roethlisberger.
"It forced me to grow up really quick," he said.
It knocked him for a loop like no sack ever could.
"Absolutely. It was like, 'OK, you need to get your act together.' To me, that meant football, it meant family, it meant life, friends," Roethlisberger said. "It was a total awakening. The Lord used that as a slap in the face, but he hit me with a brick."
He is not thankful for the events, but is grateful "that it did wake me up and snap me back into who my parents raised me to be. I'm thankful for the person I have become because of it."
Afterward, his parents moved from Ohio to the Pittsburgh area. He married in July 2011 and his wife Ashley gave birth to a son in November 2012 and a daughter in March. He went back and earned his degree from Miami University two years ago. ("How do you tell your kids how important school is if you don't even have your degree?") He no longer rides a motorcycle, although he says he will when his career ends.
He was named the Steelers' 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year, which recognizes a player's excellence on the field and his community service. The local Pro Football Writers voted him for The Chief award after the 2010 season for his cooperation with them.
By many accounts, the personal actions of the Roethlisberger of the past four years have been quite different from the ones of his first six with the Steelers. Many have noticed the difference.
"Above it all, watching him grow off the field - a mature father, husband, and listening to him talk and speak as I see in the media - he's so much more mature now," Cowher said. "He has a great sense of perspective now. He's in a great place."
Said Rooney: "We get these guys when they're pretty young and some of them come to us and sometimes they need to mature a little bit. Ben has done that and we're certainly proud of where he is and the kind of person he is and hopefully he's going to be here a lot longer."
Through all the personal upheavals, Roethlisberger has been consistently outstanding on the field. His passer rating has dipped below the 90s in only two seasons, including 2006 after the motorcycle accident and appendectomy. It stands at 92.6 for his career. His rate of completions has consistently been above 60 percent and stands at 63.3 percent for his career. His 7.8 yards per pass attempt ties for ninth among NFL quarterbacks all time.
He also authored what many believe to be the greatest two-minute drive in Super Bowl history - 88 yards in eight plays (after a holding penalty), the last one a pinpoint pass to Santonio Holmes for 6 yards and the winning touchdown with 35 seconds left to win, 27-23.
"Everybody talks about James Harrison, and that's one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history," Colbert said of the linebacker's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. "They talk about Santonio's catch, another great individual play. But nobody talks about the amount of plays that Ben had to make on that drive. We didn't forget it. I don't know if he gets the credit for that drive."
It was his greatest achievement, his proudest moment on the field. How could it not be?
"I was a 49ers fan, so I loved Dwight Clark and Joe Montana throwing to him in the back of the end zone," Roethlisberger said of "The Catch" that won the NFC championship in the 1981 season. "But we won a Super Bowl with it!"
He wants more. It still bothers him he did not win a third when Green Bay topped the Steelers, 31-25, in Super Bowl XLV. Although they are going through a transition from those veteran Super Bowl teams to new and younger players and were 8-8 the past two seasons, his bosses and his teammates believe they have a chance at more as long as he remains their quarterback.
"You have to have talent elsewhere, but if you don't have a great quarterback, you are swimming upstream," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We always feel like we have a shot because of his playmaking ability.
"He's always done things that really no other quarterback can do as far as his pocket presence."
He remains relatively spry at 32, but knows he no longer can do some things he did at 22 or even at 28 when he rushed for 176 yards. However, he played every snap last season, rushed for 99 and did not seem limited in any way. There also was an epiphany for him, his coaches and his linemen in the second half of last season when they committed to the no-huddle offense and his sacks declined dramatically. They plan to run more no-huddle in 2014.
"I like to think I'm pretty athletic, but you just can't get away with some of it now," Roethlisberger said, then explained how he would look over the field as he dropped back to pass before rolling out of the pocket. "Early on, it was first read, second read, make something happen. Maybe just first read, make something happen. Now I like to think I go through first, second, third, fourth reads, maybe.
"Just understanding. I don't think I could have run the no-huddle offense back then because I didn't understand the offense, the defense and how things were supposed to work together.
"I think up here," he said, tapping his head, "in the mind, I think, has been the biggest growth."
He and others would say that indeed is the case, on and off the football field.
TEN SEASONS OF MEMORIES
A timeline of big moments in Ben Roethlisberger's first 10 seasons:
2004: The Steelers select him in the first round of the NFL draft April 24 -- No. 11 overall and the third QB taken behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers.
2004: With Tommy Maddox having been injured in Week 2, makes his NFL starting debut Sept. 26 at Miami and helps rally Steelers to a 13-3 win -- the first of a rookie-record 13 consecutive wins.
2006: At 23 years, 11 months, 3 days, becomes the youngest Super Bowl-winning QB Feb. 5 when the Steelers defeat the Seahawks, 21-10, in Super Bowl XL.
2006: Involved in a serious motorcycle accident June 12, yet misses only the season opener that season and that is because of an emergency appendectomy.
2008: Earns second Super Bowl ring by engineering an 88-yard drive in the final two-plus minutes, capped by a 6-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes.
2009: Passes for 503 yards (29 for 46, three TDs) Dec. 20 in a 37-36 win vs. Green Bay -- a franchise record for passing yards and the 10th-highest total in NFL history at the time.
2010: Suspended for four games for violating the league's personal conduct policy after being linked to an incident in Milledgeville, Ga.
2011: Becomes the 11th QB in history to make three Super Bowl starts Feb. 6, but for the first time comes out on the losing end of a 31-25 loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV.
2012: With 363 yards passing in a 26-23 loss Oct. 11 vs. Tennessee, he breaks Terry Bradshaw's franchise passing yardage mark of 27,989.
2014: Begins his 11th NFL season today vs. Cleveland, making the 143rd start of his career.
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