Father's Day: Ex-QBs assure Big Ben that fatherhood is a life-changer
June 17, 2012 4:00 AM
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Brad Johnson, then quarterback for the Buccaneers, says having 2-year-old son Max in his arms after winning Super Bowl XXXVII made it all the more special.
Ben Roethlisberger will be a father before the year is out.
Jim Kelly probably could have played another year or two. But it would have meant time he never would have had with son Hunter. Hunter was born with Krabbe disease in 1997. He died in 2005.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For Brad Johnson, the anticipation reminded him of game day. But when it was over, and he and his wife were driving home from the hospital with little Max Johnson in tow, there really wasn't an apt comparison.
Just a few years before, Johnson, who would become a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was living by himself in a one-bedroom apartment. Now he was in command of so much more.
"It was careful driving," Johnson said. "You talk about having your hands on 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. That's God's gift to my wife and I. You understood there's no love that can get between you."
For Steelers backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, the waiting got to him. He so wanted to know how it was going to feel to hold Dominic in his arms.
"I was more nervous than his mom," Leftwich said.
For Rich Gannon and Steve Beuerlein, the moment came at an awkward time. Gannon was trying to resurrect his career in Kansas City when Alexis came into the world, and that meant spending most of the early weeks out of town and away from her. Beuerlein was in the thick of a playoff chase with the Carolina Panthers. His wife allowed him to sleep in a second bedroom so he could get his rest, but, even walled off from baby boy Taylor, he couldn't escape the greater meaning.
"It forces you to see a much bigger picture," Beuerlein said.
Sometime this fall or winter, Ben Roethlisberger will experience that jolt. He announced on his website last week that he and his wife, Ashley, will be having their first child, a boy, later this year.
"It's going to change him forever," Leftwich said.
Big Ben is going to be a Big Daddy. Is he ready? In the past five years, the Roethlisberger name has taken some hits, just like the 30-year-old quarterback's body. After two allegations of sexual assault in 2008 and 2010 -- the first settled out of court and the second not prosecuted -- it became a national punch line. Look no further than a song by rapper Eminem and an episode of Comedy Central's "South Park" that reference Roethlisberger for evidence.
Raising this child represents a chance for Roethlisberger to prove that he's learned something from his past. He said he wants to be just like his father, Ken.
"My dad is my role model, always has been," Roethlisberger said. "To me, he can teach me more than any book or video."
Roethlisberger's quarterback brethren will be rooting him forward. They've been through this, becoming fathers during their careers, and they send a clear message: It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.
"This is your legacy," said former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. "What you're going to leave behind is going to be these kids."
A new dynamic
That Brad Johnson had his hands fixed on 10 and 2 holds some significance here. Roethlisberger has not been a 10-and-2 guy. There was the motorcycle accident without a helmet in 2006 that nearly ended his career, the messy allegations of sexual assault coming from women in Nevada and Georgia, and that endearing recklessness on the field, throwing his body around at any cost for victory.
Roethlisberger's love of a carousing lifestyle has been documented with photos from strangers on the Internet, and since joining the Steelers in 2004, he's been known to frequent the South Side bar scene on occasion.
But whatever is left of that Roethlisberger should begin to fade into the background once he dons the father cap for the first time.
"You become less selfish as a person," Gannon said. "Your priorities change. You become more disciplined. Obviously, you're not going out with your buddies on Friday night or staying out late after a big win. It really changes the dynamic."
Gannon became a father in 1995, nearly halfway through his 18-year career. And here's something for Steelers fans to hope for: Gannon said he became a better quarterback once he was a dad.
Gannon, who now announces games for CBS, recalled getting his schedule down to a science. He would awaken early in the morning and head to work, get through practices and film, hang around in the locker room for a bit, then attempt to make it home at a decent hour for dinner with the family. Once the kids were put down, he'd study the game plan for a few hours before bed.
"The season was a five-month grind," Gannon said. "But you've still got seven months to do what you want."
Roethlisberger and his wife haven't announced a due date, but he said last week it's a possibility that Ashley will have their baby during the season. That would be quite a test, with Roethlisberger harboring the hopes of a football-crazed city desperate for that seventh ring.
"Sometimes, you have to put football aside," said former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, an NFL Hall of Famer. "But also, the wife has to understand that this is a job where you have a lot of pressure on you. She has to be able to step back and give Ben the room to prepare every Sunday."
The Roethlisbergers shouldn't be afraid to ask for help either. For the first five seasons of Johnson's fatherhood, his mother-in-law moved in to offer constant support. While that might seem like a nightmare to dads everywhere, it probably beats facing an NFL pass rush with bags under your eyes.
"We prepared for it," said Beuerlein, also now a CBS announcer, "but life throws you curveballs. You can plan out whatever, but that baby's got a mind of its own. There were times during the season I'd come in after a bad night and the coaches could tell ... 'Rough night, huh?' That's just something you have to fight through."
Beuerlein happened to have three of his four children during the season. He credits his wife for ushering the family through those tiring months, but acknowledges the reality that comes with each offseason.
"There's payback," he said.
No game plan
It is in a quarterback's DNA to believe he can control outcomes. When Kelly and Jeff Hostetler matched wits on opposite sides of Super Bowl XXV, they both felt as if their preparation was going to be the difference. Ultimately, it was Hostetler's Giants who prevailed over Kelly's Bills, 20-19, in one of the most tightly contested Super Bowls in history.
Kelly and Hostetler will be forever linked because of that night, but they share a theme in their personal lives, too: As a father, the fate of your child is too often taken out of your hands.
Within 24 hours of the birth of Hostetler's first son, Jason, in 1985, the boy was diagnosed with pulmonary stenosis and rushed into heart surgery. He'd have several more surgeries in that first year, leaving Jeff and his wife with no other option but to trust God's plan.
"As a dad, it's your job to protect your family," Hostetler said. "To not be able to do that, but to see your son fighting, it puts things in perspective."
With each year that Jason grew without another surgery, they worried less. The boy eventually stabilized, but that wasn't the end of the Hostetlers' tough run. Their middle child, Justin, was born in 1987 through an emergency C-section. Years later, their youngest son, Tyler, was in an accident riding a four-wheeler that nearly left him paralyzed. Like Jason, Tyler would recover over a period of years and now lives a normal life as a senior at West Virginia University, his father's alma mater.
"I've got three miracle boys," Hostetler says. "Football is what I did, but being a dad is who I am. There is no better position."
In Tampa at the Super Bowl, Hostetler was able to share his greatest professional accomplishment with his wife and a healthy Jason and Justin. Somewhere in that stadium, Kelly was lamenting a missed 47-yard field goal by kicker Scott Norwood that would have won the game for Buffalo in the final seconds. What Kelly couldn't have known then was that the challenges he would face years later as a father would dwarf his sadness over a lost game.
Kelly became a father in 1995 when his daughter, Erin, was born. Two years later, after Kelly retired from football, he had a son, Hunter, who was born on Valentine's Day just like Kelly.
"The script was already written," Kelly said.
The script called for Kelly taking his boy hunting and fishing, doing the things he'd always dreamed about doing. But, in that first year, Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe disease, a rare genetic disorder of the nervous system. Because of the disease, Jim Kelly would never be able to have a conversation with his son.
"You still give that unconditional love," Kelly said. "For me, it was almost like the way it was supposed to be. I could have played a couple more years, but to be able to help my wife take care of our son was important."
In 2005, Hunter died at age 8. It rocked the Kellys, but today, they'll celebrate Father's Day with Erin and their youngest daughter, Camryn, and think about the blessing they had for those eight years.
A test of authenticity
Brad Johnson stood on the podium after Super Bowl XXXVII on a dreamy San Diego night, celebrating the Buccaneers' 48-21 trashing of the Oakland Raiders.
As a teenager, he'd seen Phil Simms in that same pose, declaring that he was going to Disney World, and now Johnson had reached the pinnacle. That he could live that moment with 2-year-old Max, perched on his arm, made it all the more special.
Johnson took his Super Bowl champions hat and put it on Max's head.
"Who loves you, son?" Johnson asked the boy.
Max took the hat off and put it back on his father's head.
"You do, Dad!" Max said.
"That's something we'll have for the rest of our lives," Johnson said.
Gannon, who threw a Super Bowl-record five interceptions that night, three of which were returned for touchdowns, will have this:
"At the hotel, my two little girls were there. I think they were 7 and 5," Gannon said. "They had these little looks on their faces. So sad for Dad. I went over, and I got down on one knee and hugged them. They couldn't have been any sweeter. I'll never forget my daughters and that embrace."
Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls and lost another, but he's never gotten to experience the highs and lows with his own family. If there is another Super Bowl in his future, it will come with a different flavor, one that he welcomes.
"You talk to any player, the ultimate goal is to try to have your son or daughter or both at a Super Bowl," Roethlisberger said. "I don't think there's anything better than having your family on the field with you when you're holding that trophy and the confetti's falling on you."
Will Roethlisberger get there? He's battled injuries the past few seasons, but Jaworski believes his best years as a quarterback could be ahead.
Jaworski, as part of his job as an announcer on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," spent a day recently dissecting every throw that Roethlisberger made during the 2011 season.
"I think he had a tremendous season last year," Jaworski said. "There were games where he literally carried the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their offensive line struggled. I thought Ben elevated his game. Last year, I thought for the first time he understood what defenses were trying to do to him, and he had the answers."
Off the field, Roethlisberger appears to be making positive strides, too. The narrative pushed by his supporters is that he's matured as a married man and that fatherhood is simply the natural next step for him as he repairs the damage done to his name.
Beuerlein, for one, has noticed a change. Beuerlein has talked with Roethlisberger numerous times over the years at an annual celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and the early chats were not very rewarding for him.
"Whenever I tried to, it didn't seem like it was that big of a deal to him," Beuerlein says. "And, since those events, I've had one or two conversations with him, and it's been like he has nowhere else to be. The feeling is totally different. There are some people who question the authenticity, but I think it's 100 percent honest and true, and I think he got the message loud and clear."
If Big Ben gets another chance to talk to Beuerlein, he might want to ask about what he can expect from being a dad. Of course, Roethlisberger will know soon enough.
"Everything you've heard," Beuerlein said, "and everything that you can possibly imagine, multiply it by 10, and then you'll have a good understanding of what's coming. That's the good and the bad. You can't imagine how much you can actually love another human being until you have your own kid."