It was the morning of September, 2, 1982.
I was lying on my couch in Bloomfield, dreading the fact that I had to be at school in mere moments, when the local morning radio show announced that day’s celebrity birthdays (that same local morning radio show still does this today—how did we evolve to the point of being able to write blogs and stream movies)? One celebrity—a local hero—turned 34 that day. His name was Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
I remember thinking, “Hmm, that’s pretty old.” But, then again, I was 10—a week seemed like a really long time to me.
Anyway, Bradshaw would only celebrate one more birthday as a member of the Steelers—and do so while recovering from offseason elbow surgery—before retiring in the summer of 1984, just shy of his 36th birthday.
After Bradshaw retired, not many Steelers quarterbacks—if any—had a chance to reach their 34th birthday—at least as starting quarterbacks in Pittsburgh.
You know the story, it was 20 years between Bradshaw’s retirement and the selection of Ben Roethlisberger, out of Miami of Ohio, in the 2004 NFL Draft.
Much like with Bradshaw’s birthday, I remember where I was when Roethlisberger was selected with the 11th pick: I was at work and tending to my employees’ needs. That’s right, despite having the radio on all morning and afternoon, I was called away right before the Steelers were on the clock.
It didn’t matter. I was still super-excited that the Steelers finally went for it and drafted a quarterback with a premium selection. I was hoping they’d go that route. It had just been so long since they invested a high draft-choice in a position so vital to championship success in the NFL—Mark Malone (1980) was the last quarterback Pittsburgh selected in the first round of the draft.
YouTube didn’t exist back then (or, if it did, I was about five years away from being able to access it), but I was eager to get home and watch football of some sort. I don’t know why, but I pulled out my VHS copy of Tough Guys, an NFL Films produced feature, hosted by Iron Mike Ditka, that chronicled some of the game’s toughest players. Why did I do this? Only because Dan Fouts was among the players chronicled for his many tough attributes—including his ability to withstand a beating.
Don’t misunderstand, I didn’t think Roethlisberger was comparable to Fouts in any way. I just wanted to see quarterback stuff.
Little did I know what awesome quarterback stuff I was about to witness over the next 16 years.
At the time, the plan was for Tommy Maddox, the incumbent starter, to continue in his role for the 2004 season, while Roethlisberger learned and honed his craft as a third-string quarterback.
That plan lasted for less than two games. Thanks to injuries to both Maddox and veteran backup Charlie Batch, Roethlisberger was thrust into a Week 2 game against the Ravens.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Even though Roethlisberger won every single game as a starter during his rookie season, while guiding Pittsburgh all the way to the AFC title game, it wasn’t until the following year, when he helped lead the Steelers to a last-second regular season victory over the Chargers in San Diego, that I had a revelation: Big Ben just had “it.”
Yes, even though Roethlisberger suffered a serious knee injury while engineering a game-winning field goal drive (Batch actually had to take the final snaps on the drive, before Jeff Reed came on to kick a field goal), for some reason, I knew the Steelers had finally found their next Bradshaw.
Anyway, if you’re a Steelers fan on any level, you know the things that man has done over the years. You know he was the missing piece to two more championships, to the Steelers re-establishing themselves as the gold-standard for Lombardi silver. You know about the Fouts-like physical toughness that is mixed with John Elway-like elusiveness in the pocket.
I don’t have to tell you any of that.
But as I type this article on Monday, March 2, 2020, Big Ben is somewhere celebrating his 38th birthday. Ironically enough, much like Bradshaw 37 offseasons ago, he’s trying to battle back from elbow surgery. Bradshaw didn’t do so well in that department, as he missed all but one half of the 1983 season before calling it a career.
By all accounts, Roethlisberger appears to be ahead of schedule in his bid to come back at or close to 100 percent for the 2020 campaign. He’s throwing a football again. The thought of releasing him has only been suggested by pundits far removed from the organization.
If Big Ben were to retire tomorrow, it would be a sad day in Steeler Nation, but you’d have to acknowledge how integral he was to helping put the organization back on top after so many years.
But Big Ben isn’t going to retire tomorrow. He’s going to try and make a go of it for next season and maybe even beyond. “As long as we have Ben, we have a chance,” has been a familiar refrain from Steelers fans for quite some time.
Here he is on his 38th birthday, and Steelers fans are still able to make such bold statements about him and their favorite football team.
I don’t know what’s going to happen after Ben Roethlisberger throws his final pass for the Steelers, but until he does, hope will remain high that he will bring the fans a great gift in the form of yet another Lombardi trophy.
Happy 38th, Big Ben!