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Draft Day Memories: A franchise quarterback slips to the Steelers in a big way

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BTSC goes back to a time when the Mannings, John Elway, Ryan Leaf and a lonely green room co-starred in a day that delivered a franchise quarterback to the Steel City.

2004 NFL Draft Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The NFL Draft has been a circled date in my life for 33 years. There have been many a memory. But one of the finest and craziest was the day a franchise QB once again arrived to the city of Pittburgh. One of the memorable draft days in my lifetime...April 24, 2004.

The 2004 NFL Draft was one of the more dramatic selection meetings of perhaps all time. It actually took place under a black cloud as America and the football world was reeling from the news of Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan. The draft drama started to take bizarre shape ten days earlier when the league’s presumed consensus to go number one, Eli Manning, started making waves via his agent. On April 14, Tom Condon informed the San Diego Chargers that his client did not want to play for them and would sit out an entire year if drafted number one by the Southern California team.

The youngest Manning and his father, Archie, never divulged exactly why the 2003 Maxwell Award winner (as the nation’s top passer) did not want to play in San Diego. It was widely believed that Ryan Leaf, drafted second behind bro Peyton in 1998, informed his close friend’s brother that the San Diego organization mishandled him and threw the NFL bust to the wolves. This was never confirmed, but highly believed. Chargers owner Dean Spanos and GM A.J. Smith thought everything was going swimmingy, then Condon called with ten days to go with the disparaging news.

Giants GM Ernie Accorsi did not know Smith very well at all, but was familiar with what the SD GM was going through. 21 years earlier, it was Accorsi (then the Colts GM) that had to deal with John Elway refusing to play for Baltimore if they drafted him and was forced to deal the future HOFer to Denver. It was a decision that essentially ripped football from Charm City for twelve years. With the fourth pick, Accorsi was set to and perfectly content to draft Miami of Ohio’s Ben Roethlisberger. But knowing the situation Smith and the Chargers were in, Accorsi offered to trade with San Diego for Manning. The two franchises had conversations, but the Chargers wanted the pass rushing phenom Osi Umenyiora, who Accorsi refused to part with. The two sides cut off talks at that point.

Draft Day came and Eli was met with boos everywhere he went. He was viewed as selfish and a villain especially in the wake of the news that came a day earlier surrounding Pat Tillman. The former Cardinal left football to selflessly serve his country and become an Army Ranger and it was learned that Tillman was killed in Afghanistan just two days earlier. Eli refusing to play for a football team did not sit well and seemed petty by many fans after learning of the Tillman news.

On draft day, Accorsi almost accepted a deal to move down to the seventh spot for an extra second rounder from the Cleveland Browns. But he decided to stand pat when he heard rumblings that Cleveland was trying to get in position to select Manning. Accorsi couldn’t live with himself if he let Eli get away. The Giants decided to get back into the Manning sweepstakes again, but Accorsi did not want to call Smith. He wanted the Chargers to come to him, so he could still hold all the cards.

The draft opened and Commisioner Paul Tagliabue read the selection of Manning to the Chargers. Eli looked absolutely devastated, but he did hold up the Chargers jersey while his mom held on to the San Diego draft hat. Fans showered the first family of football with a chant of “Eli Sucks”. While one fan via satellite at a San Diego draft party threw something and flipped the double bird at the television.

2004 NFL DRAFT Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Smith was having conversations with Accorsi regarding the trade again. He informed the Giants that they desired NC State’s Phillip Rivers and not Big Ben and directed Accorsi to select him. This was a risk for the Giants. They were perfectly fine with selecting Roethlisberger and did not want to get stuck with Rivers if Smith reneged. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Steeler Nation geared themselves for Rivers. They wanted Roethlisberger, but it seemed like a pipe dream to have him fall so far to them.

Nobody knows exactly why the Chargers wanted to go with Rivers over Roethlisberger. It has never been fully documented. However, Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer and his staff coached the four-year QB at the Senior Bowl and liked what they saw. There were also some whispers that San Diego saw similarities between Roethlisberger and Leaf and wanted to avoid making the critical mistake they made six years earlier.

Tagliabue announced the Giants pick of Rivers to a shocked crowd. Watching from his home with his family was Rivers. Nobody called him as is tradition and his face wore the personification of pure shock. Eli was stunned as well. He learned his football fate from a young kid who burst in a Madison Square Garden interview room and broke the trade to the Mississippi QB.

When the trade was officially announced, a wide range of emotions were displayed at the Roethlisberger table in the MSG Theatre’s Green Room. Ben’s coach at Miami, Terry Hoeppner, slammed down his water bottle, Agent Leigh Steinberg put his hands on his head in disbelief and a stunned Ben sat in stonefaced silence.

You could’ve qued up two Tom Petty songs The Waiting and Free Fallin’ as a soundtrack to sum up the mood of Team Ben for the series of picks that followed. Remembering it on NFL Network, Steinberg equated it to Chinese water torture, as the seconds felt like minutes and the minutes felt like hours. “Drip. Drip. Drip”.

At five, Washington chose Miami Hurricane safety Sean Taylor.

With the sixth pick, Cleveland traded up one spot and grabbed TE Kellen Winslow from the U (Miami, FL). They were thought to be a possibility to select the home state kid, Rothlisberger, but they just shelled out $25 million for San Francisco’s Jeff Garcia. It was a very Cleveland move.

The next four teams to pick had just recently selected what they had thought to be franchise quarterbacks. But with the fact that anything could happen at the NFL draft at any time and the possibility of a team trading into that spot for a quarterback, Ben and all of Steeler Nation was hanging on every pick nervously. Detroit got Texas WR Roy Williams for Joey Harrington to throw to at slot seven.

Eighth was Atlanta. With Michael Vick seemingly set as the offensive leader, the Falcons took Virginia Tech’s Deangelo Hall to lead the defense.

Like Detroit who took Harrington high in 2003 and gave him a receiver, Jacksonville did the same by drafting Washington WR Reggie Williams to pair with 2003 selection Byron Leftwich.

Next up, at the tenth spot, was the Houston Texans. They too had a young quarterback in the person of David Carr, the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. They went defense with CB Dunta Robinson.

It was now the Steelers turn at eleven. I sat in shock as Ben was available. But now the OL Shawn Andrews from Arkansas was in play as well. I was concerned they’d bypass Ben for him for some reason.

At this point, Ben was all alone with his party in the Green Room. ESPN’s Suzy Kolber was interviewing a despondent Ben when the phone rang. Steinberg shouted out “Steelers, Steelers, Steelers!!!!” with unadulterated glee. A shell shocked Ben took the phone and responded as Bill Cowher welcomed him to the Steelers. He turned to Steinberg, his coach and family and announced, “It’s good. They’re turning it in right now”.

You know the rest. With that the Steelers had a new face of the franchise and would go on to reclaim greatness and the Lombardi.

Super Bowl XLIII Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images