Readers of a certain age will understand this trip down memory lane more than others. Growing up as a child, I was a huge fan of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. For those youngsters among us, the TV show was about a man wrongfully accused of a crime who escaped into the wilderness to live a life of solitude and become one with nature. Along the way, he rescued a young grizzly bear cub and they became loyal companions. He named the cub Ben.
Watching Ben Roethlisberger transform into a modern day version of a mountain man standing on the sidelines as a injured spectator last season brought back cherished memories from those childhood years. The memories of the show were already hopelessly intertwined with my memories of the Steel Curtain dynasty during my formative years becoming a diehard Steelers fan. Last season's version of bearded Big Ben perfectly fit the profile. Somehow, for me, his unkempt appearance seemed comfortably familiar.
Many fellow members of Steelers Nation definitely didn't share in my opinion and comfort. Some fans were overtly concerned with his appearance and had no problem sharing their opinions. Some were actually quite humorous, especially the ones referencing Ben's apparent weight gain. One particularly memorable jab stated that if Ben only gained a few pounds he could be the answer for any concerns the Steelers had at defensive tackle if Javon Hargrave left as a free agent. Now that was funny.
Lo and behold, what a difference an offseason can make, even one happening in the middle of a pandemic. Recently, Ben Roethlisberger has been seen conducting virtual interviews discussing his faith and fatherhood for a men's conference and in photos detailing his current endeavors in community service. Besides his admirable efforts as a human being, a couple of visuals caught my eye.
One was the freshly sculpted beard, neat and trimmed. No longer resembling a mountain man, or a homeless individual as some surmised. The other point of interest, Ben's beard wasn't the only thing that appeared fit and trim.
Some folks are just going to have to accept the fact Ben Roethlisberger is simply a massive individual, which can be a good thing. Many a young quarterbacks never fully recover from the type of beating the younger Big Ben was able to endure earlier in his career.
Take Houston Texans quarterback David Carr for example. After being the number one overall selection for the newly minted expansion franchise, Carr was thrown to the wolves so to speak behind the predictably porous offensive line of an expansion team. Carr absorbed the inevitable beating rarely seen subjected on the first overall selection in the entire draft, and his development was undoubtedly impacted. A very talented individual, Carr never lived up to his immense potential, and there was plenty of blame to pass around. Thankfully, after such a cautionary tale, repeats of that tragic handling of a young quarterback have been less frequent. Teams are far more cautious and conscientious of allowing young quarterbacks to take an unnecessary beating that can adversely affect their careers.
Ben Roethlisberger was the missing piece of the Steelers puzzle the moment he stepped on the field, evidenced by his unmatched success as a rookie. The winning streak to start his rookie season and winning the Super Bowl after his sophomore campaign were magical. One of the seemingly underappreciated aspects of all the success as a franchise was the unmistakable toughness of their young signal caller. Ben absorbed additional punishment in the preceding years as his passing prowess became increasingly vital after the Bus drove off into retirement a champion, thanks in no small part to Big Ben's excellence.
Part of the blame for the regular beatings falls on Roethlisberger himself based on his style of playing the position. Ever the competitor with an insatiable will to win, Ben stubbornly refused to accept the play was doomed and simply throw the ball away. Holding the ball to the last second resulted in some unnecessary sacks, hits, and nagging injuries. However, it also resulted in plenty of game-changing plays few of his peers had the courage and moxie to make. The career winning percentage and statistics speak for themselves.
Good thing Ben performed with the toughness he did, because Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians’ play calling demanded it. Arians preferred deep drops and attacking the defense vertically all over the field. This style, while effective and perfectly suited for Ben's skill set, did require Ben to hold onto the rock until his receivers uncovered deeper downfield, resulting in increased opportunities to be exposed to punishment.
This was particularly troubling considering Ben was operating behind what can only be described as a mediocre offensive line. Ben not only survived this difficulty, he thrived, winning his second Super Bowl in Arians system.
Thankfully the Steelers brought in offensive line guru Mike Munchak to rebuild the line into one of the best in the NFL over the last handful of years. Munchak may be gone, but his influence remains.
Earlier this offseason Jay Glazer characterized Ben's workout regime as a few yoga sessions and some cold brews. Taking into account Ben's newfound physique, Ben must have added some goats to his yoga routine and switched to light beer.
Ben Roethlisberger's healthy return is the key to any championship aspiration the Steelers have heading into this season. The good news is that Ben presently appears to be as healthy as he has been in years.
He is still the same Big Ben we have all come to love, maybe just not quite as big as before.