PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was perusing the papers stacked around Mark Whipple’s desk years ago when one caught his eye.
It was Whipple’s original evaluation of the 2004 quarterback class, and though Roethlisberger was ranked highly coming out of Miami (Ohio), he wasn’t the highest. That infuriated the young signal-caller.
“He saw the reports on my desk one day, was looking through them,” said Whipple, the former Steelers quarterbacks coach who's now offensive coordinator at Nebraska. “That’s typical Ben when he was young. I told him, ‘Yeah, if you would’ve stayed one more year, you’d have broken all the NCAA records, you would’ve been the first pick in the draft and gone to the 49ers,' which was his team anyways.
“He got mad because I had Eli [Manning] ranked higher than him, only because I said Eli’s brother [Peyton] is an NFL player and Player of the Year. [Roethlisberger] always had this underlying challenge with Eli.”
Roethlisberger didn’t have an unspoken rivalry only with the younger Manning. He felt personally challenged by everyone, constantly striving to convince those who knew him or watched him that he was the best. At everything.
In his 18th year as Steelers quarterback, Roethlisberger admits “all signs” point to one final regular-season game at Heinz Field on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). He no longer has to prove himself, the fruits of his labor tangibly evident in two Super Bowl trophies, six Pro Bowls and more than 60,000 passing yards and 400 regular-season touchdown throws.
Roethlisberger could have stopped playing years ago but kept pushing himself, motivated each season by the possibility of another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“He only plays the game for one reason: to win Super Bowls,” said Charlie Batch, Roethlisberger’s backup from 2004 to 2012. “Money’s great, but when you made it and you have enough that you don’t have to worry about it, you’re only coming back for one reason.”
In Roethlisberger, a Findlay, Ohio, native, the Steelers found the ultimate competitor. Not just a man motivated by 10 other teams passing on him in the NFL draft -- including the “hometown” Browns, who took tight end Kellen Winslow at No. 6 -- but one who cared about winning everything, no matter the stakes.
“I love watching winners, and he has that mentality,” Steelers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud said. “I remember one game, I was on the sideline, it looked like he had four hip pads on. The game before that, he had a bruise going from his knee all the way up to his rib. He didn’t practice all week, couldn’t tie his shoe. He went into the game, took every hit that came his way. Never complained, and when he came to the sideline, ‘Next series, next series.’ That mentality of doing whatever it takes. That mentality makes him who he is.”
That mindset endeared him to fans early in his career, from the minute he took over for an injured Tommy Maddox as a rookie and helped the Steelers to a 15-1 regular-season record -- 13-0 with Roethlisberger starting -- before losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. At times, he was mercurial and immature, but he never wavered from his ultimate goal. He wanted to win, and he did it often under the most pressure-filled circumstances. He has 52 game-winning drives, tied for third all time with Tom Brady.
To Steelers fans, some of Roethlisberger’s most memorable moments were the most improbable: the touchdown throw to Santonio Holmes to win Super Bowl XLIII; playing through a broken nose against the Baltimore Ravens in 2010 and leading the Steelers to victory; his game-winning drive against the Dallas Cowboys his rookie season; the darts thrown with defenders hanging off his body; the teardrop passes to Antonio Brown that only the wide receiver could grab.
“The first time you see him get hit by someone in the backfield and he shakes them off and continues playing is enough to make anyone like Ben Roethlisberger,” said Erik Carlson, a Steelers fan who came in from Southington, Connecticut, for the penultimate home game.
To Allan Huibers, who came to watch Roethlisberger in mid-December from Toronto, the quarterback’s ability to play through numerous injuries -- knee, shoulder, foot, ribs, elbow -- is part of his legacy.
“A sore knee or a bad back or his arm was sore, he still went out there and played,” Huibers said. “That’s how I’m going to remember him.”
Cam Heyward knew Roethlisberger was competitive from years of watching him play, but when Heyward was drafted by the Steelers in 2011, he quickly understood the depth of Roethlisberger’s thirst for victory from locker room shuffleboard.
“We used to have tournaments back in the day, and then it got out of hand,” Heyward said. “Ben was always very competitive in that. But somehow, he always won. He’s a three-sport All-American in high school -- I think so, or he claims to be. When he comes to being competitive, Ben is one of the tops.”
Roethlisberger also took the games outside the locker room. Before training camp practices at St. Vincent College, Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey held competitions to see who could hit the goalpost with the ball.
“Ben was always competitive then,” Heyward said. “Pouncey got us out of practice one time by doing that. Ben always thrived in every game he played.”
The need to win also extended to the golf course. Even after Whipple departed from the Steelers’ staff in 2006, he and Roethlisberger maintained a standing Tuesday golf date in the year that followed.
“When we started playing golf together, he hadn’t really played much,” Whipple said. “But he could hit the ball a mile and had just unbelievably soft hands, making the putts when he needed to.
“And was always a sore loser. That’s a great trait for an NFL quarterback.”
Like Whipple, others who know Roethlisberger understand the losses eat at him more than the wins fulfill him.
“In that Super Bowl XLV loss, he had an opportunity to win that game in a two-minute drill and we went four-and-out,” Batch said. “That bothers him. … We failed. And that confetti and Green Bay is celebrating. And you go 10 years and not even get to that point again, that burns inside.
“Ultimately, when he came back this season, he came back believing that they had a chance. If he didn’t believe they had a chance, I don’t think he comes back.”
The season didn't go as Roethlisberger envisioned. Rather than a run to the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger and the Steelers have had a roller-coaster season, gutting out close wins and absorbing soul-crushing losses.
By acknowledging that this is likely his final regular-season home game, Roethlisberger is setting the table for a grand home finale against the Browns -- a fierce division rival -- with an outside chance to make the playoffs on the line. The Browns were eliminated Sunday, but the Steelers are mathematically viable to reach the postseason. It’s exactly the kind of circumstance the ultimate competitor relished throughout his career.
“I hope that the fans will say I never quit,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve given everything I have. Shoot, last week I was begging to get back in the game, down 30 with nine minutes to go. Coach let me go in that series and not the next one.
“I just don’t know how to quit.”