PITTSBURGH -- An hour and a half before the Steelers’ penultimate regular-season home game on Dec. 19, Ryan Smith held a glass bottle of Redd’s Angry Ale in a parking lot outside Heinz Field. With yellow, black and gray camouflage pants, a white No. 7 Ben Roethlisberger jersey and a gold beanie with “Big 7 Ben” stitched across the crown, Smith blended into the crowd of pregame revelers.
A schoolteacher in Fremont, Ohio, Smith, who is a few years older than Roethlisberger, still remembers seeing the quarterback play at nearby Findlay (Ohio) High School. As a senior, Roethlisberger torched Smith’s alma mater for seven touchdowns.
A lifelong Steelers fan, Smith bought the first of four Roethlisberger jerseys the week in 2004 when his high school’s former nemesis was drafted by his favorite NFL team.
“Wasn’t a big fan then,” Smith said. “But as soon as he went black and gold, 11th pick, I became, obviously, a Big Ben fan.
“I give him props every week. No matter who disses him, people talk crap about him in my hometown, but I stick up for him. To me, he still does a good job. He can’t run, but he can sure throw. That’s all we need. Block for him and he’ll get the pass off. That’s all that matters.”
Throughout what’s almost guaranteed to be Roethlisberger’s final season, the dedicated Steelers faithful have made pilgrimages to see Roethlisberger play in person one final time.
In recent weeks, those trips have become more urgent, the significance of the moment not lost on those who secured tickets to his final games.
Monday night, more than 63,000 fans turned out at Heinz Field to bid Roethlisberger farewell. The lower bowl was rimmed with signs cheering the two-time Super Bowl winner, many decorated with cut-and-paste highlights of his 18-year career. The fans chanted his name throughout the game, thanking him as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter. The frenzied crowd caused a handful of Cleveland Browns penalties, and nearly affected Roethlisberger, too.
“It's one of those ones where you're like, ‘OK, I’m appreciative of it, try and be quiet,’” the quarterback said with a grin after the 26-14 win. “‘We're trying to call some plays.’ But like I said, it means a lot. This place, Heinz Field, is so special to me. You know, just like this city is.”
Tailgating in front of a small fire with his family, Garrett Piekarski, 29, said he called dibs on his family’s season tickets for the final home game specifically to see Roethlisberger off -- and to talk trash to his friends who are Browns fans.
“Obviously, when you hear something in the news like Ben, it might be his last game, it might not be, you’ve got to show up for it,” Piekarski said. “Most franchises, they go through a bunch of quarterbacks. He’s been the quarterback for almost my entire life. So you’ve got to cherish the good times and the bad times he’s had with us, especially in a game like this, too, against a division rival. You can’t miss it for the world.”
While Roethlisberger’s biggest celebration came at Heinz Field, some Steelers fans are ensuring he has some friendly faces for his final farewell in Baltimore on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Mitchell Zook of Cumberland, Maryland, bought tickets Tuesday to see Roethlisberger one last time, and he plans to bring his 10-year-old daughter to her first Steelers game. And 23-year-old New Jersey resident Austin Pasquale bought tickets with his dad a week earlier to attend his first game in 10 years.
Richard Parker bought his tickets for the Steelers-Ravens game before any others this season. Living in New York, Parker usually tries to attend the Ravens games because they offer the shortest trip, but this year it’s going to be extra special.
“I figured there was a good chance this would be Ben’s last season, so I immediately looked for the Baltimore game,” Parker said in a message, adding he managed to get to six other games this season. “It ended up working out perfectly as it will indeed be his last. Being there in person when he takes his final snaps will be an awesome experience.”
An Ohioan by birth, Roethlisberger finishes his Steelers career as a born-again Yinzer, his fight and gritty determination embodying a city built on the backs of blue-collar workers and an organization known for its physicality.
“I’ve liked him ever since he came in the league,” said Jason Cline, who made the five-hour drive from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to watch Roethlisberger in Kansas City on Dec. 26. Cline made the trip with his dad, who attended Roethlisberger’s fourth start in Dallas. “His toughness. He fits the team perfectly,” the younger Cline said.
Steelers fans haven’t always felt this way about their quarterback. The sexual assault allegations and the resulting suspension, along with the motorcycle accident that nearly killed him, created a rift between Roethlisberger and the city. Eventually, scabs formed over the fan base’s frustrations as Roethlisberger kept winning and tried to move past his off-field issues with a quiet, suburban family life.
“You try to forget the bad stuff,” Zach Steiner, 45, said. “That’s with anybody. You look for the good, you try to look for the highlights. So, no, I don’t think about how everybody bashed him for being reckless and riding on the world’s most powerful motorcycle.
“But everybody wants to remember the good stuff. Everybody wants to remember him raising Lombardis, winning games for us.”
Steiner and his buddy David Cousineau, both of Pittsburgh, brought their daughters with them for the Tennessee Titans game on Dec. 19. For Steiner, bringing Catherine, 16, to her first Steelers game was a bonding moment -- even if it might take a few years for the magnitude of the occasion to sink in.
“Ben’s up there,” Steiner said. “It’s Terry [Bradshaw] and him. I don’t know if she understands the gravity of it because this is her first game, but maybe looking back, being able to say, ‘Yo, I watched that dude play’ will be cool.”