PITTSBURGH -- When Ashley Roethlisberger got the call from her husband at halftime of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 2 game against Seattle last season, she instantly knew something was wrong.
"He never calls me during halftime when he's playing," Ashley said in a newly released mini-docuseries detailing Ben Roethlisberger's injury and road back to the field. "As soon as I saw the phone call, I realized that he wasn't going to go back in the game."
In the first episode of the series, "Bigger than Ben," Ashley opens up about the toll the tumultuous 2019 offseason had on her marriage along with an inside look at her husband's injury. The docuseries, created by Mango Dragon Productions, released its first episode on YouTube on Wednesday morning.
"Last year's offseason was probably one of the most challenging offseasons that we've had in our marriage," said Ashley, referring to the criticism Roethlisberger faced after the departure of Antonio Brown and the tumult that ensued as people around the league admonished Roethlisberger for his handling of the locker room. "Personally, there were disappointments. Professionally, I understand criticism is part of the job. I get that. I wish it wasn't, but I get it. But last year seemed different."
Ashley, who married Roethlisberger in 2011, said getting to training camp was a relief for the quarterback and the team, but that was short-lived after the sudden death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake in August 2019. Bonding over their faith, Roethlisberger had an off-the-field relationship with Drake, and was greatly affected by his death.
A month later, Roethlisberger's season was derailed even further as he grasped his arm after making throws in the first half of the Week 2 home opener against Seattle.
Ashley first noticed something was off with Roethlisberger's arm in the Steelers' final drive before halftime. The Steelers were running an up-tempo, no-huddle offense and she saw him grab his elbow after a couple of throws.
"Honestly, at first, when he grabbed his arm, it didn't make me worried that he actually injured his arm," she said. "To me, at first, it signified he's really hurting. I think, that made me sick to my stomach because I knew he wasn't going to stop. I knew he was going to keep going and I could see how bad it was hurting."
Ashley said her brother was watching the game from home and texted her saying the analysts were talking about Roethlisberger's arm.
When the quarterback came off the field after the Steelers' final drive, Dr. Jim Bradley, the team's longtime physician, did a couple of preliminary tests and told Roethlisberger he wouldn't allow him to go back on the field. Following further evaluation at halftime, Roethlisberger called his wife to let her know what was going on.
Standing in their laundry room with the phone on speaker after a postgame MRI, the pair got a call from Bradley later that night informing Roethlisberger that he ripped three of five flexor tendons off the bone.
"I couldn't really believe that," Ashley said.
After hearing the options -- either to not have surgery but never play football again or have major surgery to return to the field -- Ashley told her husband she understood if he wanted to retire.
"I told him that I was only going to say this one time," she said. "I wanted him to hear me and mark my words, not going to bring it up again, but if he felt content where he was with the career that he's had and it's on his heart to just be done, I would support him 100% in that. He doesn't have to worry about my feelings in all that. I want what he wants. I was basically just handing him permission to retire if that's where his heart was and I was going to support him in that.
"And he listened, and you could tell he really took it to heart and thought. And he said, 'Thank you, but I don't feel done. I'm not done.'"