“Maddox is hurt. Ben’s in.”
That was the text my father sent me on Sep. 19, 2004. I had no idea at the time how much that moment would change the fortunes of the Steelers‘ franchise for the next 18 years.
This was 2004, so watching a game on a second’s notice was pretty much impossible. But I was able to catch the highlights of Ben Roethlisberger’s regular season debut later that night on TV. The Steelers lost that day to the Ravens, but Roethlisberger brought a spark to the offense that had previously been missing. It was enough to convince me — a college freshman at the time — to find a way to watch Roethlisberger’s first start, which occurred during a monsoon in Miami. Despite the elements, Roethlisberger led a come-from-behind win. I never stopped watching from that point on. And neither did Pittsburgh.
The 2004 season was a magical one for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, who won a then-AFC record 15 regular season games. It ended in heartbreak in the AFC Championship Game, but Roethlisberger made good on his promise to Jerome Bettis by sending him out as a champion at the end of the 2005 season. At 23, Roethlisberger was the youngest starting quarterback in history to win a Super Bowl.
The next 16 years were a roller coaster ride that had many more more ups than downs. Roethlisberger helped lead the Steelers to another Super Bowl title in 2008 after hitting Santonio Holmes for the score that secured Pittsburgh’s sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers made it back to another Super Bowl in 2010 but fell to a superior Green Bay team. The next decade did not bring another Super Bowl appearance, but it did include several highly successful seasons and more exciting play from the quarterback.
Exciting might be best way to summarize Roethlisberger’s career. There was almost never a dull moment with No. 7 under center. As longtime teammate Cam Heyward said recently, there was always a belief the Steelers could win with Roethlisberger at quarterback, even when things looked incredibly bleak.
The 2021 season was a microcosm of that excitement and belief. Pittsburgh faced Texas-sized deficits in Minnesota and Los Angeles before Roethlisberger led furious comeback attempts that ultimately ended in defeat. He led seven game-winning drives this season — and most in the NFL — that included a win in Baltimore in his final regular season game. It was a fitting end to Roethlisberger’s career, a career that was never short of compelling moments.
Toughness is surely part of Roethlisberger’s legacy. He missed four total games and parts of four others in 2015 while leading the NFL in average yards per game. That season, despite having his offense decimated by injuries, he nearly willed the Steelers to an upset win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos. He also made a statement that season by taking himself out of a game after taking a shot to a head against the Seahawks.
Winning was something Roethlisberger has mentioned when discussing his legacy. The Steelers never had a losing season during his 18 seasons in Pittsburgh. More so, the success he and the Steelers had gave a new generation of Steelers fans their own championship moments to celebrate. It merged a new, younger generation with past generations that grew up watching and cheering the dynastic 1970s Steelers teams that captured four Super Bowls in six years. The fans that remember those days have also relished in watching the Steelers add to their trophy case this century. They are also a source of intel anytime Roethlisberger is compared to Terry Bradshaw, who Roethlisberger will join in the Hall of Fame five years from now.
Instead of debating which quarterback was better, what should be discussed is how both players brought championships to Pittsburgh, a franchise that has not experienced that height of success without them. As fans of this generation grow older, they will share their memories of watching Roethlisberger and the Steelers, just like the previous generations have done with the ’70s teams.
Maybe, those fans will be lucky enough one day to text their college-bound kid when the next franchise quarterback takes his first meaningful snap. Until then, Steelers fans will celebrate the career of Roethlisberger, a blue-collar quarterback who brought 18 years of excitement to a city and a fan base.