On the eve of the pro football draft, we caught up with Miami's Ben Roethlisberger, who looks like one fine candidate
By Josh Elliott
Ben Roethlisberger is a mess these days, and it has nothing to do with the reality that next Saturday, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue will stride to a podium in the Theater at Madison Square Garden and announce, before a national television audience, that some sad-sack team has just used its high first-round draft choice to make Roethlisberger its savior. Nor is it because, despite never having had more than a few thousand dollars in his checking account, Roethlisberger is about to become a multimillionaire. Or even that, at a swath-cutting 6'4" and 242 pounds, he is days away from becoming the prey of innumerable groupies. In fact, as he reclines on a sofa in his parents' Findlay, Ohio, home, the 22-year-old quarterback -- who declared for the NFL draft after his record-setting junior season at Miami of Ohio -- is genuinely pumped at the prospect of bearing the hopes of some woebegone franchise on his broad shoulders. "Are you kidding me?" he says, shaking his head. "It's every football player's dream. I don't care where I go, I don't care what they ask of me. I can't wait for draft day."
Then he rises and leads a visitor into his old bedroom, and the secret's out. Unpacked luggage bags spill from the doorway into the hall. Dozens of pairs of athletic shoes are clustered in one corner, while various mementos of his playing days at Miami -- framed newspaper clippings, trophies, the odd piece of equipment -- crowd overwhelmed dressers and desktops. One glimpse of the clutter and it's apparent that Ben Roethlisberger is, literally, a mess.
"Uh, I'm actually sleeping down in the basement," he says, adding sheepishly, "I've still got some unpacking to do, I guess."
To Roethlisberger, though, his relative sloth -- sleeping late, eating Mom's cooking, hanging with longtime friends -- is anything but a winter break run amok. Rather, it's a small reward for a job well done, an understatement when you consider the magnitude of his breakout 2003 season. Having been touted as one of the best college quarterbacks at the beginning of the season, he threw for a school-record 4,486 yards and 37 touchdowns while leading Miami to a 13-1 season, the Mid-American Conference championship and the team's first bowl victory in 28 years. By season's end his stock had soared; Roethlisberger, Ole Miss's Eli Manning and N.C. State's Philip Rivers are considered by many NFL personnel evaluators to be the top quarterback prospects in the country.
But until his transformation into a professional athlete is complete -- until a team owns him and, more important, his free time -- Roethlisberger will savor these last few days of relative anonymity on a college student's budget in Findlay, or FLAG CITY, U.S.A. as the town's water tower proudly boasts. He will have his fill of drive-thru meals and target practice (using paintball guns) and Main Street cruising under the gunmetal-gray skies of central Ohio. "I just want to be around what I know, around people I love and care about," he says. "It'll never be the same as it is right now. Maybe it's not the most impressive thing I could be doing, but this is what's important to me. Ever since I decided to leave Miami, everything's been pointing to this time. Now that it's here, I don't want it to fly by yet."
With that, Roethlisberger climbs into his new GMC Denali, properly pimped out with multiple DVD players and screens, backseat PlayStation and an absurd sound system -- "It's my one baby," he says of the ride, which he purchased with money advanced by his agents -- and heads to the local YMCA for his daily workout. There, he's greeted the same way again and again. Most people offer meek smiles and nods, while some shake his hand, pat him on the back, offer congratulations and ask him what, for the last three months, everyone else has asked: "Know where you're headed?" His answer's always the same: "I don't care. I just want to play football." An acquaintance tells Roethlisberger that he hopes the Steelers draft him, while another favors the Browns.
After announcing his intent to turn pro following Miami's win over Louisville in the GMAC Bowl, Roethlisberger went agent-hunting. Or, more specifically, he became the hunted. He was deluged by dozens of agents, some more dubious than others, a few offering Roethlisberger "crazy amounts of money," he says, to represent him. Ultimately, he settled upon Leigh Steinberg and his associate, Ryan Tollner, on New Year's Day. Less than a week later Roethlisberger arrived in Newport Beach, Calif., to begin his metamorphosis from beefy, mid-major college stud to prototypical NFL quarterback. He moved into a furnished luxury condo on Jan. 5 and over the next two months did nothing, he says, but work out. "Southern California was a bit of a culture shock," he admits. "It seemed like all the cars were fancy and all the food was healthy. It was big, and things just seemed complicated."
A typical day began at 10 a.m., when he would lift weights at a nearby gym for an hour. Then he went to an adjoining football field, where he worked with Steve Clarkson, a private quarterback coach who has shepherded several other Steinberg clients through similar overhauls. With Clarkson, Roethlisberger fine-tuned his throwing mechanics and footwork, the latter thought by some NFL personnel people to be subpar. He then would finish with a long run and a quick lunch. By mid-February the difference in his body was "like night and day," he says. It showed at the late-February combine, where, as arguably the biggest-name QB to work out (Manning declined), he surprised many with his speed and nimble footwork. "I love Roethlisberger.... He has it all," Rams coach Mike Martz told SI's Paul Zimmerman. "Here's something I learned from Ernie Zampese when I first began to coach: The top three things you look for in a quarterback are accuracy, intelligence and mobility, and those are the things this kid has."
After the YMCA workout, Roethlisberger stops by Findlay High School. Inside, he gives a visitor a minitour, as scores of gawking teenage boys stare at the school's most famous alumnus. When he arrives at his retired number 7 jersey, he smiles and remains quiet for a spell. "I always wanted them to retire my high school, college and pro jerseys," he finally says. "They're going to retire my Miami jersey soon. Regardless of what happens now, I'd say two out of three isn't bad."
One of the teams thought to be interested in Roethlisberger is the San Diego Chargers, who hold the draft's first pick and who sent six representatives, including coach Marty Schottenheimer and general manager A.J. Smith, to privately work out Roethlisberger a month after the combine. In windy 40° weather at Miami's Yager Stadium, Roethlisberger threw nearly 100 passes -- outs, curls, deep posts, go routes -- that he'll have to make in the NFL. Afterward, to test his arm strength, he stood on a 40-yard line facing the opposite end zone and threw flat-footed to a receiver waiting at the 20-yard line -- a 40-yard throw. The pass-catcher kept moving back in five-yard increments until he stood at the goal line for Roethlisberger's final, 60-yard heave. "But I heard Kyle Boller [the Ravens' first-round pick a year ago] could throw it through the uprights in the same drill," he says, "so we'll see."
"Everything was terrific. He's very talented, he's got a great work ethic, and his character is solid," says Smith, whose Chargers were infamously burned by their second overall selection of emotionally fragile quarterback Ryan Leaf in 1998. "We've done our background checks [which included calling his high school and bars around the Miami campus]. He's a great kid."
When Roethlisberger leaves the high school, he stops by a local sandwich shop, where he orders two rib sandwiches, a large drink and a large chocolate Oreo shake. As he steps to the window, the three women behind the counter giggle like schoolgirls and ask for his autograph. It's hardly surprising, since in Findlay he's been signing them since high school. "I've been told that I need to learn to say no every now and then," he says with a laugh. "But it's tough."
After chowing down, Roethlisberger heads to the home of longtime pal Jeremy Rinehammer. The two have known each other since they played Pee Wee football together in the fifth grade, and they became close friends in high school. When Rinehammer had to leave Wright State three years ago because of a series of serious illnesses in his family, it was Roethlisberger who was the supportive voice on the phone several times a week. A year ago, when Rinehammer himself was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Roethlisberger resumed his role of friend and confidant. Having recovered, Rinehammer traveled to watch Miami play eight times in 2003. "Ben's a great quarterback, but he's a better friend," says Rinehammer. "He's always been there for me when I've needed him. He'll be a big pick in the draft and have all that money, and he'll still be the kind of guy he is."
In the dying late-afternoon light, Roethlisberger's school-break fantasy has a final stop: to buy paintballs at a local supply shop, for some quick target practice at the home of another friend. Professional football beckons, but for now he's just another kid in Flag City, U.S.A., with pals to see and a room to clean. The rest of his life will be here soon enough. For a few more days, at least, the NFL can wait.
Issue date: April 15, 2004