This One's For Hep
Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Hoeppner vowed to come back together from injury and illness. One didn't make it. Now the Steelers quarterback is playing to honor his old coach and compatriot
Posted: Tuesday October 30, 2007 11:11AM; Updated: Tuesday October 30, 2007 11:14AM
Ben Roethlisberger keeps one copy of the poem folded in the console of his car. He keeps another framed above the desk in his house. He had a third laminated for the inside of his locker, just in case he ever needs to recite a line before wind sprints.
Success is failure turned inside out;
The poem, entitled Don't Quit, is standard motivational fare, the kind that football teams silk-screen onto T-shirts during training camp. But the words are not nearly as important to Roethlisberger as the man who used to read them aloud. Terry Hoeppner taught Roethlisberger the poem long before either of them really needed it. When Hoeppner was the coach at Miami (Ohio) University and Roethlisberger was his quarterback, Hoeppner would recite it until his players rolled their eyes.
Then, in 2006, the poem took on new meaning. After Roethlisberger suffered multiple facial fractures in a June motorcycle accident and Hoeppner suffered a recurrence of a brain tumor, Don't Quit became a mantra for a quarterback and a coach both plagued by clouds of doubt. During one of many hospital visits, Roethlisberger and Hoeppner struck a pact: If one of them made it back onto the field, so would the other. "We talked about it a lot," Roethlisberger says. "We even called ourselves the Comeback Kids. We were going to return -- together -- and be successful together."
On June 19, 2007, Hoeppner died of complications from the brain tumor, leaving behind a wife, three children and four grandchildren. Roethlisberger, having lost his partner on the comeback trail, decided he'd play the 2007 season for both of them. Of course, he has other motivation too. Last year, in addition to the motorcycle wreck, he underwent an appendectomy, suffered a concussion on the field, threw 23 interceptions, missed the playoffs and fell from the ranks of the NFL's top quarterbacks.
But Roethlisberger is at his best when relegated to the margins, as he's proved ever since he was the third quarterback taken in the 2004 draft. So he doesn't want anyone to notice that the Steelers are 5-2 this season, have outscored opponents 184-91 and have climbed back into the conversation in the AFC. Despite having a rookie coach, Mike Tomlin, the Steelers don't look much different from other recent Pittsburgh teams. Vicious defense? Check. Battering ground attack? Check. The main difference is the quarterback's suddenly expanded role.
Under Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers' offensive coordinator until he was named the Arizona Cardinals' coach last January, Roethlisberger was given the game plan and basically told not to muck it up. Under Bruce Arians, Whisenhunt's successor, the quarterback helps create the game plan and is encouraged to tweak it when he sees fit. "It is definitely a change," Roethlisberger says. "It gives you a lot more confidence to know that your coach believes in you."