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This One's For Hep
LEE JENKINS
November 05, 2007
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
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November 05, 2007

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

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Roethlisberger had been waiting to hear those words since he left Coach Hep and Miami. For the three previous seasons the Steelers had been Cowher's team, and the offense Whisenhunt's. Roethlisberger would run the system, not question it. Under Whisenhunt, Roethlisberger typically got the game plan when he arrived at the team facility on Wednesday morning. Under Arians, Roethlisberger is at the facility on Monday and Tuesday helping to create the game plan. The final draft is faxed to his home on Tuesday night. "It feels great to know your coaches have trust in you and will sit down and talk to you," Roethlisberger says.

Arians picked a strange time to let Roethlisberger loose. The quarterback was coming off his worst season. But here was a chance to show trust, to offer support. Arians basically handed Roethlisberger the playbook last spring and let him edit it. Roethlisberger slashed some plays and renamed others, coming up with terminology that is easier for him to spit out in the huddle. He used acronyms and word associations. A Post In Comeback route, for instance, became PIC.

In training camp Roethlisberger went 12 practices without an interception. Coaches compared him to a pitcher working on a no-hitter. Charlie Batch, the Steelers' backup quarterback, stood on the sideline and said to himself, Ben is back.

In Week 1 of the season, at Cleveland, Roethlisberger called protections for the first time in his pro career and was free to change plays at the line of scrimmage. He responded with four touchdown passes as the Steelers trounced the Browns 34--7. "He's becoming a Peyton Manning--type quarterback, making calls and checks," says Browns defensive end Orpheus Roye.

Roethlisberger does not like flattery. He prefers to be told that his passing yards are down and his fantasy ratings are low and that someone, somewhere, is saying he'll never be the same. "I like being the underdog," he says. That might sound unlikely for a quarterback who won a Super Bowl in just his second season, but at 25, Roethlisberger has already traced the full arc of sports celebrity: rapid rise, dramatic fall and now rustlings of another ascent.

Teammates who were skeptical of him during the rise were inspired by how he handled the fall. When the Steelers went 15--1 in 2004 and won the Super Bowl the next season, Roethlisberger was probably given more credit than he deserved. But when they went 8--8 last season, he unquestionably shouldered more than his share of blame. "We didn't want him to take the brunt of it, but he did anyway," says tackle Max Starks. "He stepped up and took the responsibility on his own accord. He became that seasoned veteran. He is now ready, finally, to assume the leadership position here."

In years past Roethlisberger could barely be heard over running back Jerome Bettis and linebacker Joey Porter, Pittsburgh's loquacious leaders. Now that Bettis has retired and Porter is in Miami, Roethlisberger's is one of the few familiar voices left. The Steelers need him to speak up.

Before a game against San Francisco in September, as the Steelers stretched on their half of Heinz Field, Roethlisberger ran from one teammate to another, shaking everybody's hand before kickoff. After the game he waited in the tunnel to the locker room to make sure everybody was inside for the postgame meeting. "When we got him, he was a young guy thrust onto a veteran team, and he was given a pretty short leash," says Bettis, now an NBC analyst. "But the new staff has given him more of the reins. He's been given input. And whenever you're given input, it gives you ownership. You can see that carry over to the way he plays."

Arians and Roethlisberger talk about formations in the lunch room, the training room and the office hallway. Their offense may still need work, but their rapport does not. "I know how much Coach Hoeppner meant to him," Arians says. "That's not a relationship we have yet. I don't know if we ever will. But I hope it grows into that."

ON OCT. 13, before Miami played its homecoming game against Bowling Green, the RedHawks held a ceremony to retire Roethlisberger's number 7 jersey. He stood on the field, his parents on one side of him, Jane Hoeppner on the other. "The big unspoken was who was not there," Jane says.

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