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 silver tint of the clouds of doubt;
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar,
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit;
It's when things seem worst that you mustn't quit
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."
The Steelers are not quite in the class of the Patriots and the Colts this season, and Roethlisberger is not yet in the same class as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But he is himself again. Over Roethlisberger's first seven games last year (he missed the opener), he had seven touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and a 72.2 rating. This year, in seven games, he's thrown 15 TDs and just six interceptions, and his rating is 102.2. He looks bigger than he did last season but just as nimble—still able to sidestep pressure, skip out of the pocket and throw on the move.
His only regret is that Hoeppner is not around to nitpick his footwork. "He always used to tell me I was overstriding," Roethlisberger says. "I think about that every time I miss a pass. So I guess that means I think about him every day."
THEY MET in the summer of 1999, when Hoeppner was in his first year as coach at Miami and Roethlisberger was coming off his junior year at Findlay (Ohio) High, where he'd spent the season as a receiver, catching passes from his coach's son. At Miami's football camp for high schoolers, Hoeppner noticed that the big wideout also threw a pretty nice pass.