Thus a trip to a mall near the Pittsburgh airport can cause quite a stir. Mindful that his low-key lifestyle is hard to maintain amid the public frenzy, Roethlisberger resolved to run all of his errands at once early last week and methodically compiled a long to-do list. Alas, the list was left at home, forcing him to do what he does so well on the football field--improvise.
After purchasing a thank-you card for the neighbors who keep baking him apple pies, then buying 10 identical very long, white Tshirts from Foot Locker ("You've got to have clean ones," he explained), Roethlisberger set off in search of an oversized bathrobe. He stopped to answer his cellphone, quickening his pace after a brief conversation. "That was Plaxico," Roethlisberger said.
In addition to being one of Roethlisberger's best friends on the Steelers, Plaxico Burress is a supremely talented fifth-year wideout who has been on the receiving end of some of the quarterback's spectacular throws. Like most of Pittsburgh's veterans, Burress, who on Sunday had touchdown receptions of 47 and four yards, did not immediately warm to the notion of a rookie's being thrust into the team's most high-profile position. That sentiment was enunciated most clearly by three-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who, when asked in the wake of his close friend Maddox's injury if he was excited about Roethlisberger's first start, snapped, "No, I'm not excited. Do you want to go to work with some little young kid who's just out of college?"
Roethlisberger made his first start on Sept. 26 in less-than-ideal conditions, facing the Dolphins' vaunted defense in Miami as the tail end of Hurricane Jeanne passed over South Florida. On his first play Roethlisberger forced a sideline pass to fullback Dan Kreider; the ball sailed straight into the hands of Miami cornerback Patrick Surtain. "We were like zombies on the sideline," Burress recalls. "We were saying, 'Not this'--because the average rookie would just go in the tank. Then it started raining and we thought, It's gonna be a loooooong night."
Roethlisberger laughed off the mistake, steeled himself and eventually threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to secure a 13--3 victory. The next week he led a late scoring drive to produce a come-from-behind 28--17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, then ran for one touchdown and threw for another in a 34--23 triumph over the Cleveland Browns. On the road against the Cowboys on Oct. 17, Roethlisberger completed his last nine passes and finished 21 of 25 in a 24--20 victory, one that featured a fourth-quarter comeback from a 10-point deficit.
"He is amazingly calm," says running back Jerome Bettis, a 12-year veteran. "I've seen a lot of rookie quarterbacks over the years, but I've never seen a guy come in with the awareness that he has, not only in understanding the plays, but also in staying relaxed." Roethlisberger demonstrated that he's tough, too, in the first quarter of the game against the Browns, rolling to his right and taking a ferocious hit from defensive tackle Orpheus Roye as he delivered a 48-yard completion to Burress. Two plays later he ran for a six-yard touchdown to give Pittsburgh a 14--7 lead. "I think everybody's been pleasantly surprised," says Faneca. "He's able to put everything else aside and make plays."
His transition, though, has not been seamless. "The first game [against the Dolphins] there were a couple of plays where the formation was flipped, and we were running plays the wrong way," center Jeff Hartings says. "But he has come a long way, and fast." As is typical for a raw quarterback, Roethlisberger has been blitzed frequently and bombarded with intricate defensive schemes designed to confuse him. "It's kind of funny, though," Bettis says. "He hasn't been rattled, and he's been burning the blitz. Now teams are kind of backing off and playing this guy honest." At the same time, Steelers coach Bill Cowher and his first-year offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, have simplified the offense, using running back Duce Staley (707 yards rushing in seven games) to set up the pass. With an above-average line and a premier receiving tandem in Burress and Pro Bowl wideout Hines Ward, Roethlisberger need not be the savior, despite media suggestions to the contrary. "Most rookie quarterbacks are put in a position where they have to win the game by themselves, and they're not ready to do that," Bettis says. "Ben's in a good spot, and when you look back on it, Marino had the same thing--a veteran team with a lot of playmakers."
Roethlisberger seems determined not to overstep his bounds, constantly deflecting credit to his teammates. Cowher has also been trying to downplay Roethlisberger's accomplishments, though the highly excitable coach has also been careful not to trample on the young passer's confidence. "I don't talk to him that much," Cowher says. "Whatever he's doing, I don't want to screw it up."
When asked at a press conference what would happen when Maddox returns from his elbow injury (probably early this month), Cowher simply laughed--but it's almost inconceivable that he would pull the kid whose six-year contract could be worth as much as $40 million with incentives and escalators.
In the meantime many Steelers fans have an insatiable appetite for all things Big Ben. This was abundantly clear when, shortly before picking out a new bathrobe at Sears, Roethlisberger was tracked down by a Foot Locker employee who had purchased a football and a Sharpie after spotting the quarterback earlier. Roethlisberger looked on calmly as the man struggled to get the pen out of its plastic packaging, uttered a couple of expletives and, finally, yanked the marker so hard that it broke in half. Then the man pulled a ballpoint pen out of his pocket, and Big Ben dutifully signed.