Can you hold my babies?" the young mother asked Ben Roethlisberger as the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie sensation walked out of a greeting card shop in the Robinson Town Center Mall one day early last week. "That way I can take your picture." � The woman had an infant in her left arm and an even tinier newborn in her right and was holding each of them the way a reckless running back might cradle a football in the open field. She turned to her left so that Roethlisberger, a 22-year-old quarterback who is the toast of sports fans throughout western Pennsylvania and the talk of the NFL, could easily take the newborn from her. Temporarily speechless, he showcased his deceptive mobility, backpedaling into the store as though she were offering a package labeled anthrax. "Uh, you know, I've got a little bit of a cold," Roethlisberger said. "So it's probably not the best idea."
Just in time to lend a pair of helping hands, the woman's shopping companion showed up and took the newborn from its mother's arms. As Roethlisberger posed, both women ogled the 6'5", 242-pound quarterback while another shopper cooed at the newborn. "He's a week-and-a-half old," said the woman now holding the newborn. "He came out at nine pounds, two ounces, so we call him Big Ben."
Ah, so the child's name is Benjamin?
"No," she said. "His name is Dominic."
O.K., so parents aren't yet naming their babies after the NFL's most attention-grabbing rookie passer since Dan Marino, but all over the Steel City and the surrounding area, you can certainly find yourself a Roethlisburger: At Peppi's, for instance, the artery-clogging hoagie bearing that name (beef, sausage, scrambled eggs, American cheese) goes for $7, matching Ben's jersey number.
Such is the nature of instant success in a culture that worships star quarterbacks. Constantly in search of the Next Big Thing, NFL fans have winced as virtually every hotshot rookie signal-caller since Marino, who turned in a Pro Bowl effort for the 1983 Miami Dolphins, did a face-plant when forced into action. From Troy Aikman's 55.7 passer rating during the Dallas Cowboys' 1--15 season in '89 to Peyton Manning's 28 interceptions in the Indianapolis Colts' 3--13 campaign in '98, even the brightest prospects have flailed spectacularly at the start of their careers.
Now, six months after he was the 11th pick in the draft out of Miami of Ohio, six weeks after he was thrust into the Steelers' starting lineup when Tommy Maddox tore a tendon in his throwing elbow, Big Ben is officially on the clock. On Sunday, Roethlisberger ran his record as a starter to 5--0--among rookie passers only the Steelers' Mike Kruczek, who went 6--0 in 1976 (without throwing a touchdown pass), has won more consecutive games to start an NFL career--in leading Pittsburgh to a 34--20 victory over the New England Patriots. While ending the Pats' league-record winning streak at 21 games, Roethlisberger completed 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
Because his learning curve has been so steep, the Steelers, who wheezed to a 6--10 record in 2003, have emerged as the biggest surprise of the first half of the season. At 6--1, Pittsburgh is two games ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North and tied for the best record in the conference.
Dubbed the best rookie quarterback since Marino by Cowboys coach Bill Parcells in mid-October, Roethlisberger, with a 70.1 completion percentage and nine touchdown passes against four interceptions, is third in the AFC with a 104.7 passer rating, behind Manning and the San Diego Chargers' Drew Brees. Teammates and opponents alike have been blown away by his eerily calm demeanor, his ability to shake off adversity and his knack for making plays outside the pocket. Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were the first and fourth picks in the draft, respectively, but it's the kid from small-town Findlay, Ohio, who's large and in charge--and, it turns out, pretty spry for a wide guy.
"I think his strength and size have helped him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said before his team faced Roethlisberger. "You can't knock him down, and he can throw the ball as far as he wants to. There have been a lot of quarterbacks who have played 10 years and don't do as good a job."