BY MIDNIGHT half the team was dressed in white Pittsburgh Steelers bathrobes, their fingerprints mucking up a sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy, their cigars burning smoky and sweet. After one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, wide receiver Santonio Holmes wiped tears from his eyes, owner Dan Rooney pulled on a championship baseball cap and linebacker James Harrison asked if he could fall asleep right there on the locker room floor. Among the quietest in the group was the quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who slipped out of the room alone, his robe covering his civilian clothes, the ball with which he knelt to close out Pittsburgh's heart-stopping 27--23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII cradled in his left arm.
Three years ago Roethlisberger barely felt a part of the Steelers' fifth Super Bowl title, his play had been so erratic in the victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The football world knew: Pittsburgh had won Super Bowl XL in spite of him. So what does a quarterback think about when he's back in the NFL's showcase game, when his opposite, Kurt Warner, has just found Larry Fitzgerald for a 64-yard touchdown, when his devoted fan base is aching and the clock is ticking down? "Do or die," said Roethlisberger, waiting by the team buses in the Tampa night, recounting his thoughts in the huddle before the Steelers' game-winning drive. "I've said it all along: I want the ball in my hands."
If Harrison's 100-yard interception return can lay claim to being the most remarkable defensive play in 43 Super Bowls, this game will be remembered as well for Roethlisberger's arm, Holmes's tiptoes and the crowning of Pittsburgh as the NFL's marquee franchise of the Super Bowl era.
It will also be recalled as the night Roethlisberger ascended to the cusp of greatness by winning his second Super Bowl at age 26. Trailing 23--20 after the Warner-to-Fitzgerald hookup late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger walked onto the field and into the pivotal moment of his career.
Leadership has not always been Roethlisberger's strength, despite his success as the Steelers' starter. As a rookie in 2004 he joined a team stacked with veterans—Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca—and had trouble asserting an authoritative voice. While he overcame the deficits in his game with an improvisational flair, a motorcycle accident in June '06 altered his life's trajectory.
Riding his Suzuki Hayabusa through downtown Pittsburgh without a helmet, he collided with a Chrysler New Yorker, sustaining several serious injuries, including broken bones in his face that required two-inch titanium plates and screws to repair. The accident lent him a new perspective. Now, he says, "it's a trophy to be alive every day."
Says Ward, "When he steps into the huddle, it's his team. When he steps into the huddle, all eyes are on him."
Roethlisberger's style is not always pretty, which may be why he has developed a kinship with his much-maligned offensive line. Though he was sacked 46 times in the regular season, second-most in the league, Roethlisberger time and again has gone out of his way to defend the men in front of him. Super Bowl week was no different. On the Tuesday before the game he treated his blockers to dinner at P.F. Chang's in Tampa's trendy Westshore Plaza, where the group occupied four tables in the middle of the bustling restaurant. Over fried rice and crispy honey chicken, the men spoke about the past and the future. "We talked about how far we had come and where we wanted to end up," said second-year right guard Darnell Stapleton. Added third-year right tackle Willie Colon, "We said we can't go back to Pittsburgh without [the trophy]."
When the group huddled with 2:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, Colon said, they looked at one another and smiled. What they had talked about at dinner was now in their control. Roethlisberger spoke up: "It's now or never."
Holmes also felt the weight of the moment. "Ben," he told his quarterback, "I want the ball in my hands no matter what."