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 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 for both of them.
Of course, he had other motivation too. In the three seasons since he won his last Super Bowl, Roethlisberger sustained three concussions, underwent an appendectomy, threw 49 interceptions, took 139 sacks and fell from the ranks of the NFL's elite 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. The 2008 Steelers were not so different from the version that won the Super Bowl three years earlier. They still had the vicious defense and the dangerous running game. The main difference was the quarterback's expanded role.
Under Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers' offensive coordinator until he became the Cardinals' coach in 2007, Roethlisberger was given the game plan and basically told not to muck it up. Under Bruce Arians, Whisenhunt's successor, Roethlisberger 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 now his team, the offense a product of his vision. When he won his first Super Bowl, against Seattle, he was along for the ride. When he won his second, over Arizona, he was at the wheel. His only regret is that Hoeppner was not around to nitpick his footwork between games. "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.