Thursday, December 18, 2003

Flying high, yet grounded


Miami's quarterback an All-American guy

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Roethlisberger didn't play quarterback at Findlay High until the coach's son graduated.
(Findlay High School photo)
MOBILE, Ala. - This is an era of rampant burnout in youth sports. Of a father beating up his son's hockey coach because of a lack of playing time. Of kids who can wing the ball (and their emotions) all over the lot.

Perhaps what tells the story of Miami All-American quarterback Ben Roethlisberger best is that his father got up at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and went to work. Just the way he always does.

No matter that it was the day before The Big Game and that much of the Miami faithful already had left for balmy Mobile, Ala., where Miami (12-1) plays Louisville (9-3) today in the GMAC Bowl (7:30 p.m., ESPN2).

Ken Roethlisberger, manager of an oil-filter production plant in the family's hometown of Findlay, is nothing if not grounded. He and his wife, Brenda, will have their daughter, Carlee, a freshman at Findlay High School, back in school by 11 a.m. Friday so she can play in a basketball game that night.

Ben still cuts his own hair and saves the money. He has been doing that since he was a kid earning an allowance and his parents told him he had to pay for his own haircuts.

Wonder how this 6-foot-5, 242-pounder who ESPN analyst and former UC football coach Mike Gottfried calls "the best college quarterback I have seen in 10 years" can be so well-adjusted?

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Just look at his old man.

Ken Roethlisberger didn't blink when Ohio State offered a scholarship to Ben four years ago. Others in town felt that when the Scarlet and Gray came calling, well, if you were a Buckeye, ol' buddy, you didn't ask questions, you just went. "How can you pass that up?" Ken Roethlisberger heard a lot.

"But that wasn't in my thought process," he said. "There were just too many factors. If you know Ben, you know he likes the personal aspect of going to a place and people knowing him. And he knew they weren't going to change their offense just because he was going there."

Tonight, the junior quarterback might play his last college football game.

NFL draft guru Jerry Jones says if Ben comes out early, he will be no worse than the second quarterback picked behind Mississippi's Eli Manning, "and it's not inconceivable he could be the first." Roethlisberger, who will have one more year of eligibility remaining, has not said he is coming out. He says only that his eye is on the prize: a 13th straight victory (Miami already has the longest active streak of any Division I-A school) in the RedHawks' first bowl appearance in 17 years.

'A perfect fit'

An amazing amount of serendipity had to happen for Roethlisberger to wind up at Miami and in the capable hands of coach Terry Hoeppner. Findlay High School athletic director Jerry Snodgrass calls it "a perfect fit."

"And I know one when I see one, because I was Ben's high school basketball coach and he was my point guard," said Snodgrass, with whom Ben still stays in touch.

Did he say point guard?

That's right, a 6-4 point guard. Roethlisberger has added an inch and about 50 pounds since enrolling at Miami four years ago.

For serendipity, how's this? For Ben to wind up at Miami, he had to be stuck playing wide receiver as a high school junior (he was all-Ohio) because the coach's son was the quarterback. Then-Miami assistant coach Jon Wauford - yes, that Jon Wauford - himself a Findlay High standout in football and hockey and still highly respected in Findlay despite an on-field altercation with a fan last season that resulted in his resignation, had to know the inside story of Ben the Non-QB for Miami to get the inside track. And Ben's dad had to trust that Hoeppner would have an offensive plan in place similar to what Findlay's coach had installed for Ben after the coach's son graduated.

"I told Ben right away, 'I want you to be the next Chad Pennington of this league,' and Chad was on his way to New York to play in the NFL at that time," Hoeppner said.

But when Ohio State entered the picture, word on the street was that Roethlisberger was going to OSU. "I'll believe it when he tells me that," Hoeppner told folks.

Roethlisberger signed with Miami and sat out his first year as a redshirt.

At the invitation of John Cooper, Hoeppner remembers meeting the then-Ohio State coach halfway between Columbus and Oxford at an Olive Garden restaurant.

"Why aren't you playing this guy?" Cooper asked Hoeppner, referring to Roethlisberger.

"Well, I had a fifth-year quarterback in Mike Bath and I also didn't want to play anybody before they were ready," Hoeppner said.

"But, ironically, in our game against Ohio State (Roethlisberger's true-freshman year), Mike got knocked down and Mike's on the ground and the trainer's with him and I turn to Ben (and say), 'Buckle up. Get ready.' And he starts throwing on the sideline. And if he goes in, he's not coming out. It was close, really close, but he didn't have to get in there."

All in all, everything worked out splendidly.

Roethlisberger is the Mid-American Conference's 2003 Most Valuable Player. He was named third-team All-America after throwing for 4,110 yards and 33 touchdowns this season, both school single-season records.

He is one of 30 players in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards in his career. He and the 14th-ranked RedHawks are squarely in the national spotlight.

And, oh, did we mention something Ben's dad didn't? Ken Roethlisberger was a quarterback at Georgia Tech before a severe knee injury ended his career. He was selling $1 hot dogs at his daughter's basketball game Tuesday night to raise money for the program, and after the game he returned a reporter's phone call and answered questions until 11:45 p.m. Tuesday even though he had to be up at 5:30 a.m.

That Ben Roethlisberger is a heckuva college quarterback and just as good a person might amaze some, but to those in Findlay and Oxford who know him, it couldn't be any other way.

All-around athlete

Not much surprises Snodgrass about Ben Roethlisberger, but the AD was genuinely shocked to see Roethlisberger punt left-footed one night on national TV. Roethlisberger does everything else right-footed and right-handed, and he never punted at Findlay High.

"Ben's the best athlete on our team at whatever he does," Hoeppner said. "The players hold him in a little bit in awe. It's as though they shake their heads and say, 'How can he do that?' But the way he has shared all his celebrity with them has endeared him to them. They love him for it. And maybe (tonight) he'll drop-kick one through the uprights. Did you know drop-kicks are still allowed by the rules? The other day, Ben drop-kicked one in on the run from 45 yards out."

Roethlisberger did not shun all sports to specialize in football the way some kids are encouraged to do these days. And he benefited from everything he did.

Roethlisberger says he learned to throw on the run from playing shortstop, learned to improvise in unexpected situations by playing point guard and learned to read defenses "from the other side" by having played wide receiver.

"I know a lot about what receivers think," he said. "I know when they're going to separate holes in a zone or try to beat a man one-on-one. I've grown up with those guys. Mike Larkin says his route doesn't start until I start scrambling. You can't practice scrambling in practice. We're both improvising out there. It's one of the most fun things about playing quarterback. And it's not just me and the receivers improvising. At Colorado State, I had a 12-second scramble, and we had no linemen downfield, no one held, no one clipped and we completed the pass."

After tonight, Miami will be without its seniors ... and it figures to be without their "significant other," too.

Unless, that is, Roethlisberger surprises everybody one more time.

He isn't saying what he'll do. All he says is this:

"I love being a quarterback. I want to be in the position where I can have the ball in my hands every play. I like having the ball in my hands at the end of the game. I like directing things and being a leader and leading by example."

If the last time he does that for MU is tonight, he figures to make it memorable.

E-mail jerardi@enquirer.com



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