It was about a half-hour after the Pittsburgh Steelers had finished a recent practice at their training camp home, Saint Vincent College. Nearly every player and coach had left the field, but most of those in a crowd of about 10,000 onlookers hadn't budged. Fans lined up alongside the walkway leading up a hill from the corner of a field to the locker room used by the team; they congregated at the top of the hill. The player they most wanted to see, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, was lingering on the field, talking to friends and signing autographs for kids after a round of interviews.
Finally, Roethlisberger made his way toward the hill. People, young and old, cheered and yelled Roethlisberger's name. They shoved scraps of paper at him to autograph. And, as a steamy afternoon gave way to evening, Roethlisberger obliged, chatting with fans while signing . . . and signing . . . and signing.
Hour-long autograph sessions were nothing unusual for Roethlisberger during training camp, and that afternoon one Steelers employee recalled going to dinner after practice a few days earlier and then coming back and seeing Roethlisberger still signing. At 23, he is football's newest golden-boy quarterback, and he is embracing his celebrity.
"I just try to take everything in stride," he said on the field after one practice. "The big thing for me is you have to know that you live in a fishbowl, especially being in this town, with the fans and the way they love football. You just have to know your role and go with it. . . . You have to learn to adapt to your environment and your surroundings. It's always been this way for me, but never to the extreme it is now."
While the two quarterbacks drafted ahead of him last year were taking their lumps as rookies -- Eli Manning lost his first six starts for the New York Giants and Philip Rivers couldn't get off the bench in San Diego -- Roethlisberger was making it look easy. He took over for injured veteran Tommy Maddox in the Steelers' second game and led the club to victories in his first 13 NFL starts before sitting out the regular season finale with a rib injury. He returned to participate in a triumph over the New York Jets in an AFC semifinal before a defeat to the New England Patriots left the Steelers a step short of the Super Bowl.
It was a remarkable run that led Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells to call Roethlisberger the best rookie quarterback he had seen since Dan Marino. And, although the Steelers won as much with their running game and defense as with Roethlisberger's throwing, Roethlisberger's popularity exploded. His replica jersey was the NFL's top seller last year.
"He literally became a national celebrity," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "National."
Roethlisberger reportedly earned $4.5 million in endorsements to go with more than $9 million in bonus money, $230,000 in salary and $2.3 million in incentives that his contract with the Steelers paid him. And his endorsement income might have been heftier if his agent, Leigh Steinberg, hadn't taken a conservative approach, wanting Roethlisberger to become an accomplished quarterback before an accomplished pitchman.
"We pursued nothing," Steinberg said. "We kept a heavy lid on it. We didn't want to put undue pressure on him or have it interfere with team chemistry."
The result is that Roethlisberger was -- and is -- liked and respected by teammates. Veteran tailback Jerome Bettis walked over and gave Roethlisberger a playful jab in the ribs before the two talked at length on the sideline during a recent practice. Later, Roethlisberger yelled across the field as Bettis was doing a promotional spot that Bettis first needed to brush up on his reading skills. Roethlisberger fits in, taking the locker-room needling as well as dishing it out. Roethlisberger is careful to say that Bettis, wide receiver Hines Ward and guard Alan Faneca are the club's offensive leaders, not him. Not yet.
"That was the most impressive part last year -- his maturity level in dealing with everything," Bettis said. "He was very mature about it and very capable of handling it. It was surprising in a lot of ways. . . . I try to talk to him as a mentor, as a big brother, try to tell him some of the pitfalls, some of the mistakes that I've seen guys make off the field. I try to keep him grounded on the field also. He's got to keep working like the rest of us. I just try to be a voice of reason to him."
Said LeBeau, who is in his 46th year in the NFL as a player or coach: "I was very impressed with the way he handled the success that he had, and that's a very difficult challenge. . . . For a man his age, I was very impressed with the way that he stayed with his focus on football and kept doing a good job week in and week out. That's just a testimony to his character and personality, and probably to his parents. He had a pretty good, sound upbringing there. I think the team did a good job of rallying around a first-year quarterback and doing the things that enabled him to be successful. But he's a very unique individual, there's no question about that."
Roethlisberger says his wiser-than-his-years ways come from his father Ken, a former quarterback at Georgia Tech. Roethlisberger grew up about 200 miles northwest of Pittsburgh in Findlay, Ohio. He starred in college at Miami of Ohio after being overlooked by Ohio State and showed a glimpse of bravado on the day before last year's draft. All of the focus was on Manning's refusal to play for the Chargers and the pending draft-day trade that would send Manning to the Giants, put Rivers in San Diego and send Roethlisberger plummeting through the first-round order until Pittsburgh chose 11th. Roethlisberger said at a pre-draft luncheon in New York it didn't bother him that Manning was getting so much attention then because he knew the spotlight would shift to him once both got into the NFL. He was right.
"I did believe it, and I still do," Roethlisberger said. "I just felt that I was the better player of the group at that time. Everyone was hyping him, and I kept it inside for so long that I just kind of let it out."
Still, he said that was the "first and last" time he will take on Manning like that publicly. He knows he is judged by different standards these days. Much of what he does ends up in a headline somewhere, from his motorcycle-riding hobby to his romance with pro golfer Natalie Gulbis (now reportedly over).
His joyride through his rookie season ended on a down note. He nearly lost the playoff game to the Jets with a late interception but was bailed out by the field goal misadventures of New York's kicker, Doug Brien, and the Steelers won in overtime. Roethlisberger, however, was equally shaky and less lucky in the loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game, throwing three interceptions.
"It was tough to lose that game and to play as bad as I played," Roethlisberger said. "I felt like I let my guys down, let my teammates down. It's just one of those things that you have to get past, though. . . . You either improve or deteriorate. You never stay the same. I want to get better at every aspect of my game."
The defeat to New England left Steelers Coach Bill Cowher with a 1-4 record in AFC championship games. The Steelers know it will be difficult to recapture the magic of last season, when everything meshed so well en route to a 15-1 regular season. Each time a key player got hurt, it seemed a replacement performed as well or better. Already, the Steelers have had to deal with the offseason departures of wideout Plaxico Burress and two members of the starting offensive line, a training camp holdout by Ward that lasted until the day of the opening preseason game and recent knee injuries to tailback Duce Staley and linebacker Joey Porter that will keep them sidelined at least through the end of the preseason.
"Hopefully, we can get things to happen again this year like they did last year," Bettis said, "but it's going to be hard to do."