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After missing practically all of the 2019 NFL season with a devastating elbow injury, his answer comes quickly, with a chuckle and little doubt, and he suspects you’ll be surprised it wasn’t attempting his first throw or completing his first pass.
“It’s taking a snap from Maurkice Pouncey,” Roethlisberger told Yahoo Sports in a recent phone interview. “There’s something about that guy. Obviously, he’s a Hall of Famer, in my mind. He’s a great teammate, a great player, and he said it and I will echo it — when he’s done, I’m done.”
Sure, Roethlisberger’s answer is a nod to the love he has for Pouncey, his teammate of 11 seasons. But it also speaks to the newfound appreciation he feels for the game of football, especially after a miserable 2019 season in which he missed 14 games and the Steelers went 8-8 despite a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
“It was awful, it was awful ... for a few reasons,” Roethlisberger said. “You look at how special the defense is — and I say ‘is’ because they continue to be good — but last year they were amazing, and you want to be out there because I’ve been around Super Bowl teams and the whole reason that they’re Super Bowl teams is because they had a defense that was talented and really good. So you see that, you start feeling like, ‘Oh man, I wish I was out there.’”
Roethlisberger especially missed his guys, like Pouncey. He missed going to battle with them every Sunday, the shared shedding of blood, sweat and tears in pursuit of victory, and it tore at him that he couldn’t join them. Oh, he did what he could just to be around it. He was at every game, and he regularly attended practice.
“But when you can’t actually be on the field,” Roethlisberger said, “it definitely does something to you for the next year.”
A lighter Ben?
Start with the most noticeable change, which is Roethlisberger’s body. He says he has gotten into the best shape of his career — no small task for a man whose conditioning has often been a point of discussion, if not contention.
“I’ll say this, I’m the lightest I’ve been in about 15 years,” said Roethlisberger, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds.
During a typical offseason, Roethlisberger always takes a couple months off after the Super Bowl — to let his body recover and heal — before ramping things back up before the Steelers’ offseason training program begins in mid-April.
This offseason, Roethlisberger never stopped training. And the result was a svelter physique than his longtime offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Randy Fichtner, has ever seen in a QB who used to compete with backup Byron Leftwich over their weight.
“They were always battling each other to be the first under 260, and then the first under 255,” Fichtner recalled with a hearty laugh. “They’d always come in and say, ‘Hey man, I just got a 249,’ and the other one would say, ‘You’re full of s--- ... bullcrap, let’s go down [and weigh ourselves] right now.’
“So I promise you, he has put himself in the best physical [shape]. As soon as I saw him, I’m like, ‘Dude, he looks great.’”
Roethlisberger also looks younger, and that part is by design, too.
Wife hated caveman beard ‘more and more’
At the urging of his teammates, Roethlisberger pulled a Tom Brady and got a new haircut this spring — one you often see younger men sporting.
“They’ve got me on this, what is it called, a bald fade or something? I don’t know, but it’s real low,” Roethlisberger said. “They’ve got me on this bald fade with the beard that kind of fades into it, too. I had a couple friends from college tell me they thought the look was a good one, so I might keep it.”
Yet, that’s not the most notable thing about his hair to emerge this offseason, as Roethlisberger also shaved the mammoth beard he grew during his rehab in May. This was another step in his comeback attempt, he said, as he finally allowed himself to do it after a throwing session with teammates JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner and Ryan Switzer — something that greatly pleased his wife, Ashley.
“My wife didn’t mind it at first, and then it just got worse and worse and then she hated it more and more,” Roethlisberger said with a laugh, referring to the beard. “So I kinda made a pact to myself and my wife that once I could throw an NFL pass again, I would shave the beard and my hair. I wanted to show that symbolism of OK, I’m gonna bust my butt until I’m ready and once I’m ready, I’ll kind of clean it up and get myself ready to play ball again.”
With the 2020 season only a few weeks out, Roethlisberger is confident he is. A big reason for that — perhaps the biggest reason for that — is how his throwing arm feels.
“I keep waiting for that day, or the next day after a practice, where I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s that pain I’m used to or there’s that discomfort,’” Roethlisberger said. “When there’s something you’ve been dealing [with] for a long time, you get used to it.”
Roethlisberger’s arm was ‘like a rope that starts to fray’
Roethlisberger insists he hasn’t felt any pain, and Fichtner — who has worked on the offensive side of the ball for Steelers for all but three seasons of the quarterback’s 17-year career — can attest to that.
“The beautiful thing for me is that he’ll throw a pass, short, long, deep, whatever, and I don’t see him reaching for his forearm or rolling his arm around or shaking it like maybe it might be a little bit sore,” Fichtner said. “Quite honestly, I had seen that over the years.”
The past few years, Fichtner even noticed Roethlisberger tweaking his wrist or stretching his forearm while sitting in the quarterbacks room. He dismissed it at the time — quarterbacks throw a lot of passes and thus, regularly deal with nagging soreness — but in retrospect, he realizes it was a sign that something was out of sorts.
“This was obviously something that was coming, kind of like a rope that starts to fray a little bit,” Fichtner said.
An accurate characterization, Roethlisberger admitted.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been feeling this pain in my elbow for probably 13, 14 years,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve had a small tear in there the whole time ... and I dealt with the pain and literally dealt with it in pretty much everything I do. You just kind of get used to it; I’ve had that pain for so long that every day, I keep waiting for it to come back like, where is it, where is it? And luckily, by the grace of God, it hasn’t come back yet. Hopefully, it never does.”
And if it doesn’t, Roethlisberger couldn’t be more thrilled about what the Steelers can accomplish this season.
When will Roethlisberger’s ‘football story’ end?
Armed with a promising corps of receivers with a lot to prove — “it just feels like a really, really unselfish group and it’s been fun to be around,” he says — a stable of experienced running backs and a veteran offensive line, Roethlisberger says he never considered retiring, despite his $231 million in career earnings and a Hall of Fame legacy that’s already intact.
“I like this team, I love my teammates and the guys that we have right now, and I just felt I wasn’t done yet, you know?” Roethlisberger said. “Very few guys get to go out in sports the way that they want to go out, whether it’s through injuries, through trades or getting cut, and this wasn’t the way I wanted to go out, and I just felt like I had more in me.
“Not saying I’ve got 10 years in me by any means, but I just — I felt like I had something left.”
So that’s why he worked hard to get in better shape, why he suffered through a rehab process that locked his right arm in a cast at a 90-degree angle, all to get back on the field with his teammates and experience the joys of football again.
Roethlisberger isn’t sure how much longer he plans on playing. All he knows, firmly, is that he believes the final chapters of his football story haven’t been written yet.
“To me, [what’s] the best part of the book and any movie? [It’s] the end,” Roethlisberger said. “No one comes to a movie to watch the beginning and middle of it, they want to see what happens at the end. And honestly, since we’re just speaking about football, to me it’s about life and it’s about family, that’s always going to be my priority. But when it comes to my football story, I just feel like there’s a few more chapters left, and I hope they’re the best ones I’ve been able to write.”
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