Ben Roethlisberger is Just an Ordinary Guy

Brady’s got Gisele. Peyton’s got his pedigree. But this year’s All-Maxim QB is the regular guy who restored a city and a franchise to greatness.

You might expect to find an off-duty NFL quarterback lounging in the VIP section of a club in Vegas or South Beach. But if you’re looking for Ben Roethlisberger, check the dive bars across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh is Iron City, Yuengling, and Rolling Rock,” Roethlisberger says. “It’s about the tough bars where the steelworkers and the coal miners hang out. It’s great to have a beer with them.”

After a disappointing 2006 season following his near-fatal motorcycle crash, Roethlisberger proved last fall, in his fourth year, that he truly belongs among the NFL’s elite QBs. He finished behind only Tom Brady in passing efficiency and earned his first Pro Bowl nod. He also showed he can take over a game—as he did against Baltimore in week nine, passing for five TDs in the first half. It was a statistically perfect game (with a max rating of 158.3), one of two in 2007 and three in his career, which ties him with Peyton Manning for the league record. In a generation of QBs who seem to have been groomed for the position—Brady, Philip Rivers, Mannings II and III—Roethlisberger is a throwback: a sturdy, hard-nosed everyman who can be relied on to make the small plays as well as the big. “He’s got everything,” says ESPN NFL writer and analyst John Clayton. “He’s tough, physical, and a good leader. Whenever he needs to make a drive happen, he can.”

The Steelers handed Roethlisberger a $102 million contract extension in the off-season, but off the field, in his oversize T-shirts and backward baseball caps, Big Ben morphs into an average 26-year-old dude. While he still admits to a soft spot for fancy, fast machines like his Jaguar XKR (“It’s my downfall.”), his other hobbies are as all-American as it gets: grilling, hunting geese, and riding ATVs. He’s a more perfect fit for this blue-collar town than even the legendary Terry Bradshaw—a savior who has brought the Steelers franchise and its beloved city back to life.

Roethlisberger grew up four hours west, in Findlay, Ohio, a factory town near Toledo. He didn’t play QB until his senior year in high school, then went on to helm the offense at Miami University—in Ohio. “I’m not a surfer from California,” he says. “I’m not a pretty boy. I come from a blue-collar mill-town background. That’s why I fit in well here.”

Picked 11th overall in the 2004 NFL draft, Roethlisberger was a dark horse but led his team to 14 straight wins and the conference title game as a rookie. A year later the Steelers won Super Bowl XL (their first since 1980), and talking heads started comparing him to Dan Marino and Joe Montana.

By 2006, Roethlisberger was Pittsburgh’s kind of star. He tooled around town on his Suzuki Hayabusa—a 185 mph crotch rocket—and appeared in a music video with local country group PovertyNeck Hillbillies. He slapped his name on barbecue sauce, jerky, and “the Roethlisburger,” a hoagie stuffed with ground beef, Italian sausage, scrambled eggs, fried onions, and American cheese, created by Peppi’s, a local sandwich shop. “Everyone here lives for the Steelers 24/7,” says owner and Pittsburgh native Lou Bosser. “Ben brought the city back to where it was in the ’70s.”

But one wrong turn threatened to take it all away. On a Monday morning June 2006, Roethlisberger was riding his motorcycle without a helmet when a Chrysler New Yorker turned in front of him, and he smashed the car’s windshield with his head. He suffered fractures to the jaw and nose, lost two teeth, and almost bled to death through a cut in his throat. “I was 30 seconds from dying,” he says.

He fought his way back, playing in 15 games, but threw 23 interceptions—more than the previous two years combined. The Steelers finished 8-8, and Roethlisberger fell out of favor with the national media. After each game he went home to Zeus, his Rottweiler, and Hercules, his Bernese mountain dog. “Those are my only children,” he says. “When I come home from a game, no matter how good or bad I play, they don’t know the difference.”

Two years later, Roethlisberger’s back on top. If there was any doubt the Steelers are his team, consider the local newspapers’ report that he asked management for some taller receivers; this year’s training camp roster included four WRs who are 6’3″ or taller. The reloaded squad may have the best shot to dethrone the Patriots and Colts in the AFC.

The Steelers—and the city of Pittsburgh— are betting on their $102 million workhorse to take them there. And he won’t let them down. “Pittsburgh is perfect for me. I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he says. “The first job I ever had is the one I have right now. It’s working all right for me.”