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Roethlisberger retires at 39: Time to 'hang up my cleats'

ABC News
ABC News
 2022-01-27

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Ben Roethlisberger didn't play football like a quarterback. Not today's quarterback anyway.

He didn’t run from contact as much as he welcomed it. The harder the hits, the higher the stakes, the longer the odds, the more Roethlisberger seemed to dig in during a career in which he led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a pair of championships while developing a reputation as a throwback in a city that fashions itself as one even as it has evolved into something far more modern.

Pittsburgh moved on from steel mills long ago. And the position Roethlisberger commanded so well for so long has moved on, too. The game has become quicker since the Steelers drafted him with the 11th overall pick in 2004. The quarterbacks, more versatile than the semi-dad-bodded 6-foot-5, 240-pounder known universally as “Big Ben.”

No player understood this more than Roethlisberger. And what he hinted at for months became reality on Thursday when he announced his retirement, saying it was “time to clean out my locker, hang up my cleats” after 18 seasons, two Super Bowls, countless team records and a spot in the Hall of Fame all but secure.

“I don’t know how to put into words what the game of football has meant to me and what a blessing it has been,” Roethlisberger, 39, said in a video message. “But I know with confidence I have given my all to the game; I am overwhelmed with gratitude for what it has given me.”

The announcement came less than two weeks after Pittsburgh's lopsided loss to Kansas City in the first round of the postseason, the 12th time in Roethlisberger's career the Steelers reached the playoffs.

He hinted before his final game at Heinz Field that it was time for him to move on and spend more time with his wife, Ashley, and their three children. He made it a point to embrace the moment following the Jan. 3 win over the Browns, doing a victory lap of sorts before disappearing down the tunnel surrounded by his family.

Roethlisberger described the journey that carried him from northwestern Ohio to Pittsburgh to almost certainly the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in five years as "exhilarating.”

It also was wildly successful.

The Steelers never endured a losing season during Roethlisberger's tenure and captured Super Bowls 40 and 43 — the latter coming on a touchdown pass over the outstretched hands of a sea of Arizona defenders to Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone in the final seconds.

“Putting that jersey on every Sunday with my brothers will always be one of the greatest joys of my life,” he said.

Roethlisberger's personal life, unlike his professional one, was more complicated. He wasn't wearing a helmet when broke his jaw and his nose in a motorcycle crash in 2006 shortly after becoming the youngest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl.

He was twice accused of sexual assault, once in 2009 and again in 2010. A civil case filed against him stemming from an incident at Lake Tahoe in 2009 was settled out of court. A woman in Georgia alleged he assaulted her at a bar in March 2010 but prosecutors did not formally charge him, partly out of concerns the case could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

The NFL suspended him for six games at the 2010 season for violating the league's personal conduct policy, though it was later trimmed to four. He returned to lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl, a loss to Green Bay.

The second half of his career played in stark contrast to the first half, both as a player and a person. Known more for his rugged “Ben being Ben” approach to the game during his 20s, he morphed into one of the league's premier passers in his 30s. He twice led the league in yards passing and retires in the all-time top 10 in yards passing (64,088) and touchdown passes (418).

Off the field, he got married in 2011 and started a family while largely retreating from public view.

The only thing that didn't really change? Winning.

Roethlisberger posted a 165-81-1 record as a starter, the most in franchise history and fifth-most ever. The Steelers won the AFC North eight times with his familiar No. 7 behind center and Big Ben seemed to thrive when the game and sometimes the season hung in the balance. His 41 fourth-quarter comebacks rank third behind Peyton Manning (43) and Tom Brady (41).

Long regarded for his toughness and playing in considerable pain, Roethlisberger suffered only one major injury. He missed almost the entire 2019 season after tearing ligaments in his right elbow in Week 2 against Seattle.

He returned in 2020 and guided the Steelers to an 11-0 start and a division title, throwing for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. The season ended, however, with a four-interception performance in a home playoff loss to Cleveland.

While teammates and good friends Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald retired, Roethlisberger returned for one last run behind an almost completely rebuilt offensive line. The Steelers sputtered for long stretches, with Roethlisberger looking his age at times.

Yet there were still flashes of the Ben of old, not Old Ben, perhaps most notably in a 20-19 win over Baltimore in early December in which he threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to edge the rival Ravens. Despite the offense's limitations, the Steelers managed to scrap their way to a playoff berth in spite of an erratic 9-7-1 season.

Afterward, the player who flirted with retirement several times in recent years seemed to acknowledge this would be his final season in black and gold. He spoke at length in December about the need to pass along “ The Steeler Way ” to his teammates, almost all of them at least a decade younger, and made it a point to pass the baton to defensive tackle Cam Heyward after falling to the Chiefs.

His retirement caps a career that began when Dan Rooney insisted the Steelers take him in the 2004 draft. Pittsburgh expected to have Roethlisberger bide his time behind starter Tommy Maddox. Then Maddox went down in Week 2 against Baltimore and a raw, 22-year-old Roethlisberger took over.

The Steelers ended up losing that game. They didn't for the rest of the regular season with Roethlisberger at the controls. He was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year after guiding the Steelers to a 15-1 record. The perfect start came to an abrupt end with a loss to New England in the AFC championship game.

A year later, the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl by ripping off three straight road victories in the playoffs, including an upset of Indianapolis in the divisional round aided by Roethlisberger's shoestring tackle of Colts defensive back Nick Harper following a late fumble by running back Jerome Bettis.

Like Bettis, Roethlisberger hoped the final year of his career would end on a confetti-strewn field with the Vince Lombardi Trophy in hand. It didn't happen, with the Steelers attempting to rebuild on the fly around a quarterback far closer to coach Mike Tomlin's age than most of the 20-somethings surrounding him in the huddle.

Roethlisberger stressed he was at peace with his decision to return in 2021 and to finally walk away:

"I retire from football a truly grateful man.”

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This story has been corrected to show that Roethlisberger’s second title came in Super Bowl 43, not 46, at the end of the 2005 season.

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Comments / 9

TJD1971
01-28

Even though I am a true, loyal Patriots fan, I still have so much respect for this QB!!! Steelers is losing a Champion and I am sorry for them buy Ben enjoy retirement and hope to see you as an analyst!!🏈🙌💞

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