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Published: Saturday, 1/15/2005

Family in Findlay gave Steelers' star solid grounding

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

FINDLAY - It was a tough assignment for a photographer. Go to the Roethlisberger house on the south side of Findlay and take a family photo flavored with plenty of Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia.

The problem? There isn't any.

Ben Roethlisberger may be the star quarterback of the Steelers, he may be the NFL's offensive rookie of the year, he may even be headed for the Super Bowl. But you wouldn't know it to walk through the doors of this pleasant but modest ranch home.

Ken and Brenda Roethlisberger have lived here since Ben was in the fifth grade. The house has about 1,400 square feet and three bedrooms. One belonged to Ben. Another belongs to Carlee, a sophomore athlete at Findlay High School. Neither of those bedrooms has ever had a television or a telephone.

"It's small, but it has kept our family close," said Brenda, who is Ben's stepmother. "Everything has always happened in the family room and kitchen, or in the front and back yards."

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"Lots of games out in the yard," Ken said. "But we've always spent a lot of time together as a family. You only have your kids for a short time."

One of them is gone now. Ben has won 13 straight games as the Steelers' starting quarterback heading into today's AFC playoff game against the New York Jets in Pittsburgh.

A lot has changed in his life, and all indications are that he has handled it in stride.

He is confident without being cocky. He is modest and polite. He may be the toast of the town, but that town isn't Findlay. At least not this particular house on this particular street in Findlay, where the real stars are a golden retriever named Max and a chocolate lab named Casey.

Here, Ben Roethlisberger, 22, is the same son and brother he has always been, which may be why he is the same person he's always been.

It is a warm and comfortable place, and yes, there is a framed picture of Ben posing in his Steelers' uniform. It's right there on top of the desk, tucked behind Carlee's photo in her Findlay basketball uniform.

But that's it. No black carpeting with gold furniture. No Steelers flags or pennants hanging on the wall. Nobody dressed in Steelers sweatshirts waving a Terrible Towel, a handheld staple of Steelers fans for decades. Not even a Ben Roethlisberger bobble-head doll.

"If it really looked like him, we'd get one," Brenda said. "But there's not much resemblance."

The Roethlisbergers have not gotten caught up in their son's fame and fortune.

"You can get lost in that stuff," Ken said. "It's fun to go to Pittsburgh for the games and to be a part of it in that way, but we have a life to live. And we have a daughter who is her own person and is following her own path who doesn't need to hear or see that stuff all the time. Really, other than things being a little more hectic, life is about the same."

So Ken gets up five mornings a week and heads over to Filtech, where he has a production job for a firm that makes oil and air filters for the auto industry. Brenda spends some days as a physical education instructor at Bluffton University, some as a substitute teacher at Findlay High School, and others as an instructor at the YMCA, where she is on the board of directors. Carlee, who stands 6 feet, goes to school and plays volleyball and basketball.

"It's sort of funny at school with a lot of kids walking around with Ben's jersey on," Carlee said.

"And away games are different. People are always yelling, 'Where's Ben?' or 'Go Steelers.' In a way, I'm not surprised what he's done because he has always loved to prove himself. But I really never thought he'd be playing in the NFL. It's kind of weird watching a game on TV and realizing, 'Hey, that's Ben.' "

Ben Roethlisberger has never been, in Brenda's words, a Golden Child.

"He struggled through things like everybody else," she said.

Those struggles began at an early age, when his mother decided she wasn't cut out to be a parent and left Ken and their 2-year-old son. Ken raised Ben by himself until meeting Brenda at the YMCA in Van Wert.

She had played, and later coached, small-college basketball in Kansas and Missouri. He had been a two-sport athlete at Georgia Tech, a quarterback on the football team before suffering a knee injury, and a pitcher in baseball.

They met, so to speak, during a lunchtime, pickup basketball game at the YMCA. She cut across the lane, knocked Ken on his rear end, and it was love at first sight. They were married six months later.

Four years later, Ben's birth mother was on her way to pick him up for a weekend visitation. She was driving near Lima when her car was broadsided. She died shortly after from her injuries.

Brenda has been "mom" ever since.

Ben played on a middle school football team that never won a game. When he reported to Findlay High for ninth grade, the mayor's son was the quarterback and Ben was a little-used wide receiver on the freshman team. He finally got a shot at the quarterback position, threw four touchdown passes in his first game, and the team didn't lose again that season.

It is well documented that he was moved back to wide receiver for his junior season before shattering records at quarterback as a senior, the only year he started at that position on the Trojans' varsity. Perhaps because of that lack of experience, the big colleges expressed interest in him late and Ben already had committed to Miami of Ohio.

And perhaps that's why a few NFL teams shied away, and he was still available when Pittsburgh selected 11th in the first round of the 2004 draft.

"Ben has been through a lot," Brenda said, "and I think that's one of the reasons he has become so popular. He's shown courage and made something of himself. The Lord put him in the right situation every time, and he blossomed."

Ken Roethlisberger was asked to think back to the April, 2004, draft. He rubbed his hand over his face and said, "Geez, it seems like three years ago. So much has happened, it's truly amazing."

No one, least of all the players and their families, ever knows for sure what is going to happen in the draft.

The Roethlisbergers had been led to believe the New York Giants were interested, but the Giants took Phillip Rivers of North Carolina State, then dangled him in a trade with San Diego to obtain No. 1 pick Eli Manning.

Terry Hoeppner, then the Miami coach, was seated at a table with Ben and his family and showed considerable disgust after the Giants' pick.

Word spread that the Browns were interested, but they took tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr.

There were a lot of long faces at the table by that time.

"But I remember looking across at Ben and he was very calm," Ken said. "He was just taking it all in. I think he already knew that wherever he went he would make it work. And when the Steelers, who really hadn't indicated a need at quarterback, took him, I know his attitude was, 'I'll show them what I can do and make those other teams sorry they didn't take me.' "

And that, of course, is exactly what Ben Roethlisberger has done.

He has always been a cut above. In Little League, he pitched and played shortstop. When he started playing basketball, he was the point guard.

"Those are the positions where they put the athletes," Ken said. "I always knew he was good and I always had confidence in him, but you just never know what the next level will bring. And the NFL, well, there's no higher level. So you always wonder if it's going to work out.

"It's funny. Ben's agent, Leigh Steinberg, reminded me the other day of the disappointment on everybody's face as the draft progressed. I guess things work out."

Said Brenda: "Ben always just wanted to play. He just wanted to be given a chance to make a difference. You look back at all the situations he faced through the years and see how it all has come together for him now. We pinch ourselves a lot."

They can pinch themselves today at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, watching Ben start his first NFL playoff game.

But first, they met the newest member of the family. Ken and Brenda spent last night at Ben's place in Pittsburgh, baby-sitting.

"Ben's nickname with his teammates growing up was Rotty," Ken said.

"He even had a stuffed Rottweiler. So he just bought his first dog, and that's what he got. He had him flown in from Germany and named him Zeus."

"I'm so excited, I get to see my grand-puppy for the first time," Brenda said Thursday night.

And is she excited about the game?

"Well sure," Brenda said. "That too."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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