By RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
PITTSBURGH A lengthy Hail Mary pass from Heinz Field, where Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reports for work on Sundays, there is a monster hoagie named in his honor.
The 'Roethlisburger' isn't your typical, tasty sandwich. It is intimidating.
It weighs almost a pound and comes on a foot-long bun and is stuffed with ground beef, sausage, scrambled eggs, grilled onions, lettuce and American cheese.
The price for No. 7's namesake sub at Peppi's on the city's North Side?
You guessed it $7.
The sandwich is every bit as popular as Roethlisberger's jersey, which was the second-best seller among all NFL players through September.
It is way too early to call Big Ben a superstar in just his second season, but the 23-year-old multi-millionaire's popularity has soared as high as the 841-foot U.S. Steel Tower.
'He's like a rock star,' wide receiver Hines Ward said.
Because of all the hoopla, Roethlisberger has been forced to sing a different tune.
There is no such thing as going to the movies, unless he goes after dark and leaves early.
Any time he maneuvers his Harley up and down the surrounding hills, everybody knows who he is.
After all, when you're 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, there aren't many places you can hide.
Roethlisberger even has a hard time grabbing a bite to eat without getting devoured by a horde of Steelers fans.
'When we go out to dinner, before he even gets to taste his food, there are people practically hanging all over him, wanting an autograph,' said running back Verron Haynes, who is Roethlisberger's roommate in training camp and on the road. 'But Ben is very patient. He handles it very well, especially the kids. He takes care of them.'
Roethlisberger, the boy from Findlay who scripted the greatest season ever for a rookie quarterback last year, has tried his best to stay grounded in this football-crazed city.
'It is tough when you lose your privacy, or you don't have much of it anymore,' he said. 'You just take it the best you can and try to deal with it. Sometimes it can get to you. But the big thing you have to remember is that so many eyes are looking at you, and you can only make one first impression.'
Roethlisberger never expected to be thrust into the spotlight so quickly.
He figured he would have to wait his turn at quarterback, just as he had at Findlay High School, where he was a receiver until his senior year in 1999, when he was named The Blade's player of the year.
And just as he had at Miami (Ohio), where he redshirted as a freshman before becoming a three-year starter and enjoying a record-setting career.
Roethlisberger bypassed his senior year of college to enter the 2004 NFL draft. He was selected in the first round, the 11th player taken overall.
Two quarterbacks were taken ahead of him Eli Manning went No. 1 to the New York Giants and Philip Rivers No. 4 to the San Diego Chargers after the two teams traded picks but the Steelers liked Roethlisberger the best.
'We had Ben rated the highest of all three,' offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. 'We definitely liked him. We had a good feel for him and how he fit into our offense.'
What the Steelers didn't realize was just how fast Roethlisberger would be in charge of it.
A month after backup quarterback Charlie Batch went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, starter Tommy Maddox's right elbow was bashed by the Baltimore Ravens in the second regular- season game.
That opened the door for Roethlisberger, who led Pittsburgh to two second-half touchdowns in a 30-13 loss.
'We drafted him for the future, but nobody thought the future would be in Week 2,' running back Jerome Bettis said.
Not everyone was impressed with the raw rookie as he prepared to make his first start in the third game against the Miami Dolphins.
'Do you want to go to work with some little, young kid who's just out of college?' All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said.
Thirteen starts and 13 wins later, Faneca became a believer and bandwagon jumper.
'The year he had was pretty amazing,' he said.
Roethlisberger, armed with a $9 million signing bonus and a six-year contract that could be worth as much as $40 million, with bonuses and incentives, was the first quarterback in NFL history to compile a 13-0 record in the regular season.
He also was named the Associated Press NFL offensive rookie of the year, and broke Hall of Famer Dan Marino's rec-ords for a rookie quarterback, for both completion percentage (66.4 percent) and passer rating (98.1). Although the Steelers suffered a disappointing home loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, Roethlisberger was the most-talked-about quarterback in this town since Terry Bradshaw.
'He had a great season,' Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. 'It was very, very good. We've had quarterbacks here that have done very well in the past, like Bradshaw. But I can't think of many rookies who have ever had a better year than Ben did.'
Roethlisberger's rookie year definitely was one for the ages. But Jack Ham, the Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker and a color analyst on NFL games for Westwood One/CBS Radio, said it's unfair to compare Roethlisberger to Bradshaw, who led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s.
'When Bradshaw was a rookie in 1970, he had no weapons around him, and he had a horrible offensive line,' Ham said. 'The timing of Roethlisberger getting drafted couldn't have been better. I know he complained a little about getting drafted late, but I'm sure he would be the first guy to tell you this now this is a very good fit for him.
'He's got a defense out there that's not going to give up a lot of points. He doesn't have to score on every drive. He doesn't have to outscore people by throwing the ball 50 times a game. And he has a good running game.'
Despite his big season, Roethlisberger never allowed himself to get too big-headed.
'Being from the family background I come from, it really helps to have that support base back home in Findlay that I can rely on when maybe things aren't going good, or I need someone to talk to,' he said. 'I always have someone at home I can call and talk to. I think some people probably don't have that, don't have the luxury that I do. I am lucky.'
Whisenhunt said Roethlisberger is very well-rounded.
'He's been nothing but classy since he's been here,' Whisenhunt said. 'He's a level-headed kid who keeps things in perspective.'
Roethlisberger did countless public appearances in the off-season, was chastised for riding his motorcycle without a helmet, and dated LPGA glamour girl Natalie Gulbis, although that relationship has since ended.
He also studied the Steelers playbook and tons of game tape, and struck up a friendship with Marino, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Florida.
'We spent a lot of time in the offseason together playing golf, going to dinner,' Roethlisberger said. 'I talked to him quite a bit. It was good just to be able to do that kind of thing and pick his brain on all the things that a quarterback needs to know.'
Roethlisberger had a rocky preseason, leading to speculation that he might fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump.
He shrugged off such talk, as did coach Bill Cowher.
'There's been a lot of criticism thrown at him, but he's never really wavered at all,' Cowher said. 'He's a very confident young man. I don't think he was bothered by the things that were said and the concerns that a lot of people had, myself included. He'd say, Just relax, coach, we'll be OK.' I said, OK, well show me.''
So far, Roethlisberger has done his part.
The Steelers are 2-1 heading into tomorrow's prime-time matchup against the San Diego Chargers.
'Ben came in last year and didn't really know what was going on, had no clue, and was just basically winging it,' Bettis said. 'And now you see his confidence and a guy who understands the offense. He knows when to make plays now and when not to. That's been impressive to watch.
'He's able to go out and do enough to win football games. That's all you want from your quarterback. You're not asking him to be Superman.'
Roethlisberger is more relaxed under center now than he was a year ago.
'I'm more comfortable with what's going on with the offense and seeing defenses,' he said. 'I'm not so jittery. I'm not so nervous. I just feel more comfortable with the guys around me and they feel more comfortable with me.'
Roethlisberger is 16-2 as Pittsburgh's starting quarterback, including 15-1 in the regular season.
Both of his losses have come against the Patriots 41-27 in last year's AFC title game and 23-20 two weeks ago and two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, whom Roethlisberger calls 'Superman.'
'To me, he's the best quarterback in the NFL, hands down,' Roethlisberger said. 'The things he does, the way he manages a game, manages the offense. It seems like he has a force field around him all the time. It is fun to watch him play.'
Roethlisberger could eventually assume the title 'Man of Steel.'
'Ben is still a young quarterback,' Cowher said. 'He's a very important part of this football team, but just one part of this football team. He's a guy who has a much higher comfort level with this offense than he ever had. Does that mean he won't have tough games? No. He will. But you just don't reach the pinnacle in your second year in this league.'
Roethlisberger knows he has to keep winning in order to remain the toast of the town.
Otherwise, things could turn sour, much the way they did for Kordell Stewart, who was released in February of 2003 after an eight-year stay.
'When you have a lot of success early like Ben did, there's only one way to go, and that's down,' Ward said. 'To sit there and have all the success he's had, he's handling it in a mature way. He's done a great job. I think he has a chance to be real good.
'But he's the fifth quarterback I've had since I've been here. If you start playing bad, this city will turn on you. It happened to Kordell. There was a guy who was on top of the world one week, and run out of town the next.
'When you're not winning games, it all goes back to the quarterback. I think Ben realizes that.'
Roethlisberger is well aware of the pressure that comes with playing the most high-profile position on the field for one of the NFL's most storied franchises.
'He's going to be held at a very high standard,' Cowher said. 'And I've told him, Don't put any undue pressure on yourself. Just continue to grow as a quarterback. Grow as a player.'?'
If Roethlisberger does that, his fame will skyrocket even higher than it is now.
'I want to be the best quarterback that's ever played the game,' he said, matter-of-factly. 'That's my goal. But right now, I'm just trying to be the best I can be.
'I don't consider myself special or any different than anybody else on this team. You have to be one of the guys. You have to remember where you came from. You have to put your teammates, your family and the Good Lord first, and just have fun doing it.
'I know I live in a fishbowl, especially in this town with the way they love their football.'
At times, Roethlisberger is his own worst critic. 'When he has a bad day or a bad game, which isn't very often, you can see it wearing on him,' Haynes said. 'He beats himself up after games. He wants to get better all the time, and when he doesn't, he gets mad.'
Roethlisberger won't be happy until he wins a Super Bowl ring, and neither will the fans.
If Big Ben pulls that off, he might have more than a mouth-watering burger named after him. Next time, it might be a mega-mall.
Contact Blade columnist Ron Musselman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6474.