PITTSBURGH — One year ago, Ben Roethlisberger watched an NFL career come to an end first-hand.
After the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field last January, in a pandemic-mandated mostly empty stadium, after an embarrassing and deflating first half, the Steelers’ once-so-promising season ended in a heap.
Minutes after the loss, Roethlisberger sat on the end of the team’s white bench next to center Maurkice Pouncey, knowing that it was likely the final time for Pouncey in a Steelers uniform. The center retired a few weeks later.
There are other ways to retire, and Roethlisberger has seen plenty of them in his NFL career. Jerome Bettis went out on the stage after a Super Bowl win. Troy Polamalu was forced into retirement over the offseason due to his contract. James Harrison went on to play with the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals instead of accepting that his career was over before finally hanging up his shoulder pads.
There are as many ways to end a career as there have been football players.
But it was pretty clear that the way things ended for Pouncey impacted Roethlisberger, then still unsure as to what his future was. That uncertainty continued into 2021, with Roethlisberger operating under a one year contract, and not knowing at the end of it how his body would he feel, if he would want to play another year, and if the team would want him back.
He resolved a good bit of that uncertainty on Thursday, announcing before the game that it would likely be his last at Heinz Field. He didn’t say the retirement word or make any bold proclamations.
But he let the fans know ahead of time that this might be it.
Instead of the quiet moment in a silent stadium between him and Pouncey a year ago, Roethlisberger got a hero’s send off at Heinz Field on Monday night.
The packed crowd serenaded and applauded him from the opening coin toss to the final moments after the victory, as he found himself on that same pieces of bench that he was sitting on a year before.
“I don’t know if it’s the same one,” Roethlisberger said. “I just wanted to sit down and take it in. Just try and absorb every minute of this place because it’s so special, the fans are so special. I wanted to win this game more than anything for them.”
That’s the other big difference between Monday’s raucous rally and last year’s silent night. The Steelers took it to the Browns from the beginning to end, and though it wasn’t a pretty or dominant performance, the Steelers never trailed and kept the fans as a factor throughout.
“It wasn’t pretty, but like I said out on the field, feels like that’s been my style,” Roethlisberger said. “Not pretty but finding a way to win. I think that’s 92 wins here at Heinz Field, and that’s what it’s always been about for a me, is winning football games. This is one more and it’s very special.”
That left the Monday night as singular, special evening. An expression of love between a city and a quarterback, and 63,624 fans.
“I was born in Ohio, but I live here and I’ll always be here,” Roethlisberger said. “These fans and this place, they mean so much to me and my family and always will. I’ve always said that they’re the best fans in all of sports and I’ll stick by that until the day that I die.
“To see all the signs and jerseys and towels, and to hear them cheer for me coming out of the tunnel, all that stuff, I don’t know that I’ll ever put it into words. I wish I could bottle it and have it forever. But I will in here and in my mind.”