By Matt Florjancic
Special athletes command attention and respect on and off the field of play.
Though many try to predict who will become a star by clocking 40-yard dash times, repetitions on the bench press and examining game film, uncommon gifts possessed by certain players cannot be quantified.
In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he did not start at quarterback until he was a senior at Findlay High School, located 47 miles south of Toledo.
“In high school, you don’t know who’s going to be a pro yet,” said Cliff Hite, Roethlisberger’s high school coach. “You still have kids that are 5-7 and weight 145 pounds that will give you every ounce of energy and everything that you could possibly desire.
“In Ben’s case, you knew Ben was going to be special.”
While Roethlisberger was leading his high school team to the regional semifinals of the 1999 OHSAA Division I playoffs, Hite watched on from the sidelines in amazement.
“For me to think I had anything to do with Ben other than playing him would be really kind of ridiculous,” Hite said. “He was that good. When Ben was a senior, we thought we were now ready to throw the ball a million times. The school record for career touchdown passes was 27, which my son had. Ben threw 54 in one season. The yards (record) for a season was 1,772. Ben threw for 4,100. The most touchdown passes in a game was three. He threw eight in one game.
Roethlisberger took his gift from Findlay to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. As a RedHawk, Roethlisberger broke 10 single-game, season and career records. He also tied the mark for most touchdown passes in a game with five against Ohio University in 2001 and the University of Central Florida in 2003.
In three years at Miami, Roethlisberger threw for 10,829 yards, including a Mid-American Conference record 4,486 yards as a junior before declaring for the NFL Draft.
Then-Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher made Roethlisberger the 11th pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He went on to be named the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and helped the Steelers reach the AFC Championship Game.
Though Hite turned in his whistle for a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives, he still enjoys seeing Roethlisberger perform at a high level.
“When the announcers would go, ‘How did he do that?’ I would snicker and say, ‘I don’t know how he did it, but I’ve seen that too,’” Hite said. “[Ben] said when he was in our program his seventh grade and eighth grade teams were so bad that he had to scramble for his life and throw on the run. It might have been out of necessity. I feel honored and privileged that somebody I coached is now going to be in two Super Bowls.”
While the city of Findlay is closer to Cleveland than Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger’s career with the Steelers has created an interesting quandary for some football fans. There are those who line up in support of Ben, while others, who cheer for the Cleveland Browns, cringe at the sight of black and gold.
“It has changed Findlay in that you see Steelers jackets and Roethlisberger jerseys,” Hite said. “People paint their sheds, put Ben on them and No. 7. To some people in Findlay, that doesn’t go over well still.”
As Roethlisberger and the Steelers make their final preparations for Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals, Hite is going about his business in the state House of Representatives. Though he will not be in Tampa Bay, Hite will have an eye on his former quarterback during the game.
“As a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, I am not allowed to accept any kind of gift that would be like tickets to ballgames,” Hite said. “I’d really rather watch it at home. I get to see the commercials and I don’t have to pay to travel all the way down there and back. I may regret that I didn’t see him in a Super Bowl in person, but I think I’m going to have another chance. I don’t think this is his last one.”
Matt Florjancic currently works as a freelance reporter and sports announcer for WOBL and WDLW Radio.