Ben Roethlisberger stood behind a wood podium wearing a dark suit and a blue-and-gold tie, the colors of the Findlay (Ohio) High School Trojans. He acknowledged familiar faces in the crowd, stressed the importance of dreaming big and said thank you for his induction into the Hancock Sports Hall of Fame (Hancock County, Ohio).
And that was it. But Roethlisberger is known to audible. Before taking his seat, he called a play that took seven years to draw up.
“It was like, literally, stunned silence,” said Jerry Snodgrass, Roethlisberger’s basketball coach at Findlay High. “He almost walked away from the microphone, I’m done, and then it was like, ‘Wait, I’ve got something I’ve got to say.’”
On April 22, Roethlisberger and Findlay bridged a divide that once seemed too wide to connect. Roethlisberger admitted to the crowd that he was hurt and resentful over comments in the media from locals during the quarterback’s career maelstrom in 2010.
Roethlisberger apologized for letting the opinions of a few “cloud the love that you have always had for me.” Then came the money quote: “I’m so proud and humbled and honored to call Findlay my home and where I grew up.”
This was an off-script moment from a private NFL star during a reflective offseason.
“As you get older, you start to really understand and appreciate things,” Roethlisberger, 35, recently told ESPN when recalling the past few months. “You need to live to the fullest, smile more and really enjoy life.”
A Super Bowl winner by age 23, Roethlisberger became one of the greatest success stories out of Findlay, a northwestern Ohio community of about 41,000.
That story took a serious turn in 2010, when Roethlisberger faced a sexual assault allegation based on events in a bar in Milledgeville, Georgia. No charges were filed, but Roethlisberger faced a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Roethlisberger publicly apologized for the negative attention he brought to his teammates, coaches and family.
Roethlisberger faced national scrutiny, and some of the most vocal critics came from Findlay. At the time, Roethlisberger called certain things that were said “blatant lies, which is ridiculous from people you played with and think are your friends,” according to The Courier, which is based in Findlay.
Roethlisberger also changed the birthplace in his team bio to “Cory Rawson, Ohio,” the name of a school district nearby.
“[He] just walked away from it,” Snodgrass said. “Pittsburgh became home rather than Findlay becoming home.”
Roethlisberger didn’t totally cut ties, though. He kept a small circle of close friends, including former Findlay basketball players Jason Lane and Brian Beall, who take Roethlisberger bowling or golfing during his occasional visits. Roethlisberger’s cousin, Riley Keller, is a quarterback prospect from nearby Toledo whom Roethlisberger likes to watch play.
Lane reminded Roethlisberger that Findlay still cares about him.
“I would say in six years, I’ve brought him back to town many times, at the bowling alley, golf at [Findlay Country Club], and everyone was so accommodating,” Lane said. “Everyone loved to see him.”
A Hall of Fame induction would crystallize that sentiment. Lane and a few others asked the Hancock Sports Hall of Fame, which is in Findlay, why Roethlisberger hadn’t earned more than a nomination. Officials responded that they didn’t have reliable contact info for him, and inducting without confirmation of attendance might be difficult.
Roethlisberger’s friends reached out to gauge interest, and Hancock County made what Roethlisberger called a “no-brainer” offer — the chance to enter with his sister, Carlee, a standout athlete at Findlay High who played basketball at Oklahoma.
“There’s always been a lot of love from Findlay. That’s why I wanted to show my love for them,” he said.
Even before the event, Hall of Fame board member Pat Garlock said she sensed that Roethlisberger was ready to make amends, noting that he is a father of three now and the timing felt right.
Findlay created a Roethlisberger-themed weekend. Before the ceremony, Roethlisberger stopped by Dietsch Brothers ice cream parlor to dip cones for customers. The quarterback helped unveil Roethlisberger Field for youth football in the area. He made a donation for field renovations.
Many kids attended the unveiling, and Roethlisberger invited everyone to shoot hoops in the nearby gym. About 30 kids played Roethlisberger in a game of knockout in which Big Ben “was talking some [friendly] smack,” Lane said.
“You never change the opinion of some people. That’s the way it goes, no matter what you do,” Roethlisberger said. “So if there’s anybody who was on the fence … we were able to let some people know I really do care and that it’s not above me to say sorry, you know.”
Friends considered Roethlisberger’s message a positive step, with Snodgrass hearing from many others in town who appreciated the gesture. The crowd of about 300 gave an ovation to Roethlisberger, who hugged his family after speaking.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was amazing to be a part of,” Lane said.
That Roethlisberger reconciled with Findlay in this particular offseason doesn’t seem like coincidence. Roethlisberger spent a few months contemplating retirement; friends say the process was very real because of his deep desire to walk away from the game healthy. In March, Roethlisberger gave his Christian testimony at Ignite men’s conference at Liberty University, addressing an estimated 7,000-plus people. He has been in a pensive state.
Whether on a practice field or in a banquet hall, Roethlisberger knows his words have power.
“You feel like you’ve got an amazing platform to speak to share my message, my testimony, whatever it may be,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s fun to be able to have the opportunity to do that.”
Many in Findlay asked Roethlisberger how long he planned to play, to which Roethlisberger said he won’t look past this season. He hasn’t committed to 2018.
He also gets those questions in Pittsburgh, which Roethlisberger considers his home. Roethlisberger said a reason for returning for a 14th season is playing for Pittsburgh fans who appreciate his “ugly football.”
There’s no doubt about where he developed that style. His bio for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2017 season will reflect it.
“I think everybody [in Findlay] really came to grips with it all,” Snodgrass said. “Some might have said it’s about time. That would probably be the worst of it. But it put everything to rest. I couldn’t have been prouder of him to do that.”