For the past few years, uncertainty has swirled around Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With two Super Bowl rings, and having built a solid case for the Hall of Fame, he routinely has flirted with retirement.
But after his 2019 season was cut short by a serious elbow injury, the type that would end most careers, Roethlisberger has roared back with relentless determination.
“I just didn’t feel like I was done,” Roethlisberger, 38, told The Times by phone this week. “It would have been a lot easier to hang it up. But I just really felt like I had something left. I really want to win another Super Bowl, and have my kids be out there to appreciate it with me.”
He said the biggest driving factor was the team, and specifically the outstanding offensive line and defense the Steelers have built. Pittsburgh, which plays host to the Houston Texans on Sunday, is 2-0 with victories over the New York Giants and Denver Broncos.
“I told the guys before the first game, `I didn’t have to have the surgery. I chose to have it because of you guys, because of the team,’” he said.
That surgery was to reconnect flexor tendons in his throwing arm, which had weakened over the course of his career and finally ruptured when he was throwing against Seattle in Week 2 last season. Famous for his toughness and high pain threshold, Roethlisberger first shook his hand as if to wake it up, then looked like a wounded animal as he clutched his arm and wincingly walked off the field.
Done for the season.
There are five flexor tendons that run down the underside of the forearm, from the elbow to the hand, and they are integral to moving the fingers and grip, as well as bending and turning the wrist. In Roethlisberger’s case, three of the five tendons tore loose from the bone.
Dr. Neal ElAttrache, world-renowned orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, rebuilt his elbow and — along with Steelers doctor James Bradley — helped oversee the quarterback’s tenuous, year-long recovery.
“What the injury and recovery did was it turned the clock back on Ben’s competitive attitude,” said ElAttrache, team physician for the Rams and Dodgers. “That was the biggest thing. He was going to will this to happen. Failure was not anywhere in his mind.”
Roethlisberger’s journey is chronicled in a four-part YouTube series called “Bigger Than Ben,” which goes behind the scenes with the quarterback — along with his wife, Ashley, and their children — and shows the patience and persistence required to overcome a major injury, especially in the twilight of a player’s career.
“We certainly couldn’t afford any setback,” said Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger’s agent. “The critical part of it was that he could not rush back and risk pulling off those anchors. That would have been devastating. It would be the end.”
There were some scares. At least twice, Roethlisberger feared he disrupted his recovery, once while climbing a ladder into a deer stand, and another time when trick-or-treating with his kids.
“It was Halloween and I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my wife’s Suburban,” Roethlisberger explained. “I was carrying the candy at the end of the night, and I went to reach back to set the bucket on the floor between the seats. It wasn’t like it was heavy. I reached back and kind of felt this twinge in my elbow.
“My wife saw my face and was like, ‘What happened?’ I told her, but I didn’t want to startle the kids. We basically went home, put the kids to bed, and FaceTimed Neal as soon as we could.”
The triumphs were small and required patience. All the while, Roethlisberger allowed his beard to grow. He vowed not to shave until he could throw an NFL pass. After a few months, his face looked like an overgrown Chia Pet.
“I remember the steps of him saying, ‘Hey, I can grab the milk carton, a gallon of milk. I can hold that pretty easily,’ ” Tollner said. “Or, he’s an avid hunter, so he wanted to be able to pull his bow back, that type of stuff.”
The first time Roethlisberger threw a football again was Feb. 21 in Los Angeles, and ElAttrache was on the receiving end.
“It was a stupid little pass down in physical therapy,” the doctor said. “And he tossed it to me. I said, ‘Listen, I want to be the first one to catch a ball.’ For a guy like Ben who’s been to the Super Bowl and has been as good as it gets in competition, to do that may have sounded silly. But he even seemed happy.”
By the spring, Roethlisberger was slinging passes across the driveway turnaround in front of his sprawling Pittsburgh mansion. His trainers used footballs implanted with chips so they could measure the spin rate, then compared those numbers to his performance in games. They were essentially the same.
Since his rookie season in 2004 he had a twinge of pain in his throwing elbow, although he’s not sure how that came about. But now even that pain was gone.
“To me, it was almost like, ‘Man, he took that pain away,’ ” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve always dealt with it, and it always kind of just nagged at me. It’s nice to go through a practice, go through a game, do things around the house, pick things up, dry your hair off with a towel, and not feel that pain.”
There’s something else about Roethlisberger that’s exceedingly rare, his agent said. He can take long breaks from throwing a football and it doesn’t seem to affect his ability to sling it when he starts throwing again.
“As far as I know, the only two elite throwers in the NFL that do not throw much in the offseason are Ben and Aaron Rodgers,” Tollner said, referring to the Green Bay Packers star. “Every other quarterback in the league would just shake their head at that because those two guys can virtually go months without throwing a football, and when they grab a ball again, it comes out the exact same way.”
That’s not to say Roethlisberger was perfectly at ease in the minutes before the Steelers faced the Giants in a “Monday Night Football” opener. He told CBS analyst Rich Gannon he had butterflies before that game.
“Here’s a guy who’s 38 years old, who’s going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback, and it just goes to show you we’re all human,” said Gannon, who earned NFL most valuable player honors as quarterback of the Oakland Raiders. “He hadn’t done it, and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘OK, just go out there and do it.’ By the way, he’s got the youngest receiving corps in football. They haven’t done it before, and he has no idea where they’re going to be.”
Roethlisberger, who missed the final 14 games last season, threw three touchdown passes in his first game back, leading the Steelers to a 26-16 victory.
In Week 2, a 26-21 victory over the Broncos, Roethlisberger threw a deep pass to rookie Chase Claypool that resulted in an 84-yard touchdown, as well as a 28-yard scoring strike to Diontae Johnson.
“Honestly, I was blown away,” said Gannon, who was working the game. “That throw to Johnson was big time. That was really the indicator to me. The long ball to the kid from Notre Dame [Claypool] and the throw to the back corner to Johnson, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ve seen enough. This guy is back.’ ”
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, an ESPN analyst, said Roethlisberger’s decisiveness in his return — juxtaposed with all the speculation about retirement in recent years — was a much-needed boost to the franchise.
“For him to come back, to fight through the injury and have a purpose, is really what this team has needed,” Young said. “For Ben to be emotionally all in. I mean, I’m sure he has been. But there’s been this little perception that he’s indecisive, like, ‘I’m not sure I really want to do it.’
“And throughout his comeback he’s been very decisive, like, ‘I’m doing it. I’m all in. I can’t wait. I feel like a renewed guy.’ ”
So far, that has had an effect in the Pittsburgh locker room … and beyond.
“This could be a Super Bowl team,” Young said. “I know it’s crazy to say. But if Ben is fired up, and everybody catches that feeling. … If Ben’s fired up, and that locker room’s fired up, and the young guys see him, and [coach] Mike Tomlin gets the defense playing great, hey, you’ve got to like that.”