American Football: Rookie who put mettle into Steelers ready to pass into history

Ben Roethlisberger will enter the record books if he leads Pittsburgh to Super Bowl XXXIX tomorrow. A humble hero intrigues Nick Halling

No rookie quarterback has ever guided his team to a Super Bowl, but then again, no rookie quarterback has ever had quite the impact of Ben Roethlisberger, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, this season.

No rookie quarterback has ever guided his team to a Super Bowl, but then again, no rookie quarterback has ever had quite the impact of Ben Roethlisberger, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, this season.

Tomorrow night, Roethlisberger and his side face the daunting might of the New England Patriots, the defending champions who befuddled and bamboozled Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts so comprehensively last week.

Victory will assure the Steelers a place in the championship game, and Roethlisberger a page in the game's history.

It was not expected to happen this way. Roethlisberger, drafted from the University of Miami (Ohio), was supposed to watch the veteran Tommy Maddox, while learning the intricacies of life in the NFL. However, in the second game of the season, against the Baltimore Ravens, Maddox was injured, and the 22-year-old from the small town of Findlay, Ohio, was pressed into service.

The Steelers lost that match, but since then, they have embarked on an extraordinary run of 15 consecutive wins, to put themselves within sight of Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville on 6 February. In a matter of months Roethlisberger has become a household name. Pittsburgh restaurants name dishes after him; his game-shirt was the league's top seller in December; he is in demand as a late-night talk show guest, and is coveted by major advertisers looking to promote their wares.

If he should continue to build on his already remarkable story, and lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl triumph, his market value could even overhaul that of the game's other emerging talent, Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons. Coincidentally, Vick will also be taking aim at the championship game tomorrow, when his side meet the Philadelphia Eagles.

Roethlisberger, while not capable of the thrilling playmaking commonly associated with the dazzling Vick, possesses similar personal qualities to the engaging young man from Georgia, and it is not hard to see why corporate America is so excited by his market potential.

"He's got that combination of humility, athleticism and charm that advertisers are looking for," said the sports agent Nova Lanktree. "He is a superstar in the making." Throughout, he has remained humble, not letting his unparalleled success go to his head. "I think as I become more comfortable, I can be myself more," he said. "But I am a rookie. I remember where I came from. I have to stay grounded and focused."

It is this poise both on and off the field that has so impressed his colleagues. The running back Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh's elder statesman, observed: "If the guy was arrogant, he would disconnect from his team-mates. It tells you how he has been raised and what type of person he is. All of us appreciate that."

The art of quarterbacking takes years to master. In this debut campaign, however, Roethlisberger has broken the rookie records for completion percentage and passer rating set by Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins. Even Marino, though, could not take his team to the big game in his first season.

"He is the best prospect I have seen in 10 or 15 years," said the Dallas coach, Bill Parcells, after Roethlisberger rallied the Steelers to a late win in Dallas in October. "The only guy I ever saw come in and play like he is playing is Dan Marino."

"He's not shy when it comes to believing his own ability," said the former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, now a television analyst. "He has a nice, confident air about him. Nothing he has done surprises me." Now, though, the fairy tale may be about to end. Roethlisberger was dreadful in last week's play-off win over the New York Jets. On another day, his two-interception performance could have resulted in defeat. "It was my fault. I did everything I could to lose the game," he admitted. The Steelers survived the youngster's travails, but will not be so fortunate against New England.

No team confuses opposing quarterbacks as mercilessly as the Patriots, who thrive on forcing errors. It is Roethlisberger's most daunting challenge to date. "I definitely can't make any mistakes," he said. "One mistake is too many. I can't play like a rookie or we will definitely lose." In the game against the Jets, he wore gloves to protect himself from the wind-chill at a freezing Heinz Field. Tomorrow, even though blizzards have been forecast, and the elements will be even more ferocious, he has decided to dispense with them. How appropriate: any engagement with the Patriots should be approached as a fistfight.

It will be a white-knuckle ride, and the poise and self-belief evident throughout his unlikely odyssey will be vital weapons tomorrow. The experts reckon New England will leave Pittsburgh's playmaker with Super Bowl nightmares, but Roethlisberger is keeping his focus. "If I'm dreaming, I don't want to wake up," he said. "I want to keep this thing going."

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