FINDLAY, Ohio — A leafy maple dominates the frontyard of Ben Roethlisberger's boyhood home, where his parents and sister still live. The tree towers over the family's single-story house, its branches forming a ladder that Roethlisberger climbed countless times as a child.
Long before he started putting down roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers, setting an NFL record by becoming the first rookie quarterback to start his career 8-0, Roethlisberger dreamed of working for the FBI. He once used a rope to fashion a makeshift zip line from the top of the tree to his porch, hoping to swoop gracefully out of the sky. Things didn't quite work out.
"I was up in the tree and I had the pulley and everything ready to go," he said. "The thing was, it was a really steep angle. I felt the weight and everything felt good to go. I kind of slid out of the tree. I got about three feet and the pillar on our porch ripped out. I hit the ground, the pillar hit the ground, and my friend was dying laughing."
A decade later, Roethlisberger is a lot of things: a runaway rookie-of-the-year candidate, the poised leader of a 9-1 Super Bowl contender, and a fresh-faced, 6-foot-5 marketing gold mine whose No. 7 jersey is already among the NFL's hottest sellers.
But secret-agent material he is not.
"He can't go anywhere without being mobbed," said his mother, Brenda. "Everybody wants an autograph or to say hello or give their best wishes. When he's home, we do a lot of the shopping for him so he doesn't have to go out."
Funny, Roethlisberger didn't feel like much of a star last May when he sat offstage with his parents at Madison Square Garden, waiting for his name to be called. He and several other prospective top selections had been invited to attend the NFL draft. He agreed, confiding to his friends and family he just didn't want to be the last of the group to be picked. He was.
Before that, there had been daily workouts in Newport Beach with agent Leigh Steinberg's other rookie clients. The group, mostly quarterbacks and defensive linemen, met at a park every morning to go through drills with specialized trainers and position coaches. They were wide-eyed kids, hopeful, uncertain and utterly anonymous to just about anyone strolling by.
Seven months later, Roethlisberger is a star, a 22-year-old from Miami of Ohio with his own action figure -- joining Eli Manning as the only rookies in the "Gladiators of the Gridiron" set -- and enough articles for dozens of scrapbooks, among them a New York Post back page headlined "Man of Steel" and a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoon featuring him superimposed on the city's skyline over the caption "Roethlisburgh."
"We have been deluged by endorsement offers," said Steinberg, whose client list has included quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Drew Bledsoe and Steve Bartkowski. "They're for soft drinks, water, candy, energy bars, a 'Big Ben' watch, automotive, vitamins and supplements. But the engine that pulls the train is his steady development as a quarterback.... I've been through this with a number of outstanding quarterbacks. The difference is, no one had this instantaneous success."
Fifteen years before Roethlisberger neared the NFL mountaintop, he discovered one of life's greatest depths.
Brenda Roethlisberger, you see, is not Ben's biological mother. His parents divorced when he was 2, and although his father married Brenda two years later, Ben spent every other weekend with his mother, Ida. One day, when he was 8, he and Brenda waited in front of their home for Ida to pick him up. She never arrived.
"Brenda and I were actually outside, shooting baskets, waiting for her," Ben said. "We shot baskets for a long time, no big deal. Maybe she was running late. Then we started throwing the football. We started playing all these sports trying to pass the time."
Afternoon turned to evening. Still, no Ida.
"It started getting dark and we were wondering what was going on," he said. "My dad got home, we went inside. To the best of what I remember, I remember my dad being on the phone -- he got a call from my grandmother, my real mom's parents. She said that my mom had been in a [car] wreck and it was pretty bad and that they would call back soon.
"Then the next thing I remember about the whole situation was, my grandparents decided to pull the plug because she was going to be a vegetable. So they actually decided to pull the plug and make it easier on her."
Roethlisberger seldom discusses the death of his mother. He never talked about it with Steinberg, Steeler owner Dan Rooney, or even his basketball coach at Findlay High, Jerry Snodgrass, a close friend of the family.
Ken and Brenda Roethlisberger gave brief details of the situation recently, but asked that Ben decide how much or little they shared about the tragedy.