Here's a little story about Ben Roethlisberger, one that hints at the skills required to make the kind of precision passes the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback made in the Super Bowl last Sunday.
It happened a few hours after the divisional playoff victory over San Diego, when Roethlisberger was unwinding at a Pittsburgh pub with a group of family and friends. They were playing the arcade game "2 Minute Drill," the object of which is to throw junior-sized footballs through holes for points over the course of two minutes. There are three holes, with the top being the smallest and most valuable. It takes a pinpoint spiral to squeeze through that one.
On his first try, Roethlisberger set a new record for the machine.
Whump. Whump. Whump. Whump. Pass after pass zipped through the top hole.
On his second try, he broke his own mark. On his third, he scored so many points that the three-digit counter rolled over. Two minutes without a miss.
The whole pub erupted in applause.
"You get kind of competitive when it comes to things like that," Roethlisberger said in a phone interview this week. "I wasn't going to let anybody beat my score. It started with me competing with the guys there. But then it got to the point where, well, let me shoot for the high score. So that was the next competition and I blew it away."
(Roethlisberger, by the way, won't be in the Pro Bowl today, not even as an alternate. It's more evidence voting for that all-star game is a joke, but more on that in a moment.)
Among the things separating him from other quarterbacks are his incredibly skilled hands. Those allow him to zip passes on target, whether he's throwing off his front foot, back foot, twisted the wrong way, or with would-be tacklers dangling off him like Christmas ornaments.
"As a quarterback, especially in the NFL, you can't just drop back every time and throw a regular pass perfect," he said. "There's always going to have to be a different angle you're throwing the ball, someone's rushing you, you've got to drop your arm a little bit and throw through lanes, whatever it might be."
The steel-city grip of his right hand also allows him to execute more complete and convincing pump fakes, the kind that can fool an entire secondary into shifting out of position, as he did in the winning drive against Arizona. Whereas other NFL quarterbacks might flinch a fake, Roethlisberger gets three-quarters of the way through his throwing motion before resetting, the ball crazy-glued in place.
"Any time that you get a little pump fake, the more realistic it is, the more the defenders are going to bite on it. It happened in the Super Bowl on the one to Santonio [Holmes]," he said, referring to the 40-yard catch and carry that set up the winning touchdown. "I pumped on it and everyone came flying up and he was open. I bet it happens at least once a game where you can affect multiple defensive players by doing that."
The biggest knocks on Big Ben -- that he holds onto the ball too long and sometimes takes unnecessary hits -- are also some of his biggest strengths. He's a tough quarterback in a tough city.
"People have their knocks, that's fine," he said. "If I don't hold onto the ball so long, some of those touchdowns don't happen either. Pittsburgh likes me because they say I'm tough, I'm nitty-gritty. I may not be the prettiest quarterback back there but you know what, you get it done."
And it comes back to the hands and the incredible athleticism. His agents, cousins Ryan and Bruce Tollner, have seen it for years. They've spent their lives around top athletes -- Ryan's a former quarterback at California; Bruce's dad, Ted, was USC's football coach -- but they've seen some things from Ben that have left them rubbing their eyes.
They've seen him play as a fill-in in a competitive softball game and, in five at-bats, effortlessly pump five home runs over the fence -- the only five of the game.
They've seen him shoot around with the Phoenix Suns, at the invitation of his buddy Steve Nash, and even beat ex-Suns forward Shawn Marion in a three-point contest.
And they've seen Roethlisberger's epic ping-pong battles with his dad, that ball just a little white blur.
"Anyone that spends any time around Ben ultimately will get frustrated because they'll lose in anything they compete with him in," Ryan Tollner said. "Any little game he comes up with -- which is part of his personality, you'll play games all day long -- he'll win. It's quite humbling."
Martin Nance, a receiver on the Steelers' practice squad and one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets at Miami of Ohio, knows this. He remembers a college game at Colorado State when Roethlisberger scrambled for an eternity -- 15 seconds, later verified by the game footage -- before throwing him a 30-yard strike.