Just like Chad Pennington a few years earlier, I started hearing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s name linked to the the Steelers as a potential first-round pick, long before the 2004 NFL Draft.
In fact, I remember waking up in the middle of the night in the fall of 2003 and hearing some random national sports talk show host discussing the prospects of Roethlisberger being Pittsburgh’s first first-round quarterback since Mark Malone in the spring of 1980.
The day the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger was a momentous one for the franchise. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire
Of course, at that time, with the Steelers still in the throes of their ’03 campaign, the last thing I cared about was who they’d draft about six months down the road.
- But if you remember that 2003 season, it was one you may want to forget.
Instead of remaining in the ring of Super Bowl contenders, a ring they occupied the previous two seasons, the Steelers started the year 2-6, before finishing with a 6-10 record.
The downside was the 6-10 record. The upside was a rare flirtation with a top-10 selection, as Pittsburgh would pick 11th in that spring’s annual NFL Draft.
Despite Roethlisberger’s name being linked to the Steelers for quite some time, the Miami of Ohio superstar quarterback took a backseat to NC State’s Philip Rivers, who was climbing up the draft boards fast and, thanks in-part to playing his college ball at the same school as head coach Bill Cowher, seemed the likely choice, if he were available, and the team was serious about finding its next great franchise passer.
But by the eve of the draft, River’s stock had risen so high, if he wasn’t selected first overall by the Chargers, he would be taken fourth by the Giants.
Rivers ultimately became a Charger, after initially being drafted by New York, who then made a rather bizarre draft-day trade with San Diego for the rights to Eli Manning, the most coveted quarterback prospect in the draft.
That left Roethlisberger as the only quarterback remaining of the “Big Three” prospects believed to have that truly elite talent, talent that could quickly change the fortunes of a franchise.
But there were still six teams drafting before the Steelers and, besides, other players who represented perhaps more urgent needs such as South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson and Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews were also linked to Pittsburgh by many in the know.
- The first round was held on Saturday back then, and like most Saturdays, I had to work.
I listened to pick after pick on the radio, and I was kind of giddy when I heard that Robinson was drafted by the Texans just one pick before Pittsburgh.
- Who would the Steelers select with the 11th pick?
Would it be Roethlisberger or would the often conservative Bill Cowher go with a safer bet, such as an Andrews?
Before I could hear Pittsburgh’s decision, I was called away for something (the life of a retail manager is one where you’re lucky to enjoy one song on the radio without someone bothering you, let alone an entire draft).
When I returned moments later, I round out Roethlisberger was indeed the pick, and this excitement came over me that I don’t think I had ever experienced following a Steelers draft choice.
- Even at the time, I didn’t know why I was so giddy.
After all, Tommy Maddox had established himself as the team’s starting quarterback not even two seasons earlier, and even after the drafting of Roethlisberger, it was mostly understood that Maddox would remain in that role for at least the ’04 campaign (and be backed up by veteran Charlie Batch), while the rookie watched and learned from the sideline.
In fact, in subsequent days, there were stories of Maddox being very upset about the Roethlisberger pick (“I thought they were going to get me a tackle,” is a quote from Maddox I remember reading during that time).
Anyway, it was a surreal feeling, this joy over a first-round quarterback who, as far as anyone knew at the time, could have turned out to be a major bust (that is if he could even unseat the very determined Maddox).
I had no idea why I was so happy, and for reasons that had to do with my limited VHS options (this was a full year or so before I owned my first DVD player), I popped in Tough Guys, an NFL Films production released in 1989 and hosted by legendary head coach Mike Ditka.
This feature chronicled the careers of some of the toughest guys in NFL history–including Jack Lambert, Jim Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Conrad Dobler and Chargers Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.
That’s right, Fouts was actually included in this group–his story was the last one, in fact–and that was the main reason for popping this tape into my VCR.
- I was just so happy the Steelers drafted a quarterback, I needed to watch highlights of quarterbacks.
In case you don’t know much about Fouts, in addition to being one of the most prolific passers of his day, he was also one of the toughest, as he stood in the pocket and took hit after hit, while delivering pass after pass.
Fouts played with many injuries during his career–including a broken nose suffered right in the middle of a game.
It was ironic that Fouts was my main inspiration for watching this tape that day, because Roethlisberger would go on to build a Hall of Fame career of his own complete with a reputation for physical toughness perhaps unmatched by any quarterback throughout NFL history.
You obviously know the story of Ben Roethlisberger–one that will hopefully continue for a few more seasons (that’s not what this article is about)–and why I was so excited about the drafting of a quarterback by a team that seemingly already had a starting quarterback in place.
There’s just no substitute for that truly elite, franchise quarterback.
As I’ve always said, it doesn’t matter where you rank the truly great quarterbacks of the present, because if your team is lucky enough to have one of them, your team is so far ahead of the game in terms of contending for Super Bowls.
- The Steelers have accomplished so much since the drafting of Ben Roethlisberger 14 years ago.
The 2004 NFL Draft is one that will always have a special place in my heart, as it was the genesis of so many great memories yet to come.