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Ben Roethlisberger’s final home game symbolized grit, survival that marked his brilliant career

When it was over, Ben Roethlisberger took a victory lap.

No, Big Ben isn’t riding off into the sunset with a Super Bowl triumph and his final game at Heinz Field wasn’t exactly a vintage performance.

But it was fitting, nonetheless.

Roethlisberger left Heinz Field as a winner. It wasn’t pretty, neat or particularly crisp. He completed 24 of 46 of his passes and was frustrated repeatedly when stalled drives resulted in field goals rather than touchdowns. Yet the final, emotional performance before the home crowd was also rather symbolic of his 18 years as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.

For so many years, Roethlisberger was all about grit, perseverance, survival. That’s why he is an icon so endeared in a city that bleeds black and gold. The survival theme, though, can also be applied to the off-the-field incidents in his early years – including multiple sexual assault allegations and a motorcycle accident that occurred while he rode without a helmet – that threatened to derail his career.

Roethlisberger’s special send-off from the football stage, however, was the result of a Hall of Fame-credentialed résumé that includes two Super Bowl victories. As T.J. Watt put it, it was electric. There were standing Os, homemade signs, twirling of the Terrible Towels and then some, all to pay homage to No. 7.

As fate had it, the Steelers capped the 26-14 win against the Cleveland Browns with Roethlisberger taking a knee in the victory formation. From there, he hugged teammates and opponents. By the time Roethlisberger, 39, conducted a postgame interview on the field with ESPN’s Lisa Salters, he had tears in his eyes. Then it was off to slap palms with fans in the stands as he walked around the field, followed by a family moment as Roethlisberger’s wife and three children greeted him on the field.

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Ben Roethlisberger waves to fans after defeating the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger waves to fans after defeating the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.

If you’re not leaving the game in a hail of confetti after winning a Super Bowl, ala Roethlisberger’s childhood idol, John Elway, or like his pal and former teammate, Jerome Bettis, the scene on Monday night was the next best thing.

As a bonus, the Steelers (8-7-1) are still alive in the NFL playoff race. To get in, Pittsburgh must win at Baltimore on Sunday while the lowly Jaguars spring a monumental upset against the Colts.

In other words, at least Roethlisberger & Co. were not eliminated on their home turf on his special night.

Clinging to the hope of squeaking into an expanded playoff field was hardly the way Roethlisberger envisioned it when he came back this season on the proverbial year-to-year plan. When I visited with him during training camp in late July, he sounded much like he did in previous years. He thought the Steelers (who started 11-0 in 2020, before fading down the stretch) could put it together for another Super Bowl run. He thought he had something left.

But all of that proved to be quite the illusion. Even with the presence of Watt, the likely NFL defensive player of the year, and the addition of rookie running back Najee Harris – the real stars on Monday night – Roethlisberger’s magic ran out.

Oh, he tried mightily to tap his old flow. But extending plays, Roethlisberger’s signature for so many years, isn’t so much his thing anymore. Father Time tends to do that to football bodies. The explosive passing games, which the Steelers rode for years, became few and far between.

There’s no shame. The man has played 18 seasons and has had an assortment of injuries to prove it. He lasted longer than most, even more impressive when considering his rugged style.

It was too bad for Roethlisberger that the Steelers offensive line has been in such flux in recent years. He could have used better protection and a running game powered by the men up front.

It’s striking how the rhythm changed over the course of Roethlisberger’s career. When injuries thrust him into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2004, he was surrounded by a team led by an airtight defense and bolstered by power rushing. The team carried him. He won all 13 regular-season starts as a rookie before losing in the AFC title game.

Sure, the game has changed tremendously since Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign, with the need to keep up with the scoring fests armed by the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. But balance still matters. After so many years of riding Roethlisberger’s arm, the Steelers stood a better chance by incorporating a bit of their old-school formula.

As Monday night showed — when Harris ran for 188 yards and ripped off a 37-yard TD run to seal the win and Watt collected four sacks to raise his NFL high to 21 ½ — the Steelers could occasionally win when the quarterback throws for only 123 yards.

Roethlisberger gave the game of football his all and the game took it. To the last drop.

In a football sense, there’s not a hint of shame here. Roethlisberger, who came out of Miami (Ohio) in the Mid-American Conference to star on the biggest stage, exceeded expectations. The third quarterback selected in the 2004 draft after Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, he was the last one standing and the one who quarterbacked his team to the Super Bowl three times.

And now he’s the one who was able to say farewell in style with a curtain call.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger leaves Heinz Field winner in fitting end

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