Ben Roethlisberger has been flirting with the idea of retirement for years. This time, however, feels different. For the first time in his nearly two-decade career, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback did more than just hint that the end is near. It may finally be at hand.
"I would say that all signs are pointing to this could be it," Roethlisberger said in the run-up to Monday night's game against Cleveland at Heinz Field.
The 39-year-old offered no guarantees. Guarantees aren't really his thing. Yet the signs have been there for most of his 18th season.
The two-time Super Bowl winner has spoken wistfully at times, solemnly at others during a wildly uneven season for both himself and the franchise he has long defined.
He's made it a point to attempt to stay in the moment, but with Pittsburgh at 7-7-1 and its playoff chances iffy at best, Roethlisberger will stand in the tunnel and jog out onto the Heinz Field as the starter for the home team for the 135th and perhaps final time. The roar will be deafening. The emotions will be high. The stakes will be too.
"I know that I still have it in the tank to go out there this week and in next week and give it everything I have to do everything I can to get us into the postseason," Roethlisberger said. "That’s always the ultimate goal is to win a Lombardi, and that’s still the goal. We’re not out of this thing yet."
No, but it's getting close. Any chance the Steelers have must begin with a victory over Cleveland (7-8), and any chance of that will likely require Roethlisberger to do what he's done so often in front of a sea of yellow Terrible Towels: summon greatness — even if it's just flashes of it — at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.
A look back at some of the home highlights for a player whose life began in Lima, Ohio, nearly 40 years ago, and whose career will likely end there with his bust enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton five years after it ends.
Oct. 3, 2004 — The Steelers selected Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft, but expected him to watch and learn behind veteran Tommy Maddox during his rookie season. Then Maddox went down in September with a right elbow injury. Roethlisberger rode the NFL's top-ranked defense to victory in his first-ever NFL start before making his Heinz Field debut against Cincinnati.
If he was nervous, the 22-year-old didn't show it. Roethlisberger completed 17 of 25 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown pass to Verron Haynes in a 28-17 win.
"You can just see him coming into his own," wide receiver Plaxico Burress said afterward. "He doesn’t let anything bother him, and that’s what I like about him."
The victory would be the second of 15 straight wins for Roethlisberger and the Steelers during a season in which he won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Dec. 20, 2009 — The Steelers and Roethlisberger — already a two-time Super Bowl winner — were in the middle of a lackluster (by their standards) season when Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers came to town a few days before Christmas.
Roethlisberger outdueled Rodgers in a 37-36 thriller, throwing for a team-record 503 yards and three touchdowns, the final one coming on a 19-yard pass to Mike Wallace as time expired.
"We didn’t quit," Roethlisberger said, a mantra that's come to define a player whose 40 fourth-quarter comebacks rank third all time.
Jan. 23, 2011 — Tied at 24 with rival Baltimore in the divisional round of the playoffs late in the fourth quarter and facing third-and-19, Roethlisberger put his trust in then-rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown. Brown pinned a rainbow from Roethlisberger against his helmet for a 58-yard gain that led to the clinching touchdown.
It wouldn't be the last time Brown and Roethlisberger worked together to stun the Ravens.
Oct. 26, 2014 — Known more for his grit than putting up gaudy numbers early in his career, the perception of Roethlisberger began to change during his lengthy and productive partnership with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
With Brown blossoming into one of the NFL's best players as well as second-year back Le'Veon Bell, by 2014 the group known locally as "The Killer Bs" became one of the league's most electric offenses.
During a 51-34 win over Indianapolis in late October, Roethlisberger lit up the Colts for 522 yards and six touchdowns, the high point of a season in which he tied with Drew Brees for the league passing title (4,952 yards).
Dec. 25, 2016 — Just days after the 44th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, Roethlisberger and Brown orchestrated the Immaculate Extension in a Christmas Day win over the Ravens.
Trailing by three with less than 20 seconds to play and no timeouts, Roethlisberger hit Brown at the Baltimore 1. Brown then shrugged off three Ravens defenders to extend the ball across the plane of the goal line to pull out a 31-27 victory to wrap up the AFC North title.
"Give them credit," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said in the aftermath. "Ben got it rolling."
Dec. 10, 2017 — A week after losing linebacker Ryan Shazier to a career-ending spinal injury, Roethlisberger put together a stirring rally from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Ravens.
Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 points in the final 15 minutes, including a 55-yard march in the final 2:25 that led to Chris Boswell's winning 46-yard field goal. Roethlisberger shredded Baltimore for 506 yards and two touchdowns in a 39-38 thriller as the Steelers won their third AFC North title in four years.