PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger finally started to come back down to earth two days after an emotional victory Monday night in what likely was his last game at Heinz Field.
“You don’t until today probably,” the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback said Wednesday morning. “Tuesday was still pretty special. You get up, and you realize what this week is. It’s Baltimore week. It makes it fun.”
Roethlisberger, who told reporters last week “all signs” pointed to the 26-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns being his last home game, said he was overwhelmed by the number of people who reached out to share messages with him as he prepares for his likely departure from the organization after 18 years as the Steelers’ franchise quarterback.
“Surreal. My family and I just felt so much love, and we felt so thankful for all the fans, former teammates, all the many, many notes that were written on social media, the texts we got, calls,” he said. “It’s really hard to put it into words. Like I said after the game, I wish I could bottle it up and keep it forever. I think one of the most special things about that night is that my kids are old enough to remember it. It was something that I’ll cherish and remember forever and I think they will too. I can’t say enough thank you’s to everyone who made that night so special.”
To Roethlisberger, the win against the Browns was reminiscent of Jerome Bettis’ hometown win in Super Bowl XL, hosted by Detroit, in his final game as a Steeler.
“It was magical what happened Monday night,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m sure Jerome would tell you the same thing. Just the magic of how you can end things. Obviously, we have another game, but speaking on that home game, it was against Cleveland, which is as close to my hometown as you can get. AFC North, a team that we’ve played so many times, at Heinz Field.
“I am so thankful for everybody, all my teammates who poured into it and had a little extra something. I was just so proud and thankful for Naj (Najee Harris) and the way he played and finished that game for us.”
After receiving a long postgame ovation Monday, Roethlisberger met his family in front of the tunnel and hugged his kids and wife before walking arm-in-arm with them off the field.
“For them to know and understand what’s going on is pretty cool,” Roethlisberger said. “My youngest is 5. I don’t remember a lot from when I was 5, but there’s probably one or two things that all of us can remember from when we were really young. I really think and hope this is one of the things. I know the oldest one will, and my daughter will. For them to understand what dad did and to go fight and compete and win and give everything I have, I hope it’s something they understand and will get passed to them as well.”
Before he walked through the tunnel with his family, Roethlisberger circled part of Heinz Field, high-fiving fans and soaking in the electric atmosphere created by fans for his farewell.
This week, though, Roethlisberger isn’t planning the same kind of goodbye to the crowd at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium following his final regular-season game.
“Not unless (Terrell) Suggs wants to go with me,” he said with a laugh.
The Steelers (8-7-1) still have an outside chance to make the playoffs but need to beat the division rival Ravens (8-8) to keep that slim hope alive. Pittsburgh activated six players Wednesday from the reserve/COVID-19 list ahead of the season finale: offensive tackle Zach Banner, linebacker Devin Bush, defensive back Arthur Maulet, running back Anthony McFarland Jr., linebacker Joe Schobert and defensive end Chris Wormley.
To Cam Heyward, the key to avoiding the emotional hangover from Monday’s win is to continue celebrating Roethlisberger.
“After last game, it’s just got to be another farewell tour for Ben,” Heyward said Wednesday. “We’ve got to keep playing. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of physical demands during the week, but we’ve got to be our best on Sunday.”
In a fitting full-circle moment, Roethlisberger’s likely final NFL game will come in the same place where he got his first start in 2004, when he replaced an injured Tommy Maddox. The Steelers lost that Week 2 game 30-13, but it was Roethlisberger’s only regular-season loss as a rookie. He completed 12 of 20 attempts for 176 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“The first game I ever played in the NFL was there,” he said. “And it was Ed Reed and (Haloti) Ngata, Suggs, (Ray) Lewis. You could go down a whole list of guys and so it was never a lot of fun to play those guys. I think it’s a lot of respect, and it’s going to be pretty cool.”