- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Jeff Trebac is sometimes sorry he even invented the "Roethlisburger."
Last month, as the owner of Peppi's, Trebec dreamed up the sandwich of ground beef, sausage, scrambled eggs, grilled onions and American cheese. But ever since the sandwich's namesake -- Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- has been torching NFL defenses, the demand for the local hero's hero has made lines longer and the space on the grills in his four shops limited.
"It's out of freaking control," said Trebec, who this week has been selling more than 150 Roethlisburgers a day for $7 apiece, not including tax. Roethlisberger wears number 7. "People are coming all the way from Ohio (his home state) to get them. The problem is, it's a logistical nightmare. It takes more than 10 minutes to make it and we need more grills if this keeps up."
Those who finish the sandwich, which weighs about a pound, can even buy a t-shirt that reads, "I tackled the 'Roethlisburger.'"
Roethlisberger, who was the No. 11 overall pick in this year's draft, is quickly emerging on the radar of the league's most marketable players. Not only has Roethlisberger become the first rookie in the NFL to win his first five starts since Phil Simms accomplished the feat in 1979, but he also won his fifth straight game last Sunday by stopping the New England Patriots' 21-game winning streak. That game was the most watched game on CBS this season, drawing 21.3 million viewers.
"We've been flooded with calls," said his agent Leigh Steinberg. "But it's too quick for us to respond because we want him to concentrate on the field. With Troy Aikman and Steve Young, we waited to do anything major until a few years into their career and it worked out."
Steinberg is also looking for long-term national endorsement deals, which haven't been offered since he was drafted. Local companies have inquired about striking deals to put Roethlisberger's name and likeness on their beverage, food and candy.
Steinberg's client has already earned several hundred thousand dollars from his deal with Campbell's Soup, his shoe apparel deal with Nike and sports card deals.
Roethlisberger's Steelers No. 7 was ranked No. 24 on the NFLShop.com's list of best-selling jerseys in data compiled through sales on Sept. 25. But when more recent retail information is released, sales of Roethlisberger jerseys are expected to inch closer to those of New York Giants rookie and No. 1 overall draft pick Eli Manning, who ranked No. 5 on the jersey list.
Last month, before Roethlisberger and the Steelers vanquished the Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells compared Roethlisberger to Dan Marino, saying Big Ben "is the best (quarterback) prospect I have seen in 10 or 15 years."
Since Parcells opened his mouth and the Steelers continued winning with a 22-year-old at the helm, more than half of the orders for Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys have been for No. 7, according to Reebok officials.
"In the modern era of sports marketing, demand for a rookie quarterback's jersey has likely never been higher," said Eddie White, Reebok's vice president of team properties. Luckily, for Reebok, letters come cheap.
At 14 letters, Roethlisberger is tied with former Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the longest name in the NFL. But an authentic Roethlisberger jersey costs $260 at retail, the same as a Hines Ward jersey.
Reebok, which is the official supplier of the league, could actually use a big seller. Thanks to Ricky Williams' abrupt retirement before the season, thousands of jerseys with the running back's name and number, in every size and Dolphins color available, are sitting at the company's warehouses in Indianapolis and Cincinnati.
"Ben's jersey sales will maybe help absorb the punch we took in the stomach," White said.
Roethlisberger collectibles are also flying off shelves.
Autographed draft day photos on Roethlisberger's official Web site sell for $49.99, but those looking for signed action photos will have to pay four times that price. The Highland Mint is having Roethlisberger sign 107 autographed photos this week and the suggested retail for those that managed to get in on the deal is $200.
"If he wins this weekend, it's probably going to go up to $300," said Vince Bohbot, vice president of The Highland Mint. "Steelers fans have been waiting for a star like this for a long time and I think a lot of people already think that he is the missing piece."
Prices of autographed Roethlisberger cards have already skyrocketed. An autographed jersey card of Roethlisberger sold for $711 on eBay on Monday night.
Sports marketer Frank Vuono says that the fact that Roethlisberger plays for the Steelers is very appealing to memorabilia dealers.
"It's a national team that has a tremendous amount of fans," said Vuono, one of the founders of The Quarterback Club, the marketing alliance in the 90s that pooled all the rights of the league's quarterbacks for marketing purposes.
"There was a time before the draft that we thought that Ben might go to New York," said Steinberg, who represented former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. "But there are many ways, from a marketing perspective, that Pittsburgh is better for him. He has the upbringing, temperament and toughness of this blue-collar town and (Steelers head coach) Bill Cowher's jutting chin juxtaposes with the way Ben is willing to throw his body into the pile."
Steinberg says he has no intention of calling Trebac any time soon to insist that his client get a cut of sales from the "Roethlisburger."
"We'll let it run for a little while, since it's funny more than anything," Steinberg said. "You can get into policing it, but we probably wouldn't do that unless a major chain started doing something."
Steinberg should pay attention. The way Roethlisberger is playing, Peppi's may turn into a major chain sometime in the very near future.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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