- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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"And a little child shall lead them."
-- Isaiah 11:6
PITTSBURGH -- Early last season, Joey Porter was settling in for the regular Monday night card game with some of the Steelers' veterans when he did a classic cartoon double take. Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- cool as a cucumber, bold as a burglar -- walked across the room.
"What's he doing here?" Porter thought to himself. "Who's he with?"
The answer turned out to be Jerome Bettis.
"Cool," Porter said to himself. "Bus is on board."
When Bettis broke in with the St. Louis Rams in 1993, he was a celebrated first-round draft choice faced with daunting expectations. He carried the Rams that year, running for 1,429 yards and making the Pro Bowl, but he did it on his own.
"There was no one there to help me," Bettis said. "There was no one on offense who could put their arm around me. It was a tough transition. I learned then that was something I would never let happen to someone else in the same position I was in."
For two seasons now, Bettis, the leading light in the Steel City, has been supporting and advising Roethlisberger, essentially passing him the torch of iconic status. When people look at Roethlisberger's 26-4 starting record and marvel at how it was achieved, Bettis' contributions are only a part of a broad support system.
Roethlisberger's accelerated learning curve can be explained fairly simply. He is good, and he has had an extraordinary amount of help. That's a devastating combination.
Step away from the swirl of outsized Super Bowl XL vortex and this thought persists: The most important player in Detroit, arguably, is 23 years old.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, the first overall pick in the 2004 draft, just turned 25. San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, the fourth overall choice, is 24. Don't let the brawny, backwoods beard fool you. Roethlisberger -- the No. 11 pick from a mid-major college -- is still the age of some college seniors and he's already played in two conference championship games -- something no quarterback in NFL history has achieved in his first two seasons.
In the 2004 divisional playoffs, Roethlisberger hit the rookie wall and the Steelers crashed out of the playoffs when he threw three interceptions in the AFC Championship Game. Last week in the 2005 conference title game at Denver, Roethlisberger was very nearly perfect. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards for two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Steelers, way out of character, rode his strong right arm to a stunningly complete 34-17 victory.
"He's got a good supporting group and he's playing on a good football team," coach Bill Cowher said after considering the question last week. "I think in a very short time he has become a leader of this football team. I think he has grown as a player, as [someone] we're looking to to make plays if needed down the stretch -- and he keeps coming through with the plays that we need."
Terry Hoeppner, the former Miami of Ohio head football coach, saw all of this coming. Well, most of it, anyway.
This time two years ago, he was telling the parade of NFL brass running through Oxford, Ohio -- Ernie Accorsi, Marty Schottenheimer, Tom Coughlin, among them -- that Roethlisberger was the real deal.
"I knew he was mentally mature enough," said Hoeppner, now the head coach at Indiana. "Did I think it would happen so quickly? No. I figured he was going to hold a clipboard on the sideline.
"And now he's going to the Super Bowl. I'm 0-for-39, but this year I'm going to break the string and go to my first Super Bowl."
So is Roethlisberger.
"He's on Cloud Nine," Hoeppner said. "And he should be. He worked incredibly hard to get there."
As swift as his ascent has been, Roethlisberger has spent some serious time waiting in line.
Even though he was the starting junior varsity quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at Findlay High School in Ohio, Roethlisberger played wide receiver as a junior, catching passes from a senior signal caller. In his only season as a starting quarterback, he set records by throwing for 4,041 yards and 54 touchdowns.
It happened again at Miami of Ohio. Roethlisberger, a scrawny 6-foot-5, 195 pounds, was redshirted as a freshman when Hoeppner said he felt a loyalty to a fifth-year starter.
"Still, when Ben threw it," Hoeppner remembered, "you could hear music."
The first month of Roethlisberger's first official college season, 2001, was difficult, at best. His first start came before a full house at Ann Arbor, Mich., the second at Iowa City, and then 9/11 happened.
Against Akron in mid-October, Miami trailed 27-24 with seven seconds left.
"Ben threw the ball higher and further than you could imagine," Hoeppner said. "We tip it, they tip it, we catch it, we win. Seventy-yard touchdown to Eddie Tillitz. It wasn't Doug Flutie against the University of Miami. It was Ben Roethlisberger for Miami University, but it was one of the greatest Hail Marys in history."
Roethlisberger threw for a school-record 399 yards.
"That was when," Hoeppner said, "the legend of Ben Roethlisberger took root."
After three record-breaking seasons, a Mid-American Conference championship and a victory in the GMAC Bowl, Roethlisberger and his coach both felt he was ready to turn pro in 2004.
This time there was no waiting period, no time to ripen on the vine.
When Tommy Maddox left the season's second game with a knee injury, Roethlisberger came in and completed 12 of 20 passes for 175 yards. The Steelers lost badly to the Ravens that day, but then a funny thing happened. With Roethlisberger under center, Pittsburgh won its next 15 games (including the playoff win over the Jets).
Oddly enough, there was no visible learning curve.
His first NFL start, at Miami, was instructive. In a game that was delayed seven hours by Hurricane Jeanne, Roethlisberger won it when he hit Hines Ward with a scrambling touchdown throw in the fourth quarter.
Cowher and the Steelers took pains to keep the pressure off Roethlisberger by designing conservative game plans that mainly called for him to hand the ball off. It worked all the way into the postseason.
The playoffs, considering the league-best 15-1 regular-season record, were a massive disappointment. After scuffling to beat the Jets in overtime, Roethlisberger and the Steelers became unhinged against the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. After throwing only 11 interceptions in the regular season, he threw five interceptions in two playoff games.
"We got into the playoffs, and I believe that's when he thought he had to win football games," Bettis said. "You hear so much about the quarterbacks that are legends, and it's because of the playoffs. I think he thought he needed to win the game, as opposed to letting plays happen.
"He was pressing a little bit, and it got him in trouble."
Through the wall
In retrospect, the crash was probably inevitable.
"He'd gone from playing 14 games with me to nonstop football," Hoeppner said. "He spent the offseason getting ready for the draft, followed by mini-camp, training camp, preseason and a 16-game regular season. Before the championship game last year it was obvious to everybody, 'He's hit the wall. He's shot.' You can't do anything when you're mentally and physically worn out."
Playing golf with Hoeppner over the summer, Roethlisberger said he had learned from his rookie experience and was prepared to play a full season without wearing down, physically or mentally. Going into the season, the Steelers' game plan was to continue to keep the pressure off their second-year starter. In the opener, they succeeded. Roethlisberger completed nine of only 11 passes, two for touchdowns, and Pittsburgh throttled Tennessee, 34-7.
In the season's fourth game, at San Diego, Roethlisberger injured his left knee and was forced to leave late in the fourth quarter. He missed four of the next six games (two of them losses) and then lost starts at Indianapolis and against Cincinnati when he returned.
And then the Steelers, and Roethlisberger with them, found an equilibrium. His poise helped carry the Steelers to wins in their last four consecutive regular-season games.
"Ben's improvement this year has been dramatic," Cowher said. "What he did last year was phenomenal for a rookie. This year, it's just a comfort level he has in the offense. He's been through it now a second time, and even in the playoffs, he's been through that before. So obviously, when you put experience with a good football player who's young, who's getting better, you're going to see improved play."
In the playoffs, Roethlisberger has not been pressing. Rather, he has been a revelation.
He blinded the Bengals with a very nearly perfect wild-card game, completing 14 of 19 passes for 208 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Against the Colts, it was 19-of-24, 197 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Broncos watched with horror as he completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In splitting two playoff games at the end of the 2004 season, Roethlisberger's passer rating was a lowly 61.3. Through three victories this postseason, the number is a dizzying 124.8.
"Football is a total team sport," Ward said. "Just go out and let your teammates work for you, the only thing you have to do is drive the ship. Just steer us in the right direction, and that's what he's done.
"Last year, with all the tension, it was overwhelming for him. This year, he's making throws that are like he's been in the league eight, 10 years. He's reading coverages like that. It's just amazing."
As Bettis said, "He understands that you just have to manage the game, make the plays you're supposed to make and the legend will grow."
People see symmetry in the fact that Roethlisberger is the second-youngest quarterback in NFL history to carry his team into the Super Bowl. He is only seven months older than Dan Marino -- a Pittsburgh native -- was when he took the Miami Dolphins to Super Bowl XIX.
Marino, of course, lost to the San Francisco 49ers in what turned out to be his only Super Bowl appearance. Roethlisberger and the Steelers understand that the ultimate opportunity might never come again. He might be only 23, but he's their quarterback.
"In a lot of respects, we're going as far as he takes us," said Cowher.
"I'm not trying to put pressure on him. That's the facts. He likes that. He knows that."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.