- Previously covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Oklahoma University for the Oklahoman.
PITTSBURGH — They called it a Van Wert 7.
In the post-corner route named for a northwest Ohio school that executed it to perfection, the receiver ran 12 yards, took an outside step to a post and took four steps. As soon as the safety turned his hips, he planted and came back out toward the pylon.
It was a staple in Findlay (Ohio) High School’s offense in 1998, the route that Ryan Hite and Ben Roethlisberger used Friday nights to pick apart defenses filled with undersized cornerbacks.
But Roethlisberger wasn’t the one throwing the ball.
He was on the receiving end of Hite’s passes — 57 of them that year to be exact.
Before he set records as a quarterback his senior year, before he became the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top draft pick out of Miami (Ohio), and before he won two Super Bowl rings as one of the NFL’s best signal-callers, Roethlisberger spent his junior year of high school playing wide receiver.
It gave Roethlisberger a deeper understanding of the game he took with him the rest of his career — something he found again last season as he stood on the sideline following a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2.
“[Findlay] coach [Cliff Hite] was always like, ‘It benefited you as a senior playing quarterback from playing wide receiver your junior year,'” Roethlisberger said. “I never understood it at the time, but I think it does to a certain extent because you can see the other side of it.
“I was able to kind of see the bigger picture of being a quarterback just from being on the sideline last year.”
As Roethlisberger makes his long-awaited return Monday night against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), he steps back on the field with a repaired elbow and a refreshed body.
Perhaps just as important, he returns with a new perspective, much like he got more than 20 years ago at Findlay.
Roethlisberger wasn’t a receiver because he lost a quarterback competition.
There simply wasn’t a competition to lose.
Coming off a 7-3 season — the biggest turnaround in school history following a 1-9 record a year earlier — coach Cliff Hite thought the best way to keep Findlay trending in the right direction was to maintain stability. Entering his senior year, Hite’s son Ryan retained the starting quarterback job.
Everyone at Findlay knew Roethlisberger was the better quarterback, but as a leader and a game manager, Ryan Hite was the right fit for the balanced offense. Roethlisberger was the backup QB the year before, but he was too athletic to keep off the field for another season.
A receiver for half of his freshman season on the JV squad, Roethlisberger was familiar with the position, and his height (6-foot-4) and hand size made him a mismatch nightmare. The pair tested out the combination at a 7-on-7 camp before Roethlisberger’s junior season.
“We threw 12 touchdowns or something like that, and 10 were from me to Ben,” Ryan Hite said. “One was from Ben to me. It’s not that we didn’t give it a shot, but I definitely didn’t have the catch radius. … His hands are probably twice the size mine are. He caught about anything we threw to him, which is ideal.”
It didn’t take long for the duo to see the same success on Friday nights.
Even more than 20 years later, Hite remembers the first series of that season. Findlay had a script, but once Hite saw a diminutive defensive back matching up with Roethlisberger, he tore up the plan.
“I audibled every single play because some 5-foot-4 guy was manning up to him and nobody over the top,” Hite said. “Between the two of us, we audibled it to a fade, and I threw it up and he caught it and got 15 yards.”
They did the same thing on the next play and had similar success. On the next, the frustrated defensive back grabbed Roethlisberger’s jersey and tackled him, resulting in a flag and a 15-yard penalty.
“It was like, ‘Wow, this is working and nobody is making an adjustment,'” Hite said, laughing at the decades-old memory. “So that’s a pretty good scheme.”
Something like a poor man’s Mike Evans, Roethlisberger didn’t overwhelm anyone with his speed that year. But his size made him a valuable weapon in an offense that was transitioning from a run-heavy unit the year before to the eventual spread system it would run a year later with Roethlisberger as the quarterback.
“He wasn’t a speed demon by any means, but he’d catch anything they threw at him, because he’s just so dang athletic,” said Chris Miller, a longtime radio play-by-play announcer for Findlay. “Ben did his job and did it very well.”
He did it so well, he earned all-state accolades with 57 catches for 757 yards and seven touchdowns. And he also got a few passing stats with trick plays, finishing with 116 passing yards and two touchdown throws. Often, Roethlisberger received a pitch, and he either hit Hite or targeted a receiver downfield.
Ironically, Roethlisberger continued as a record-setting quarterback, and Hite became a standout wide receiver at Division III Denison.
“People in the past would ask me, ‘What was Ben like as a receiver?’ I would say, he’d always come back to the huddle and always say he was wide-open,” Hite said. “And I’m standing back there as the quarterback like, ‘OK, yeah, sure. Sometimes, yes, but whatever. You’re always wide-open, yeah.’ And then, when I made the transition, man, I was wide-open every single play, too. It was weird. So I finally got it.”
Roethlisberger stepped into the spotlight as Findlay’s starting quarterback in 1999.
Cliff Hite adjusted his offense to Roethlisberger’s strengths, spreading it four- and five-wide — something not many high school teams were doing at the time.
As predicted, Roethlisberger flourished at quarterback, tossing as many as eight touchdowns in one game. With Roethlisberger leading that season, Findlay went 10-2 and won its first-ever state playoff game. Roethlisberger had 4,041 yards passing and 54 touchdowns.
But what if he had played quarterback for two seasons? His numbers would be much higher, and more exposure might have led to more than the scholarship offers he had from the likes of Miami (Ohio) and Duke. Would better numbers and a bigger college program outweigh the experience he gained from his year as a receiver?
Mike Iriti, Roethlisberger’s favorite receiver at Findlay, doesn’t think so.
“We knew that he should’ve been the quarterback,” Iriti said, “but at the same time, what if he had played junior year? Would he have learned certain things or gotten the feel of where defensive backs and linebackers sit? Would he have been able to understand when to throw the ball and when not to throw a ball? Because as a receiver, you learn to find those holes, you learn to find those things.
“I feel like it helped him to the fact where he can communicate with a receiver the same way a receiver understands it and not necessarily how a quarterback understands it and then try to translate it to where a receiver understands it.”
Iriti understood Roethlisberger better than perhaps anyone else. They grew up together in Findlay. After playing together in high school, they kept their connection going and played for Miami (Ohio).
And though they were longtime friends, Roethlisberger’s connection with Iriti — and with all of his receivers in high school and beyond — was bolstered by the year the quarterback spent in his shoes.
“The biggest thing with him was he was just always on the same page with the receivers,” said Shane Montgomery, Roethlisberger’s offensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio). “Ben had such a good relationship with his receivers that they would kind of have their own signals, and their own things out on the field. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know anything about [it]. It was like, you’d see something happen. I’d say, ‘What did you tell him?’ or ‘What did you signal?’ He’d tell me and I’d say, ‘OK that’s good.’ Obviously it worked out.”
Roethlisberger’s stint as a receiver enables him to be clear with his instructions. Nothing gets lost in translation when the quarterback can give his directives in a way the receiver clearly understands.
“He can talk our language,” said Ryan Switzer, who played with Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh for two seasons. “He can talk leverage, he can talk technique, he can talk lean and press, he can talk all these things, which makes the communication a lot more fluid between us and him. … He’s able to communicate really well, which helps translate to being on the same page more often on the field.”
The carryover from one position to another goes beyond communication. Iriti sees it in the way Roethlisberger eludes the pass rush and finds a receiver on a broken play.
“It’s like he knows where he’s at, and he knows where you’re trying to go, so he can wait until that last second, just make that little move,” Iriti said. “It’s not fast, it’s not quick, but it’s like it’s premeditated that he knows where you’re going. So it makes him seem more agile and quick than he actually is. He’s not a blazing-fast guy, but instinctively he’s really smart.”
Roethlisberger spent the 2019 season with his arm in a sling, watching his teammates execute an offense he had run for 16 seasons. He has seen nearly everything, but before last season, Roethlisberger had not spent much time observing his team from that perspective.
“I’d actually say one of the greatest things to ever happen to him was watching football last year,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. “Not from this mental aspect of how much I missed it, but you can just learn differently. You learn differently when you stand there.
“I think that Big Ben’s greatest growth this season is going to come from watching all of his teammates and seeing the things that they do and don’t do well.”
At the time, he would have given anything to be back out on the field. But the time off might have done Roethlisberger some good. After all, the last time he changed his view of the offense, he gained an arsenal of intangibles that helped him become one of the game’s most prolific passers.
“Ben always said that playing receiver that year helped him, and he was enough of a talent that he could succeed at either position,” said Dave Hanneman, who has covered high school sports for the Findlay Courier since 1990. “It’s just that he was destined to be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.”
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