Quarterbacks couldn't be more different

KEN FIDLIN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:17 PM ET

TAMPA - The paths that lead Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner into the same arena Sunday as opposing quarterbacks in Super Bowl XLIII couldn't be more different.

Roethlisberger, now 26, stepped into the starting role with Pittsburgh as a first-round pick straight out of Miami of Ohio in 2004, a millionaire before he'd even played a down. In his first season, he won rookie-of-the-year honors and, in his second year, at the age of 23, he marched them to the franchise's fifth Super Bowl title when the Steelers beat Seattle in Super Bowl XL.

When Warner was 26, he still hadn't thrown a pass in the NFL. He was undrafted out of Northern Iowa University, tried out for a couple of teams as a walk-on, worked as a stockboy in a supermarket and eventually found his way into the St. Louis Rams organization at the age of 27 via NFL Europe.

From there, his career took off and in 2000, in his first year as a starter, he won a Super Bowl with the Rams. He went to another Bowl game with St. Louis in 2002 and now he's back for a third try as the grizzled veteran keeping tabs on a group of youngish Arizona Cardinals.

Now, both at the pinnacle of their sport, the two meet Sunday, the first collision of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks since Pittsburgh's Terry Bradhsaw and Dallas' Roger Staubach faced off in Super Bowl XIII, 30 years ago.

Three years ago, Roethlisberger performed well below expectations, with only nine completed passes and two picks, despite the win. He's hoping it goes better tonight.

"The first time was my second year in the league, and I was so overwhelmed because it was such a dream to be in the game," said Roethlisberger. "This time, I'm just enjoying it and having more fun.

"I'm sure once the ball is kicked there will be nerves going through it, but if you're not nervous for this game then there's something wrong with you. This being my fifth year, I'm able to calm and control my nerves a little bit better and hopefully that will help."

Warner set the world on fire with his Super Bowl debut in 2000, torching the Tennessee Titans for 414 yards (24-of-45) and two touchdowns to win Super Bowl MVP honors. The second time around, two years later, he lost a three-point heartbreaker to the New England Patriots.

"I think about the game that we lost more than any game that I've ever played in," said Warner earlier this week. "That's) probably a little unfortunate because I probably should be hanging onto the one that we won.

"We were expected to win. And so when you don't win, you feel like you miss an opportunity. You miss an opportunity to make history, so for whatever reason, I think that game has stuck with me more than any other game that I've played in. I'm going to do my best to make sure I don't have to think about this one too much."

While both men are big, strong-armed slingers, they come at the position of quarterback from very different mental places. Roethlisberger, at 6'5", 240 pounds, is surprisingly mobile and difficult to bring down.

He uses that escapability to create big plays after the original intent has broken down and hes scrambling for his life. His Pittsburgh teammates know a play is never over as long as Roethlisberger is still on his feet.

"You play to the whistle and you have to pay attention, be ready to come back to the ball. There aren't many quarterbacks with the size and strength and are as slippery as Ben and we have to be ready for that," said receiver Hines Ward. "Even when he looks like he's in deep trouble and theres no hope, there's always a big play waiting to happen if you're ready as a receiver."

"It's not really anything crazy," says Roethlisberger. "It's just a matter of trying to stay alive and find the open receiver. That's all it really is."

Warner is a straight dropback passer who relies on his ability to read and react immediately, often unloading the ball before the receiver has made his cut. Because he's a sitting duck back there, precision and timing are his greatest tools, along with a receiving corps that includes two of the best receivers in football, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

"The biggest thing with Kurt is that you definitely have to prepare," said Fitzgerald. "Kurt's mind works differently out there on the field. He looks at everything and digests things so quickly. When (the defenders) are bringing more than we can block, the ball is out of there so quickly.

"He knows exactly where he wants to go with the football before you know as a receiver. So, you have to get your head around and you really have to understand the concept because Kurt forces you as a receiver to learn and know exactly what is going on as well."

Roethlisberger was a three-sport highschool star in Findlay, Ohio. Ironically, he never played quarterback until his senior year. The high school coach at the time, a man named Cliff Hite, had decided that his own son, Ryan Hite was a better choice, so Roethlisberger played wide receiver. When finally Roethlisberger became the starting quarterback in his final year of high school, he threw for more than 4,000 yards and 54 touchdowns in one season.

Said coach Hite of his decision to start his son ahead of Roethlisberger: "I am a nationally-known knucklehead."

After the second Super Bowl appearance in 2002 with St. Louis, Warner's career started moving in the wrong direction. His next season was a dismal one and when he fumbled six times in the 2003 season opener, he was replaced by Marc Bulger. In 2004, he was cut and joined the New York Giants before heading to Arizona and a new start in 2005. A perennial league doormat, the Cards were not a preferred destination for most players.

"Well, I think a lot of people looked at it as more of a black hole, a place that hasn't had success," he said. "(People would say,) 'If you go there, I don't know if you're going to have success or whats going to happen to your career.'

"But what I've been pleasantly surprised with is the attitude of the ownership to say, 'Hey, we want to try to do whatever we can for the players and the coaches to help make this successful.' That part has been great about the organization, and it makes it fun to be a part of."

Over-riding that point of view was the feeling within the game that Warner was washed up and would never be a starter, never lead, again.

"I think the perception around the league about me was that I couldn't play anymore," he says. "(They thought,) 'There was no more football left in him, and he's basically just trying to survive. And Arizona being a situation that hasn't won, the Cardinals wont win, Kurt Warner can't really play, so I guess it's a fine mix.' They took a chance, I took a chance, and together, we've made something special happen."

Now, at the end of this season, really at the end of this day, Warner will be faced with a huge decision. His contract with Arizona will be finished after this game. At 37, does he throw his hat into the free agent ring? Or does he retire at the top of his game?

"You know, I don't know what's going to be the ultimate decision or how it's going to be determined," he said. "I know that you look at the scenarios and what could play out, and in the back of your mind you say, 'Man, this could be a perfect scenario to leave the game.' But what I've continued to realize about my career and my life is that nothing takes on a perfect scenario. What people think would be perfect doesn't seem to work out in my situation."

A deeply religious man with a family of six to keep him grounded, Warner is just as happy being a husband and father as he is being a star in the NFL. If he plays on for a year or two, it will because he still loves the game, not the money.

Roethlisberger, on the other hand, still has a limitless future, with another 10 or more seasons ahead of him. Yet he is old enough and already been through enough in his career to realize just how quickly it can change. The year after his first Super Bowl win, he was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash that forced him to change his outlook on life.

"I have a different perspective on football and life in general as a result of that," he says. "It just makes me appreciate life and take every day one day at a time and enjoy the things that I have and am blessed with. It's a trophy to be alive every day.

"Just being in this Super Bowl has more impact on me because I now have the realization it could be my last. Who knows if I'll ever get back here? I just want to breathe it in."


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