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Big Ben will leave a large void

Commentary

The atmosphere at the Steelers-Cleveland game was at the AFC championship game level.

I was at Kobe Bryant’s last game in Los Angeles, and there were a lot of similarities as the both games seemed to a celebration of careers.

As with Bryant, there is something very special about a connection between a city and fan base when a player stays with one team for nearly two decades. Heinz Field was packed an hour before the game just to see Ben Roethlisberger warm up.

Helmetless, with just a knit cap on his head, knowing this was the last time he would ever warm up before a game at home, Big Ben was emotional simply tossing the ball to his wide receivers.

The fans were loud and waving the towels — at the “Renegade” level — for almost the entire game. No one was complaining about any bad throws or even the interception.

The fans were screaming for the Steeler defense on first- and second downs, not just third down.

The game fittingly ended with a few seconds left for one last Big Ben kneel down.

Keeping his helmet on, Roethlisberger was surrounded by scores of photographers as he circled half the stadium giving high fives to the fans in the front rows.

And then as he entered the tunnel he asked the cameras to back away as his wife and kids rushed into his arms. A player who has given the fans so many great memories gave the fans a final one as he walked down the tunnel with his family, holding their hands

In the 2004 NFL draft, Eli Manning was picked first, Philip Rivers was picked fourth and Big Ben lasted to the 11th pick when the Steelers selected the quarterback who would lead their team for the next 18 years.

Roethlisberger was upset about falling to 11 and being taken by the Steelers and being passed over by his home area Browns, who picked Kellen Winslow with the sixth pick.

Some people think Roethlisberger followed right after Terry Bradshaw, the four-time Super Bowl champion, but Bradshaw retired in 1983, and for 21 years, the QB position was filled with the likes of Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox.

One of Ben’s most iconic plays was a tackle.

In the 2005 playoffs against Peyton Manning and the Colts, as the Steelers were driving for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Jerome Bettis fumbled, and Nick Harper of the Colts picked up the ball with a clear path to the end zone for a touchdown that would have given the lead to the Colts.

Roethlisberger tripped up Harper, and then the Steelers defense held on to win the game and propel the Steelers to win their fifth Super Bowl.

The Steelers won again in the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa over Arizona — on a perfect late touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes — and barely lost to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the 2010 Super Bowl.

In Big Ben’s 18 years, the Steelers never had a losing record. Many fans thought he was too old or slow, and these fans are excited about having a new QB in Pittsburgh.

I beg to differ, I would have enjoyed watching Ben play as long as he wanted to, and I certainly don’t want to wait 21 years for the next great Steeler QB.

I watched every one of Ben’s 263 regular season and postseason games — many in person.

When he is announced before the game in Heinz Field, the public announcer says “And your quarterback … Ben Roethlisberger.”

I will root for other Steeler QBs, but Big Ben will always be my favorite.

Ira Kaufman, an Altoona native and traveling sports fan, hosts IRA on Sports on trueoldiesfla.com on Monday night from 7-8 p.m. It is also available on Soundcloud & iTunes, search Ira On Sports. His column appears occasionally in Voice of the Fan.

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