PITTSBURGH — Minutes before what was likely his final game at Heinz Field kicked off, Ben Roethlisberger faced the Cleveland Browns game captains by himself at the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ midfield logo Monday night.
When Roethlisberger realized what was happening, he playfully swatted at them, but they continued to hang back. Roethlisberger kept walking, until he stood by himself at midfield for potentially the final coin toss at Heinz Field of his 18-year career.
“We knew if we let Ben know ahead of time, he would’ve been like, ‘No, don’t do that,'” Heyward said. “So we took it out of his hands. He was a little bit annoyed, but we wanted to give him every bit of opportunity to celebrate this.”
It was the kind of understated gesture fitting of the veteran, who said earlier he preferred winning Monday night to pomp and circumstance in what was likely a final farewell to his home field.
The Steelers then delivered Roethlisberger’s greatest wish with a 26-14 victory against the Browns.
“I’m just so thankful for these fans and this place. There’s no place like it,” Roethlisberger said with tears in his eyes during a postgame interview with ESPN.
Roethlisberger kept his usual pregame routine Monday night, arriving four hours before the contest, but he didn’t take the field for final warm-ups until 46 minutes remained before kickoff.
“Ben did a really nice job of setting the pace,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “He was singularly focused. It was business as usual, and so he was easy to follow, and I think that everybody got their vibe from him in that way. Obviously, it was an extremely emotional night and all that, but he did a good job kind of setting the post for that approach all week.”
Roethlisberger embraced Steelers minority owner Thomas Tull, who took out a full, front-page advertisement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday to thank the quarterback. Tull also wore a black Roethlisberger jersey.
Early in pregame warm-ups, Steelers owner and president Art Rooney II thanked Roethlisberger for a “great 18 years” on the video board, but outside of that, the Steelers went light on tributes to the quarterback. During the fourth-quarter playing of “Renegade,” there weren’t any extra Roethlisberger moments added to the highlight reel.
As expected, Roethlisberger was the last player individually announced, and he sprinted out of the tunnel to a loud ovation from the 63,624 fans, who broke out into a “Let’s go, Ben” chant after his introduction. The chant rang through the stadium throughout the game as the fans, who came armed with farewell signs, bid goodbye to their franchise quarterback.
“Everything was pretty calm and collected throughout this whole week, throughout the pregame,” Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt said. “Pretty normal. Until you walked outside and felt the energy. Saw all the 7 jerseys, all the 7 signs.
“It was truly an atmosphere that I’ve never felt here before. It was really, really special. The fans made it so amazing for him. I’m so appreciative they were able to do that for him. It was a special night.”
The Steelers responded with an energized, complementary game.
While the pass rush racked up nine sacks, including a career-high four from Watt, Roethlisberger completed 24 of 46 attempts for 123 yards — including 34 attempts in the first half — along with one touchdown and an interception. With that performance, Roethlisberger set a record for fewest passing yards in a single game with at least 45 pass attempts, and he averaged 1.75 air yards per completion, his lowest in a game since ESPN began track air yards in 2006.
“It’s funny because probably not the way you wanted it other than the win,” Roethlisberger said. “And that’s all that really matters. And that’s been the story of my career: Not always pretty but we find a way.”
To bolster the offense, Najee Harris had his best performance as a pro, gaining 188 yards on 28 carries. His massive night helped him break Franco Harris’ franchise rookie rushing record from 1972, giving Harris 1,172 rushing yards this season. Harris also scored a 37-yard touchdown in the final minute.
“He’s a heck of a football player,” Roethlisberger said. “Tonight, it’s like he ran possessed. Some of the things he did was just special, and he gave us that victory.”
After taking a knee in victory formation, courtesy of Tre Norwood‘s interception, Roethlisberger wrapped up his postgame interview and lingered on the field for 12 minutes. He held up his hand with his thumb, index and pinky finger extended, slowly spinning in a circle to tell the crowd at Heinz Field he loved them. He walked along the perimeter of the south end zone, high-fiving and acknowledging fans who traveled, made posters and shouted “Thank you, Ben” and “Let’s go, Ben” throughout the game.
“This is home,” Roethlisberger said afterward. “I was born in Ohio, but I live here, and I’ll always be here. These fans and this place means so much to me and my family and always will. I’ve always said they’re the best fans in all of sports, and I’ll stick by that until the day I die.
“To see all the signs and jerseys and towels, and to hear them cheer for me coming out of the tunnel, all that stuff, I don’t know that I’ll ever put it into words. I wish I could bottle it and have it forever. But I will in here and in my mind.”
Tomlin watched as his quarterback made his way around Heinz Field and allowed himself to reflect on their relationship.
“I was appreciating the last 15 years with him,” Tomlin said. “Man, we’ve been through a lot. We’ve seen a lot. It’s been a heck of a ride. Been one that’s been an honor to be a part of and enjoy.”
Surrounded by cameras, Roethlisberger cut back across the field and over to the sideline and embraced Rooney before taking a seat on the bench, where he sat with longtime center Maurkice Pouncey a year ago after a playoff loss to the Browns. This time, he sat alone.
“Just wanted to sit down and take it in,” Roethlisberger said. “Just try and absorb every minute of this place because it’s so special, the fans are so special. I wanted to win this game more than anything for them. Obviously, we still have a bigger — we got another game. There is a slim chance [to make the playoffs], but we’ve got to keep fighting.”
After a moment, he got up and walked toward the tunnel, where he was greeted by his family. He hugged all of them and then walked into the tunnel with his wife and three kids.