As the minutes ticked down before the Giants made their first-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Ben Roethlisberger sat at a table at Radio City Music Hall alongside Terry Hoeppner, his coach at Miami of Ohio.
Hoeppner had an inkling the Giants would take Roethlisberger at No. 4 overall. Actually, it was more than an inkling. Hoeppner was convinced Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi was taking him. “He was with me and I think he was having talks with Mr. Accorsi,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday of Hoeppner, who died in 2007.
Roethlisberger and Hoeppner were stunned when commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced the Giants were taking Philip Rivers. A disgusted Hoeppner threw his cell phone and knocked over a water bottle on the table.
“He was upset because he thought he had some inside information,” Roethlisberger cracked. “We really thought [being selected by the Giants] was a possibility.”
As it turned out, the Giants felt more comfortable that they could swing a Rivers-for-Eli Manning trade with the Chargers, which was consummated later in the day. That gave the Steelers, selecting eighth, the opening they needed to take Roethlisberger.
In the end, the unexpected draft-day maneuverings worked out for all three teams. Rivers has had a spectacular career with the Chargers, despite never getting to a Super Bowl, while Manning and Roethlisberger have won two each.
“Everything works out for a reason,” Roethlisberger said.
He will face Manning for only the fourth time — Roethlisberger is 2-1 against the Giants — when the 8-3 Giants visit 6-5 Pittsburgh for a matchup rife with playoff implications for both teams. There is mutual respect between the quarterbacks, with Roethlisberger marveling that Manning never has missed a start since becoming the Giants’ starter midway through the 2004 season.
“He’s got one of the most awesome iron man streaks going in never missing a game,” Roethlisberger, 34, said of the 35-year-old Manning, who has started 205 in a row, including playoffs. “That’s just so impressive to play this position for as long as he has. That’s a compliment to his work ethic. I think he’s one of the best in the business. I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done in his career.”
Likewise, said Manning, who has great admiration for Roethlisberger and Rivers.
“You always keep up with your draft class with Ben and Philip Rivers,” Manning said. “Don’t get to play against them a whole lot with them being in the AFC, but I enjoy these matchups. [Roethlisberger] has had an unbelievable career.”
So who’s the best? It’s a debate Roethlisberger would love to have.
“I think each one of us wants to, when it’s all over, have an argument and want people to argue about who was the best in our class,” he said. “That’s an awesome competition to have, because all three of us have played this game for a long time and have been able to do some pretty awesome things in a sport that’s not easy and at a position that’s not easy to play.”
And it’s possible that the Class of 2004 might one day be considered even better than the Class of 1983, widely acknowledged as the greatest quarterback group to enter the NFL. Among the stars of that class were Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Six quarterbacks were taken in the first round, including Ken O’Brien (Jets), Tony Eason (Patriots) and Todd Blackledge (Chiefs). Elway won two rings, but not until his 15th and 16th seasons. None of the others won a championship.
“Everybody knows about that class and the Hall of Famers they have,” Roethlisberger said. “Hopefully, one day the three of us can be in the Hall of Fame and we can talk about that. I know that our Super Bowl rings can rival theirs, but they’ve got the gold jackets and they’ve got the time put in. That’s an argument that would be humbling, but I think it is still too far down the road for us to have.”
Roethlisberger, Manning and Rivers are all Hall of Fame worthy, and likely will enjoy football immortality one day in Canton. But that’s a topic for down the road, because Roethlisberger hasn’t thought about when he’ll stop playing.
“I’ll play until the good Lord or Mr. Rooney says I can’t,” Roethlisberger said, with a nod to the Almighty and Steelers owner Dan Rooney. “But I hate to look to the end, because I feel like I’m cheating the here and now. We as people and as football players should take every day one at a time and appreciate what we have. I don’t want to look forward to the end. I want to enjoy now.”
And so do we. With three fabulous careers that have unfolded since that memorable draft in 2004, Roethlisberger, Manning and Rivers have provided so many terrific memories. Best to continue appreciating what they do while they’re still at the top of their game and not knowing just how long this run of brilliance might last.