THREE HOURS BEFORE what was likely his final regular-season game, in a concrete tunnel outside the locker room in M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger grabbed a football and started to throw. It's been his routine for much of his 18 years: He finds a quiet space in the gut of a stadium where he loosens up before strapping on his pads, just him and an assistant coach, away from cameras and fans. Sometimes he talks, jokes or confides; other times he says little. He has a designated tunnel in nearly every venue. Occasionally, it's more than a tunnel: Before Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers in 2011, Roethlisberger warmed up in something closer to a parking lot under AT&T Stadium. Trucks and carts moved around as he threw, and he dodged them as if they were pass-rushers. For this game, against the Baltimore Ravens, space was tight. He threw standing still, then off quick drops, then out of a faux shotgun. He was dressed in black sweats, a black shirt and a black hat. Most people passed by completely unaware. The few who noticed him were instructed by security to point their phones elsewhere. Roethlisberger rarely threw longer than about 10 yards. The ball snapped out of his hand, even at close range, spirals spinning under fluorescent lights. He finished up with a series of rapid tosses, firing quickly, with little time to find the laces, throwing over and around imaginary targets. After about 10 minutes, he was ready to go. He suited up in his road Steelers whites and walked onto the field, for what figured to be the last time.
OF COURSE, IT ended up not being the last time. And if Roethlisberger and the Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, there will be yet another last time. Still, there is no doubt that this is his final run, the close of an 18-year career -- and no doubt that there are things to sort out.
There are athletes whose careers inspire a profound sort of ambivalence in the end. Impressive accomplishments peppered with unremarkable stretches. Transcendent flashes of talent weighed down by episodes of troubling conduct. Tensions with fans and teammates woven in between moments of signature style and dramatic finishes. Questions of legacy muddled and complicated. Ben Roethlisberger's has been such a career. He has played at a Hall of Fame level, putting up staggeringly good numbers and a 66% winning percentage as a starter, an iconic player for an iconic franchise who has had a slow roll to end his career. But along with the triumphs, his time at the helm of the Steelers also has been marked by troubles, including accusations of sexual assault. When one considers all of this -- what it says about him and those who have watched him for almost two decades -- it's hard to find clarity, hard to simply, neatly sum him up.
Roethlisberger had a certain quality and ethos: He viewed himself as indestructible. The way he held the ball until the last second and invited punishment was not only part of his style and charm, not only essential to his own industrial artistry, it was part of his identity -- and no doubt part of his problems. When he walks away, the game will be diminished -- not because he was a perfect ambassador, or even close, but because there is, it's fair to say, nobody else in the league quite like him.