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BEN WAGON THE TOWN OF FINDLAY, OHIO, HELPED SET ROETHLISBERGER'S FOUNDATION.

Byline: Billy Witz Staff Writer

FINDLAY, Ohio - Out at Doc Schoonover's farm on the edge of town one summer's day, young Ben Roethlisberger had come to help the family friend and fellow parishioner at St. Paul's Church tend to his harness horses.

Ol' Doc settled Roethlisberger - then a scrawny teenager - into a sulky, the light two-wheeled cart with no springs that the retired veterinarian used to work his horses out on the track he'd built on his 72-acre spread.

Then he sent young Ben on his way for a five-mile jog with a nice little 3-year-old gelding named Pip's Gleamer. That taken care of, he turned to go back in the house.

``There was only one problem,'' said Roethlisberger's mother, Brenda. ``Ben didn't know how to stop.''

Slowing a harness horse down can be tricky. Pulling on the reins does the job, but it has to be done just so. Tug too tightly and it sends the horse a signal to speed up.

One way or another, perhaps because the horse was tuckered out, Roethlisberger figured out a way to get him home.

It's been much the same story for Roethlisberger with a football in his hands. Young quarterbacks are supposed to struggle in the NFL, but he appears to have figured it out on the fly.

Since the reins were thrown to him two games into his rookie season, Roethlisberger has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 27-3 record. With a victory over Seattle on Sunday in Detroit, he would become, at age 23, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

The roots of that achievement lay 105 miles south, in this modest Midwestern town, population 38,967, whose quaint charms are best exemplified in the 100-year-old colonial and Victorian buildings and the independent businesses that dot Main Street downtown.

They're also found in the one-story, brick house with the towering Maple tree in the front yard where Roethlisberger grew up. It was there that Ken and Brenda Roethlisberger raised Ben and his younger sister, Carlee, in an environment where faith and family came first.

It's not hard to see the Roethlisbergers' adherence to those beliefs. Their son signed a six-year, $40 million contract a year ago, yet they have no interest in moving until Carlee finishes high school next year.

Ken still works as a plant manager for a company that manufactures oil filters and Brenda teaches an occasional yoga class and takes turns working the snack stand and organizing fund-raisers for Carlee's girls basketball team at Findlay High.

It's hard to know their home is the residence of one of the NFL's most marketable stars without a map. Outside, the only distinguishing characteristics are a basketball hoop at the side of the driveway and a round orange sign with the No. 10 - Carlee's uniform number - planted in the ground. Inside, there are no more than a couple photos of Ben, each counter-balanced by one of Carlee.

The family the Roethlisbergers built has required work. Ben's biological mother, Ida, left when he was two. Two years later, Ken and Brenda married. When Ben was 8, he was hit with tragedy when Ida, whom he would visit on weekends, was killed in a car crash.

The importance of family was impressed upon Ken by his father, who left a high-paying sales job in Chicago and returned to Ohio because he didn't like being on the road so much.

``We have what we want out of life and we know why we're here and it's not to be part of the race,'' Ken said last weekend, seated with his wife in the den that overlooked the backyard where their dogs played.

``We're not out looking for that. We enjoy our friends. We enjoy Findlay.''

These days, the admiration is mutual.

All along Main Street, window fronts are adorned with black-and-gold placards handed out by the Chamber of Commerce that read: ``Good Luck Big Ben. Dreams do come true. ... '' Some also have Terrible Towels on display.

A pickup truck driving down Interstate 75, just out of town, had a yellow caution sign on the back gate that read: Ben at Work.

Back downtown at House of Awards, about a half-dozen calls come in each day asking if the sporting goods store carries Roethlisberger gear, said Alan Dysert as he sat behind the counter. In four days last week, he sold 72 commemorative NFL Super Bowl footballs at $90 a pop.

``Half of Findlay has had his jersey framed,'' said Jane Harris, who works in the framing department at Hobby Lobby.

There is, of course, another half. That is where you will find those who steadfastly refuse to climb aboard the Benwagon.

Located as it is in northern Ohio, Findlay was a Browns town. And though nobody wishes Roethlisberger any ill will, some just can't stomach the thought of rooting for the Browns' fiercest rival.

``It's really hard to look at,'' said Kellie Black, a clerk at the Ben Franklin store as she showed a visitor the rolls of Steelers fleece that was selling for $12.99 a yard.

``I'm going to sit in Buffalo Wild Wings (a sports bar that's a favorite haunt of Steelers fans) on Sunday and root for the other team.''

Jamie Baker, a sports columnist for the Findlay Courier, detailed his worst nightmare as a Browns fan - a black-and-gold ticker tape parade through downtown - in a column headlined: ``Bitter Browns backer will root for Seahawks.''

He acknowledged the appeal of Roethlisberger's small-town-kid-makes-good story, but had nothing but scorn for the Johnny-come-latelies.

``Especially the Browns fans now rooting for the Steelers,'' he wrote. ``You have no soul.''

It has not been an altogether good time for Cliff Hite, either.

The former Findlay High football coach, who is running for a seat in the state House of Representatives, might have some explaining to doin the campaign: why he played a Super Bowl quarterback at receiver?

When Roethlisberger arrived on the varsity as a junior, he was switched to receiver because the starting quarterback was a senior named Ryan Hite - the coach's son.

``I might be as infamous as Michael Jordan's coach,'' said Hite, referring to the high school coach who cut the basketball icon from the varsity as a freshman. ``You know, Ryan did break the school passing record. Of course, Ben doubled it the next year.''

Ryan Hite went on to play at Denison University, a Division IIIschool where he earned all-conference acclaim - as a receiver.

``I was edgy about it for a while,'' Roethlisberger said. ``But I'm here now, so I'm not complaining.''

When Roethlisberger did get to play as a senior, he passed for 4,041 yards and 54 touchdowns, and was runner-up as Ohio's Mr. Football. But by that time, many of the Big Ten schools had settled on quarterbacks. Ohio State talked to him but ``didn't know how to pronounce my name,'' and even worse mentioned something about playing tight end.

So he ended up downstate at Miami of Ohio, one of the first schools that had recruited him. It also mattered that the coach, Terry Hoeppner, now at Indiana, paid interest to Roethlisberger as a person as well as a prospect.

That's why Roethlisberger stewed at the draft two years ago, when Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were taken ahead of him. He was considered the most gifted of the three, but there were questions about the level of competition at Miami.

If Roethlisberger hasn't forgotten the snub, he has at least forgiven. He slipped to the Steelers with the 11th pick and couldn't have fallen into a better spot. In Pittsburgh, he is surrounded by better players than Manning or Rivers, and he's living in a city that identifies with his values.

``We think what if he had been in San Diego? What if he had been in New York,'' said Ken. ``He's 23. I'm sure he's not sitting at home watching TV every night, but in Pittsburgh there isn't as many distractions.''

Said Brenda: ``Because they love the game, they expect the quarterback to love the game. If you're out partying the night before, they expect a good game on Sunday. They know what he does and they'll tell him why he's not having a good game, so I think he's responsive to that.''

Sometimes more than others.

Photos surfaced on the Internet recently of an inebriated-looking Roethlisberger amongst several women, sporting a T-shirt that reads ``Drink Like A Champion Today.''

A source of controversy in the off-season in Pittsburgh - and Findlay, too - was when Roethlisberger began riding a motorcycle and refused to wear a helmet. This didn't not please the Steelers, fans or his parents, particularly after Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. missed the entire season after crashing his bike.

If the Roethlisbergers are willing to let their son live his own life, they find it alternately annoying and amusing that others don't.

``Yeah, you're right,'' Ken said. ``He's 23. What's he thinking? Having a beard and wearing a hat backward. That's terrible.''

The battles they fight more fiercely generally involve matters that prevent them from living a normal life. This usually involves Carlee.

Before Ben returned home during a bye week, he remarked to Pittsburgh reporters that he was going to escort his sister to the homecoming dance. When he pulled up at Findlay, local news crews were waiting. He dropped them off without getting out of the car.

Two weeks ago, Hardin High in Marion had a promotion for its girls' basketball game against Findlay allowing anyone in free who wore a jersey other than the Steelers. There were the usual taunts - ``Ben stinks,'' ``You're not Ben'' - but in this game, they were coming from a student wearing, curiously enough, a Peyton Manning jersey.

Carlee had the last word, making the winning free throw with two seconds left in overtime, all but wrapping up the league title.

One thing she can't quite used to is driving to school each morning - her Honda CRV is distinguishable only by the Steelers' decal on the back - and passing a mural hung on the side of a brick building on Main Street by Nike.

``It's a little weird,'' she said.

The photo is, too. It's a picture of her brother as senior in high school. Thin and with close cropped hair, he doesn't look much like the strapping, shaggy quarterback the world we see on Sunday.

But watch him, listen to him, and it's not too hard to see that the words printed on the mural fit with either picture of Roethlisberger:

This is Findlay.

Billy Witz, (818) 713-3621

billy.witz(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) A giant billboard of Ben Roethlisberger featuring his high school picture is seen in the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback's hometown of Findlay, Ohio.

J.D. Pooley/Associated Press

(2 -- color) Ben's sister, Carlee Roethlisberger (left) stands while parents Ken and Brenda hold a picture of Ben.

Andy Morrison/Toledo (Ohio) Blade
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 3, 2006
Words:1831
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