PITTSBURGH — They called it a Van Wert 7.
In the post-corner route named for a northwest Ohio school that executed it to perfection, the receiver ran 12 yards, took an outside step to a post and took four steps. As soon as the safety turned his hips, he planted and came back out toward the pylon.
It was a staple in Findlay (Ohio) High School’s offense in 1998, the route that Ryan Hite and Ben Roethlisberger used Friday nights to pick apart defenses filled with undersized cornerbacks.
But Roethlisberger wasn’t the one throwing the ball.
He was on the receiving end of Hite’s passes — 57 of them that year to be exact.
Before he set records as a quarterback his senior year, before he became the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ top draft pick out of Miami (Ohio), and before he won two Super Bowl rings as one of the NFL’s best signal callers, Roethlisberger spent his junior year of high school playing wide receiver.
It gave Roethlisberger a deeper understanding of the game he took with him the rest of his career — something he found again last season as he stood on the sideline following a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2.
“[Findlay] coach [Cliff Hite] was always like, ‘It benefited you as a senior playing quarterback from playing wide receiver your junior year,'” Roethlisberger said. “I never understood it at the time, but I think it does to a certain extent because you can see the other side of it.
“I was able to kind of see the bigger picture of being a quarterback just from being on the sideline last year.”
As Roethlisberger makes his long-awaited return Monday night against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), he steps back on the field with a repaired elbow and a refreshed body.
Perhaps just as important, he returns with a new perspective, much like he got more than 20 years ago at Findlay.
Roethlisberger wasn’t a receiver because he lost a quarterback competition.
There simply wasn’t a competition to lose.
Coming off a 7-3 season — the biggest turnaround in school history following a 1-9 record a year earlier — coach Cliff Hite thought the best way to keep Findlay trending in the right direction was to maintain stability. Entering his senior year, Hite’s son Ryan retained the starting quarterback job.
Everyone at Findlay knew Roethlisberger was the better quarterback, but as a leader and a game manager, Ryan Hite was the right fit for the balanced offense. Roethlisberger was the backup QB the year before, but he was too athletic to keep off the field for another season.
A receiver for half of his freshman season on the JV squad, Roethlisberger was familiar with the position, and his height (6-foot-4) and hand size made him a mismatch nightmare. The pair tested out the combination at a 7-on-7 camp before Roethlisberger’s junior season.
“We threw 12 touchdowns or something like that and 10 were from me to Ben,” Ryan Hite said. “One was from Ben to me. It’s not that we didn’t give it a shot, but I definitely didn’t have the catch radius. … His hands are probably twice the size mine are. He caught about anything we threw to him, which is ideal.”
It didn’t take long for the duo to see the same success on Friday nights.
Even more than 20 years later, Hite still remembers the first series of that season. Findlay had a script, but once Hite saw a diminutive defensive back matching up with Roethlisberger, he tore up the plan.
“I audibled every single play because some 5-foot-4 guy was manning up to him and nobody over the top,” Hite said. “Between the two of us, we audibled it to a fade, and I threw it up and he caught it and got 15 yards.”
They did the same thing on the next play and had similar success. On the next, the frustrated defensive back grabbed Roethlisberger’s jersey and tackled him, resulting in a flag and a 15-yard penalty.
“It was like, ‘Wow, this is working and nobody is making an adjustment,'” Hite said, laughing at the decades-old memory. “So that’s a pretty good scheme.”
Something like a poor man’s Mike Evans, Roethlisberger didn’t overwhelm anyone with his speed that year. But his size made him a valuable weapon in an offense that was transitioning from a run-heavy unit the year before to the eventual spread system it would run a year later with Roethlisberger as the quarterback.
“He wasn’t a speed demon by any means, but he’d catch anything they threw at him, because he’s just so dang athletic,” said Chris Miller, a longtime radio play-by-play announcer for Findlay. “Ben did his job and did it very well.”
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