Superbowl: Ben steeled to cash in on any Cardinal sins

THE TIES that bind the Pittsburgh Steeler Nation are strong and visible. The Terrible Towel, available only in yellow and black.

A sense of history, instilled through the storied franchise's five NFL Championship runs. And a mystique created in the post-war era of Jock Sutherland, that emigrant son of Coupar Angus, which has been passed down the generations through good days and bad, earning an army of devotees from the rundown inner precincts of Pennsylvania's industrial heartland to the sanctum of American power.

Even President Obama, who has belatedly proclaimed himself a Steeler fan, surely exhaled a sigh of relief on Friday morning when Sutherland's latest head coaching successor, Mike Tomlin, uttered arguably the six most significant words among the vast global chatter in the build-up to Super Bowl XLIII. "Ben's fine. He's going to play," he said.

The Arizona Cardinals, unfancied opponents this evening in Tampa, will have duly taken note.

On the health of Ben Roethlisberger rest the Steelers' hopes of claiming a second title in four seasons. Certainly, the return to fitness of wide receiver Hines Ward, Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XL, holds huge significance, as does the league's best defence. Having so many in their ranks with prior experience in dealing with the circus that precedes the game can't have hurt either.

Yet it is a quarterback who, by his own conviction, failed to impose himself during his first appearance on American football's greatest stage, who holds the keys to the trophy cabinet.

It has taken two weeks of intensive rehab to ensure Roethlisberger's recovery from being pummelled in the back during the Steelers AFC Championship victory over Baltimore, but he has survived greater traumas.

It was in June 2006, with Pittsburgh still savouring their latest tickertape parade, when news emerged of a brutal motorcycle crash involving the young tyro.

It was not enough that Roethlisberger had violated the terms of his Steelers contract that prohibit taking even modest risks.

By not wearing a helmet, he had suffered a 20-centimetre gash to the back of his head, a broken jaw and nose, and enough tooth damage to earn a role as a Bond villain. The critical list beckoned. The budding star had never appeared so fallible.

He pulled through. But the scars remain.

"It just makes me appreciate life and take every day one day at a time and enjoy the things that I have and am blessed with. It's a trophy to be alive every day," he said.

It has been Big Ben (Version 2.0) that has been doing the rounds in Florida. Sure, he still might look like a man for whom riding a Harley is a full-time occupation with his baseball cap rarely peak-forward. However, now aged 26, and with the veterans of '06 in retirement, this has become his Steelers. "You have to be as you grow at the position," he admits.

"You kind of naturally have to whether you force it or not. I never tried to force it when I got here. It just naturally became my time."

His team-mates – who include ex-Claymore Nick Eason – have witnessed the evolution. "It's maturity," insists Ward.

"When he walked into the huddle he was still the quarterback, but he had some legendary guys who were captains – Alan Faneca, Jerome Bettis, Marvel Smith. We had a lot of veteran guys. It was only his second year in the league. Now when he steps into the huddle, it's his team. He doesn't have to worry about other guys.

"When he steps into the huddle, all eyes are on him. He has a presence."

Much of the advance spotlight has fallen on Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner.

He was the darling of St Louis' bombastic capturing of Super Bowl XXXIV, capping an incredible journey that took him from stacking supermarket shelves to pay the bills, to a stint with the Amsterdam Admirals, from obscurity to eventually, NFL MVP.

That he is back in the Bowl at the age of 37, having been discarded by the Rams, then the New York Giants, before resurrection with a franchise whose last title came 61 years ago in the guise of the Chicago Cardinals, provides an unexpected but glorious addendum.

The NFC champions have been, for so long, America's answer to East Stirling. However, with Warner at the helm, and with mercurial receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldi as his targets, they are well capable of springing the greatest of many upsets this campaign.

Roethlisberger, statistically at least, is no match for his counterpart, nor does his personal story tug at the heart strings. He has more to gain here though, and – despite the arguments of his colleagues – more to prove. He recalls the evening of February 5, 2006 in Detroit when, while becoming the youngest-ever QB to get a ring, he ended up with the fixture's worst ever passer rating, a meagre 22.6. "It fuels the fire," he insists, "to want to come out and play a better game next time."

That time is tonight, once Jennifer Hudson has belted out the Star Spangled Banner, the smoke has cleared and the towels have begun their relentless spinning.

"I'm sure once the ball is kicked there will be nerves going through it," Roethlisberger admits. "But if you're not nervous for this game, then there's something wrong with you." The Steeler Nation will trust that there ain't.

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