By Ron Cook/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They spoke on the telephone Friday afternoon, Ben Roethlisberger taking the call from Heath Miller that Roethlisberger so dreaded. Roethlisberger wasn’t too proud to admit he cried. He still was emotional an hour or so later when he revealed details of their difficult conversation.
“He told me it was official, that he was retiring,” Roethlisberger said. “He thanked me for being his teammate and said how lucky he was to play with just one quarterback for all of his 11 years in the NFL. I told him he had it all wrong. I told I was the lucky one ...
“It’s hard for me to talk about him. It really is. Where do you start? I could talk about him all day. But I don’t know where to start.”
Roethlisberger always called Miller his greatest teammate. That seems like the perfect place to begin.
“No doubt he was,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve had a lot of great teammates, a lot of guys I could put up there. But what Heath personified as a player and a teammate? There’s never been another like him. I’ve never known a more unselfish player.”
Roethlisberger offered examples.
“I’d ask him if he was open on a play and he would say ‘no’. Other receivers say they are open on every play, but he never did. Then, I would look at the film and he’d be wide open. He always told me he didn’t want me to have to worry about him.”
Roethlisberger talked about Miller’s willingness to do the dirty work of blocking instead of the glamour work of catching passes.
“You know how much the tight end position has changed over the years, right? Tight ends are basically receivers now. But he loved to block. On all of our running plays, he was the extra blocker. He never left the field. He wanted to be in there for those running plays. Seeing a back get a first down or score a touchdown meant as much to him as catching a touchdown pass himself.”
It’s not surprising Miller and Roethlisberger are so close. They have been together a long time. Their friendship developed when they were roommates at training camp in their early days with the Steelers. Roethlisberger was the team’s No. 1 pick in 2004, Miller the No. 1 pick in 2005.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Miller was “priceless” for Roethlisberger in an interview in September.
“Heath is always where he’s supposed to be. That’s so important to a quarterback. Ben trusted him. Even in protection things and the run game. If a call is wrong, Heath makes it right.”
Haley went on to say Miller is maybe “the best player I’ve ever coached. Just all around. There have been guys with more talent, but to be with him on a day-to-day basis and see his football intelligence ... “
Roethlisberger said he voted for Miller for Steelers MVP every season. It wasn’t just because of what Miller meant on the field.
“Whenever I wanted to get something done, I went to him,” Roethlisberger said Friday. “That way, I could go to Coach (Mike) Tomlin and say, ‘Heath and I think this ... ‘ That meant more than if I just went to coach. Heath could get things done because everyone respected him so much.”
Miller told Roethlisberger in November that he was going to retire after the season. “We had a pact,” Roethlisberger said. “I wanted to enjoy my last ride with him. I made him promise me.”
Roethlisberger wanted to tell the world but kept the news to himself at Miller’s request.
“I told him today in a joking way that he was selfish for not allowing the fans to know,” Roethlisberger said. “They should have known they were yelling ‘Heeee-ath!’ one final time. They should have known when it was going to be his final game at Heinz Field. They should have known when they were seeing him catch his final pass or his final touchdown pass.
“They deserved that because he was such a great Steeler. But that’s not him. That’s never been him. It was never about that stuff. In an era when a lot of players are so selfish, it was never about him. He’s one of the last of a dying breed. It was always about his teammates and the team. That’s what made him so special. That’s why I say he’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever known.”
Roethlisberger said he knew when the Steelers walked out of Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High after their 23-16 playoff loss to the Broncos that his time with Miller likely was finished. But he said he held out hope that he could talk Miller into one more season.
“In my own selfish way, I thought I could change his mind,” Roethlisberger said. “I thought I had maybe a 20 percent chance.
“But he had to do what was right for his health and his family and his kids. I told him I respect his decision. I’m glad to see he didn’t play himself into the ground. He’s walking away with his health. That’s what it’s all about.”
Roethlisberger has been through this sort of thing before. After the 2014 season, Brett Keisel, who was in Roethlisberger’s wedding, left the Steelers. So did Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Before them, it was Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward. It happens to every player eventually. As James Farrior once noted, “We’re all on deck.”
You would think saying goodbye to teammates would get easier for Roethlisberger. But he said it never does.
“I really don’t want to think about what it’s going to be like without him next season,” Roethlisberger said of Miller. “But if you play the game long enough, you know this stuff happens. Greg Warren has been with us a long time. James Harrison. Myself. That’s all that’s left from the beginning ...
“I know my time is coming. There’s no doubt about that. The good thing is I still feel really good. That sounds crazy because I’m coming off a really unhealthy year, but I think I’m still playing well. I don’t think it’s time for me yet.
“Of course, losing a guy like Heath, that might affect my performance. It’s going to be hard for me to play as well without him. It’s going to be hard for the whole team.
“It just won’t be the same without Heath.”
It’s never the same when one of the great ones leaves.
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