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The anti-Roethlisberger The Steelers' Big Ben is the darling of the NFL, DAVID NAYLOR writes, but Matt Hasselbeck has earned his time in the spotlight, too

The Steelers' Big Ben is the darling of the NFL, DAVID NAYLOR writes, but Matt Hasselbeck has earned his time in the spotlight, too

DETROIT

There have been times when Super Bowl XL seems geared to be a coronation for Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback, who has had a charmed life during his brief career.

Already the darling of the National Football League, the 23-year-old has the chance to become the youngest quarterback to lead his team to Super Bowl victory.

His glittery presence has largely overshadowed that of Matt Hasselbeck this week in Detroit, even though the Seattle Seahawks' pivot is going to his second Pro Bowl in three years, led the league's top scoring team in the regular season and produced an overall record of 15-3.

There is, of course, the fact that Roethlisberger plays for the Steelers, one of a handful of NFL teams with a national following in the United States and a regular presence on U.S. television. Seahawks fans, conversely, are confined mostly to Seattle, and the team's exposure in the Eastern time zone has been limited by its mediocre play during most of its existence.

But Roethlisberger's story is right out of a Hollywood script, so rare that it's barely believable. A first-round draft pick in 2004, Big Ben waited all of two games before becoming Pittsburgh's starting quarterback a year ago, winning his first 14 games before losing last year's American Football Conference title game. Now, at the end of his second season, he's in the Super Bowl.

Hasselbeck? Well, let's just call him the anti-Roethlisberger, a player who has toiled in the relative anonymity of the Pacific Northwest, where he's slowly but surely earned respect, at least from teammates, if not from the public.

Hosts of television talk shows may still not know his name (Jay Leno couldn't name the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback when Terry Bradshaw was recently a guest on his show), but a win over the Steelers on Sunday would go a long way toward changing that.

Hasselbeck's long, slow rise from obscurity began when the Green Bay Packers selected him in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, relegating him to the practice roster at the back of the line behind Brett Favre, fresh off a Super Bowl and very much in his prime.

"I know that when I got drafted to Green Bay, I felt really fortunate," Hasselbeck said. "I felt I could learn a great deal from the coaches there, Mike [Holmgren] being one of them." The next year, however, Holmgren left the Packers for Seattle. But after helping to develop such players as Joe Montana and Steve Young when he was in San Francisco, and Favre in Green Bay, Holmgren wanted Hasselbeck for his next project.

"What Matt and Brett have in common [is] the competitive fire, the spirit of playing the position, the stubbornness, the intellect it takes to play the position, the ability to lead," Holmgren said.

So in 2001, Holmgren reached back to Green Bay and traded for Hasselbeck, who became the starter based on 29 career throws.

It didn't go well. In his first season, Hasselbeck played through injuries while starting 12 games, throwing one more interception than he did touchdown passes.

Then, early in 2002, Holmgren benched him in favour of veteran backup Trent Dilfer, who had joined the Seahawks the previous season after winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens.

It seemed Hasselbeck operated a little too independently for Holmgren's liking, a message that got through only in the benching.

"He realized when he lost his starting position that he didn't have it all together," Seattle quarterback coach Jim Zorn said. "We decided, 'Let's concentrate on what we do here and not what you think we should do.' I think those commitments set him up to be successful."

Looking back, Hasselbeck believes it was Dilfer -- whom he replaced because of an injury to regain the starter's job later in 2002 -- who helped him turn around his career.

"It's kind of ironic that the guy who was in direct competition with me is the guy who helped me the most," Hasselbeck said. "Trent taught me a lot about being a good teammate, all those kind of things.

"The guy had just won the Super Bowl, but his team went out to get someone they thought was better who didn't turn out to be better. Trent came in as my backup and was the most supportive guy on the team, happy for me, rooting for me, giving me encouragement.

"It wasn't anything Trent said or did, necessarily. But kind of just watching how he handled game day, practice, all of those situations. He seemed to defuse the situation and I seemed to make it a little worse."

While there have been growing pains during the years since, including a sideline argument during a game in San Francisco, the quarterback and the coach now understand one another. It's taken time. It's not a story for Hollywood. But it just might have a happy ending come Sunday night.

"I think the biggest thing is we just know each other a lot better," Hasselbeck said, "personally and professionally, what he's looking for and what he's not looking for, what he wants and what he doesn't. Looking back now, I really had no idea. I thought at the time I knew, but I really had no idea. We're more on the same page now."

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