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PITTSBURGH – I spent a lot of time this winter wondering what it’s like being Ben Roethlisberger these days. Just about everybody agrees the Steelers’ 2020 season depends on how he bounces back from his major elbow surgery Sept. 23. It’s fair to think everyone at the team’s South Side headquarters is holding their collective breath. So is all of Steelers Nation.

It seemed like the right time to call Roethlisberger and ask him about that.

“There’s pressure, but I put more pressure on myself,” he said Thursday. “As much as the fans and my teammates want me out there, I want to be out there even more. I saw last season what this team is capable of doing. I’m pushing myself to come back better than ever.”

The next question was obvious.

“I have no doubts I’m going to be able to come back and play well – none,” Roethlisberger said. “I have complete confidence in that. I’m throwing without pain for the first time in years. Some games, I would have a little pain. Some games, I would have a lot of pain. But in the New England game and the Seattle game (last season), it got to be too much. To be able to throw without pain now? That feels nice. That’s a nice feeling. I know I’m not getting any younger, but I feel younger because I don’t have any pain.”

Roethlisberger was given the go-ahead by his Los Angeles-based surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, to begin throwing a football Feb. 21. The Steelers posted a brief video of him throwing the next day. He said he had no apprehension about throwing after his surgery, which involved three flexor tendons being reattached.

“I had thrown a Nerf ball a little bit before that to my kids in the living room and my arm felt pretty good. I knew it was going to be OK.

“But still, it felt so neat to throw a football. It had been a long time. I guess it was like riding a bike a little bit. You get back on and go. It’s not like it had been a year. It has been months. I never throw much in the offseason, anyway, so I looked at the time I had off like it was my offseason.”

Roethlisberger said he will increase his throwing from twice a week to three times a week next week.

“Right now, it’s about 40 throws a day and about 20 yards. I throw from my knees and I throw flat-footed. It’s mainly just about getting my spin back.

“I’ll gradually ramp up the number of days and the throws and the distance and the velocity. I really feel like I could let it rip right now if I had to, but what’s the point? There’s no need for me to rush it. Our goal was for me to be 80, 90, 100 percent by OTAs and minicamp. Now that it looks like those things are going to be canceled (because of the COVID-19 pandemic), I can take my time a little more.”

Roethlisberger said he threw to teammate Ryan Switzer on Thursday. It gave him a nice lift at a time he’s home-bound like the rest of us.

“He’s in my small Bible study group and he called and asked me if I knew of a gym where he could work out. I told him nothing was open, but I have a gym in my house, so he came over. It was nice throwing to someone besides my trainer.”

Roethlisberger laughed at the idea a lot of Steelers fans are worried about his weight as much as his elbow. They saw him in the video the team posted or saw him courtside at the Kansas-West Virginia basketball game Feb. 12.

“I’ve heard people say I’m fat, and that just blows my mind,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m lighter and in better shape than I was in either of the past two years. I haven’t stopped working out. I normally don’t work out in the offseason, but I’ve been doing everything five days a week with my trainer. Cardio twice a week. Legs twice a week. Upper body twice a week …

“I guess it’s my beard that makes me look heavier. I must have five pounds in that, I know. But I’m not overweight.”

The next question also was obvious.

“I normally don’t have my beard in the offseason, but this is a different offseason. I look at it as my Samson effect. As long as I have it …

“When we were flying to Los Angeles for my surgery, I told my wife I wasn’t going to shave my beard or cut my hair until I can throw an NFL-caliber pass again. She can’t wait. She’s ready for it to come off. Maybe in another month or two.”

The past week was difficult for Roethlisberger for reasons that had nothing to do with his elbow or the fat jokes directed at him. He lost a close teammate when Ramon Foster retired.

“I knew it was coming, but it still hurts,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t know if I can put into words what Ramon meant to me. Maybe it was because we were close enough in age and in years on the team. But he was special. To be undrafted and hardly miss a snap for 11 years? I just wish I could have been on the field with him last season for his last season. One day soon, I’m going to find him and do something special for him. It was such an honor to be his teammate and his brother.”

Roethlisberger said it troubles him that he can’t give Foster what Foster really wants.

“It always bothers me when these guys leave without a Super Bowl. I take the blame for that. I look at it as my fault that we didn’t win it all for Ramon. He deserved to go out a champion.”

Maybe next season for his other teammates, Roethlisberger said.

“I’m excited about our team. I think we’re all excited about next season already.”

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