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After elbow injury, Ben Roethlisberger faced stark choice — surgery or retirement

CHRIS ADAMSKI
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) during practice at NFL football training camp in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Ben Roethlisberger made the choice to have surgery over opting to retire in the wake of his injury early last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback revealed during the first part of a documentary released Wednesday.

During a 15-minute professionally-produced video published to YouTube, Roethlisberger said in the wake of the elbow pain that forced him out of a Sept. 15, 2019 game, Steelers team physician Dr. James Bradley presented him with two options.

“We can do absolutely nothing to the elbow, and you will be just fine — but you can never play football again in the NFL,” Roethlisberger said in the documentary. “But if you want to play, you’re going to have to have surgery.”

During a video that opens with reflections on the public criticism the Steelers and Roethlisberger were taking in the wake of the 2019 divorce from star receiver Antonio Brown and also touched on the relationship between Roethlisberger and late former Steelers assistant Darryl Drake, Bradley gave his first known public remarks from about the nature of Roethlisberger’s injury. Bradley’s description mirrored that of what Roethlisberger said earlier this month in his first comments to media since September: three of the five flexor tendons (that connect from fingers to the back of the forearm) were torn.

“You can’t throw a football like that; you just can’t,” Bradley said, relaying his message to Roethlisberger, “and you’ll ruin your elbow if you do.”

Roethlisberger said that for much of his career he had felt pain in his elbow, saying it dates back to a vertical partial tear in one flexor tendon he suffered about 15 years ago. A video highlight shown during the documentary while Roethlisberger said that indicated the injury occurred while diving to score a touchdown during his third career NFL start Oct. 10, 2004, at Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns.

“Not a big deal; I dealt with it,” Roethlisberger said. “It was just a little pain. But this time, three of the five just came clean off the bone.”

Roethlisberger said that during the first half of the game 11 months ago against the Seattle Seahawks he felt pain in that same area but that it was more severe and “shooting down my arm.” He threw a few more passes, believing that after the offensive series ended he would confer with Bradley, but by the time of what would be his final throw of the season, the pain was “excruciating. It felt like I had just something ripped off my bone.”

Upon explaining it to Bradley, the longtime Steelers’ doctor sensed the seriousness.

“I said, ‘Ben, you’re not going back in. You’re out of this game,’” Bradley said. “And I never say that.”

When Bradley later called with the results of a postgame MRI, he presented Roethlisberger with his choices. The option for surgery, it seemed, would carry no absolute guarantee. Said Bradley about the procedure performed in California days later: “(Sports-medicine physicians) had done surgery like that before — but not like this. This is on a thrower, his dominant arm — and this is career-threatening type stuff.”

Roethlisberger’s wife, Ashley, said she told him she would support a decision to retire if that’s what he wanted.

“I was basically handing him permission to retire, if that’s where his heart was, and I’d support him in that,” Ashley said. “And he listened, I could tell he took it to heart and thought about, and he said, ‘Thank you, but I don’t feel done. I’m not done.’”