TAMPA - Cliff Hite has called himself a "nationally-known knucklehead."
He is a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, a former college quarterback at the University of Kentucky, a long-time high school teacher and a smart football coach.
But for all the good he's done and good sense he's shown, Hite knows his decision to put Ben Roethlisberger at wide receiver and his own son at quarterback for Findlay High School back in 1999 still draws snickers.
It would be easier, of course, if 16-year-olds came with "future NFL quarterback" stamped on their forehead so that high school coaches could avoid being part of "why'd he do that?" stories during Super Bowl week.
But they don't. So now that the Steelers' Roethlisberger is back in his second Super Bowl at the age of 26, Hite finds himself explaining again ... why?
The answer is simple. Hite felt Findlay's offense was more potent with his son, Ryan (a senior that year), throwing to the 6-foot-4, 180(ish)-pound Roethlisberger (a junior) than the other way around. And, since Ryan was the incumbent quarterback for Findlay and the Trojans had gone from 1-9 to 7-3 the previous year, it didn't make sense to flip everything. The insinuations of nepotism don't hold much water when the details are really examined.
Ryan, now the offensive coordinator at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., after having a decorated career as (ironically) a wideout at Division III Denison University, remembers Roethlisberger the wideout.
"He was a guy who was always 'WIDE OPEN!'," Ryan Hite says, laughing about Roethlisberger's post-play rantings in the huddle. "He wanted the ball in his hands and if you did get it to him, he made things happen. He was just a great target at 6-4. I remember the first game senior year, the team we played matched up a 5-8 corner on him and were going to play him man-to-man. On our first drive, I threw either five or six passes to him - he caught three and the rest were defensive pass interference calls."
Cliff Hite remembers meeting Roethlisberger the summer before Ben's freshman year.
"I had heard there was a tall, skinny kid that could throw the heck out of the ball," says Cliff. "One of my assistants said, 'Cliff, you need to talk to this kid because he's a tremendous basketball player and we might lose him if you don't.' I met Ben and told him, 'I really hope you come out for football.' I told him I was an old quarterback (Roethlisberger's father was also a college QB at Georgia Tech), and that I really hoped to open it up when we figure out what we have here."
Hite says that Roethlisberger played quarterback and receiver on the freshman team and was a backup on the varsity as a sophomore. As a junior, he caught 57 passes for 757 yards and seven touchdowns. He was named All-District.
His senior year, Roethlisberger assumed the reins of the offense. And absolutely ripped it up. He threw for 4,041 yards and 54 touchdowns in 12 games and ran for seven more scores.
"I saw two things that set him apart," says Hite. "First was his view. At 6-5 he could simply see so much better than anyone else. He saw things nobody else saw. And he had a knack for seeing the whole field. His vision is what made him such a good basketball player as well (Roethlisberger is Findlay's all-time leading scorer in hoops).
"The other thing was his knack for escapability," adds Hite. "It was almost ridiculous the way he could get out of trouble and make something happen. He learned to throw on the run here and in junior high. We didn't have the most dominant offensive line and he ran for his life a little bit at both levels."
Despite being so big, Hite says Roethlisberger was never awkward. "He was a delightful kid and he moved so well. You could tell he was a blue-chipper."
When it came time for Roethlisberger to look at colleges, Hite lobbied friends in the business to look at him as a quarterback.
"The buzz about him was as an athlete and some schools laid off because he was a tremendous basketball player and they were concerned he might want to play that," Hite says. "And the fact he'd been a receiver as a junior kept some schools from looking at him. I remember telling coaches, 'I have the best quarterback in the state," and they'd say, 'Well, where's he been?' I told them to just come and watch him."
Roethlisberger considered both Duke and Ohio State before settling on Miami of Ohio where he would play in a pro-style spread offense that made use of his arm, athleticism and size.
He wound up being the 10th overall pick in the 2004 draft and the rest has been NFL history.
Looking at him from afar now, Hite sees the same kind of person he coached nearly a decade ago.
"He was like - I don't know if this makes sense - a mature little kid in a toy store when he played here," Hite explains. "He just loved it. Loved competing, loved to be challenged, loved to be told he couldn't because then he would show that he could.
"I won't lie," Hite adds. "I never dreamed he'd be that good in high school. And I never dreamed he'd be this good going forward. He's taken it to levels that ... the only word I can think of is ridiculous."