- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Upon signing with the Steelers in August, Byron Leftwich couldn’t help but notice Pittsburgh’s Nov. 3 game at FedEx Field.

His reaction: Might as well enjoy a free trip home. Even if he surely would be watching the entire game from the sideline.

How could the former H.D. Woodson High School star even fathom that he would wind up under center and leading the Steelers to victory over the Washington Redskins?

The Steelers, who already had one of the most durable quarterbacks in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger, plucked Leftwich out of semi-retirement out of pure desperation when veteran backup Charlie Batch suffered a season-ending broken clavicle. Surely the 28-year-old wouldn’t be needed.

So imagine how surprised Leftwich was when Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told him at halftime that the rest of this crucial Monday night tilt would be in his hands, Roethlisberger knocked out by a lingering right shoulder injury.

And imagine how shocked the crowd of 90,512 — including the sizable contingent of Steelers fans — was when Leftwich not only took over for Roethlisberger but lifted Pittsburgh’s offense to greater heights and ultimately victory over the Redskins.

“We all know Ben’s the guy,” he said. “Ben’s the quarterback of this football team, and I knew I was going to be there in case something happened. Something happened today.”

In his first substantive game action in nearly a year, Leftwich looked very much like the former first-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and very little like the supposedly washed-up quarterback who was out of a job when training camp opened.

Leftwich completed seven of 10 passes for 129 yards, threw a touchdown toss to Santonio Holmes and engineered two second-half scoring drives to seal this win for the Steelers.

“Nobody was surprised by how well Byron came out and played tonight,” running back Willie Parker said. “Ben went down, and Byron seamlessly came in and did what he had to do.”

And he did it just a few miles up the road from his Northeast home, against the team he has rooted for his entire life.

“I grew up a die-hard Redskins fan,” he said. “As a player, to be honest with you, when you go dreaming at night and dreaming if one day you can be in the NFL, it was always with a Redskins hat on.”

That opportunity, of course, has yet to come. Leftwich had played once previously against Washington, an October 2006 game while with Jacksonville. The big quarterback acquitted himself well in that game — 20-for-34 for 290 yards and three touchdowns — but his Jaguars wound up on the wrong end of a 36-30 overtime thriller.

So this performance proved a more fulfilling experience for Leftwich, who suddenly finds himself contributing on a first-place team that now may need him even more.

Roethlisberger separated his throwing shoulder earlier this season and had been managing to play through the pain until Monday night. After a miserable first half against the Redskins in which he completed just five of 17 passes, he departed for the locker room after scoring on a 1-yard sneak with 35 seconds to play in the second quarter.

He returned with his teammates when the second half opened but traded in his helmet for a baseball cap, then watched from the sideline as Leftwich led his team on two scoring drives.

Tomlin said Roethlisberger might have been able to return to finish the game, but with the Steelers ahead there was no urgent need to get him back on the field.

It certainly helped that Leftwich played so well. Showing no signs of rust, he connected with Nate Washington on his first pass of the night for a 50-yard gain that set up Parker’s touchdown run.

Completions of 16, 13, 25 and 13 yards highlighted his second scoring drive, and his 5-yard touchdown pass to Holmes at the front left corner of the end zone effectively sealed the deal for the Steelers.

“I’m just thankful [offensive coordinator Bruce Arians] had enough confidence in me to call anything and everything,” he said.

Not bad for a local kid thrust into a most surprising situation in front of a throng of well-wishers. Leftwich said he had “only 44” friends and family members in attendance rooting him on. All of them are die-hard Redskins fans but not on this night.

No, this night belonged to the kid from Northeast who proved he’s still got some football left in him.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while,” he said. “I know I can play in this league. I’m healthy for the first time in a while. I’m just happy I got the opportunity to play today.”

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