Though Ben Roethlisberger didn’t say anything publicly until very late in the season, he appears to have told Najee Harris before the year began that 2021 would be his final in the NFL. Harris joined NFL Network’s Super Bowl Live crew to discuss his rookie year and transition from college to pro and told the story of Roethlisberger informing him he was going to retire after the year.
“Me coming there, I met Ben in his house,” Harris told Colleen Wolfe and Steve Smith. “We had dinner. He told me this is his last year. He said, ‘I’m going to need you to do as much as you can to make my last year special.’ I took it to heart. I tried to do everything I can to help us win.”
Harris did not offer an exact timetable for when this conversation took place, but he makes it sound like it took place in one of his first interactions with Roethlisberger. It’s certainly not a conversation that took place after the year. 2021 was long suspected to be Roethlisberger’s 18th and final season in the league given his declining play and expiring contract, but this is the earliest we’ve heard of Roethlisberger telling someone the news.
Midway through the year, media reports indicated Roethlisberger had told select teammates, current and former, that he was going to retire after the year. He didn’t hint at the news publicly until Week 17 in the lead-up to the Steelers’ final home game of the regular season, telling reporters it would likely be his last game at Heinz Field. The Steelers went on to win that one and taking that message to heart, Harris was a big reason for the victory, running for a season-high 188 yards, including the game-sealing touchdown. After that play, Roethlisberger and Harris had a memorable sideline exchange.
Harris was disappointed not to be able to take the Steelers even further, but said he was proud to live out Roethlisberger’s message to him.
“We came up short a couple games, lost in the playoffs, but I can go out saying I did everything I could to help him. He went out, had a win at Heinz Field, he had a great and stellar year…a great way for Ben to go out.”
The Steelers’ offense will now center around someone other than Roethlisberger for the first time in about 15 years when the team transitioned from run-heavy to allowing Roethlisberger command over the team. Harris will be the focal point of the offense as the team falls back on those early to mid-2000s roots of a strong ground game and stifling defense.