DAYTON, Ohio -- She said the first time she saw it was soon after he'd left Findlay High for Miami University.
"We were getting ready to go to dinner and Ben was changing his shirt," Fran Foust said. "I saw he had some kind of tattoo on his chest and I asked him what it was. He told me it was a Chinese symbol. He said it meant 'mother.'
"It made me feel good ... that he remembered like that."
Ben Roethlisberger is many things. He's the 23-year-old quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. And he's a guy who always has remembered his mom.
The one he has now.
And the one he lost.
Fran's daughter, Ida, was Ben's birth mother. She had been a sports star at Elida High. So was Ken Roethlisberger, Ben's dad, who went on to Georgia Tech as both a quarterback and pitcher for the Yellow Jackets.
Ida and Ken eventually married and had Ben. But when their boy was about 2, Ida moved to Lima, the couple divorced and Ken got sole custody.
While Ken raised Ben on his own, twice a month, Fran said, Ida would pick Ben up and he'd spend the weekend with her.
"She'd take him to her softball games and we'd do things together at our place," said Fran, who lives with Frank, her husband of nearly 50 years, just west of Elida, where they now run a dog grooming business.
A few years after the divorce, Ken was playing a pick-up basketball game over the lunch hour at the Van Wert YMCA. That's where he fell for Brenda -- literally.
She was an athlete herself. She'd played and coached at small colleges back home in Kansas and Missouri. She was playing on the other team that day and as she cut toward the hoop, she slammed into Ken and knocked him square on his backside. Proof that love hurts -- a half-year later they married.
Ida remained a part of her son's life, Fran said, until that fateful summer evening in 1990.
On her way to Findlay to pick up her 8-year-old son for another weekend visit, Ida's car was hit by a pickup truck. She eventually died of her injuries in the hospital.
"It was very sad," Frank said. "Ken really stepped up and helped Ben through it in every way."
The ordeals they've endured side by side -- not to mention their sports connections -- help explain the strong bond Ben and his dad have to this day.
And through it all, Ken made sure Fran and Frank remained an active part of Ben's life. They joined the Roethlisbergers for holidays and certain family outings and continued to see Ben nearly every other weekend.
"He'd come out to our place and he'd always try to get all his other little cousins into football games with him," Fran said. "A lot of times we'd pick him up and take him out on our boat in Lake Erie.
"He's come to our football parties, too. We'd have the Ohio State-Michigan game on and while we'd all root for the Buckeyes, he'd go for Michigan. When we'd watch the Browns, he'd always pull for the other team."
When Ben set all the passing records at Findlay High his senior season -- he threw for a state-record 4,041 yards and 54 touchdowns and was the Ohio Division I Player of the Year -- Fran and Frank were at all the games.
They also were regulars at Miami -- Fran always would bring cookies -- where, in his last season, Ben passed for 4,486 yards and 37 touchdowns and was MVP of the Mid-American Conference.
About the time Ben went to Oxford, Fran and Frank started wintering in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. That's where they are now.
"Sophomore year, Ben came down to stay with us during spring break," Frank said by phone. "He brought along one of his wide receivers and another friend. They used to go out to the beach and throw the football around and people there used to marvel: 'What an arm! That kid's got to be a quarterback.' "
Now, just a few years later, everyone down there knows. In fact, there's a Steelers fan club that regularly packs a Fort Myers sports bar, Spectators, on NFL Sundays. Because the Fousts couldn't pick up the games at their mobile home, they started joining the black and gold crowd and eventually somebody let on that they were Ben's grandparents. In no time, they were mini-celebrities.
The Fousts joined the Roethlisbergers -- Ken and Brenda, their 16 year-old-daughter, Carlee, and other family members -- for the Browns game in Pittsburgh.
Ben threw for one touchdown that day and ran for another. After each score -- as he always does -- he pointed to the sky.
Although the Fousts say he hasn't relayed this to them directly, others have told them that gesture is Ben's way of both paying homage to God and remembering Ida.
When asked about her earlier this season, Ben declined discussion, saying he didn't like to talk about it. That's not unusual for him. He's a private person around the press and doesn't often pour out details of his life off the field.
"For a long time in stories about Ben, (Ida) was never mentioned," Frank said.
But if you're around Ben even a little, you can tell he cares about both mothers.
You can see that by the way he treats Brenda -- whom he's always calls "Mom" -- by the way he talks about her and in the way she beams about him.
"Brenda's wonderful -- I just love her to death," Fran said. "She's been a tremendous influence on Ben."
Former Miami coach Terry Hoeppner and Steelers owner Dan Rooney both have marveled at how grounded Ben is, how humble he remains when the personal glory comes his way.
"You can tell he was brought up well," Rooney said after the Cleveland game. "His parents did a good job."
Frank said he's glad to see the good times for his grandson: "It kind of makes up a little for losing his mother."
Fran, though, doesn't think Ida's that far away: "I like to think she kind of helped the Jets miss those two field goals at the end of the game."
If Ben's looking up, she just may be looking down.
Tom Archdeacon writes for the Dayton Daily News. E-mail: tarchdeacon@DaytonDailyNews.com